Get to know Juana Williams: 107th Annual Juror & Curator

Juana Williams, the Exhibitions Curator at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts, visited Pittsburgh recently and will be the juror and curator for the 107th Annual Exhibition by the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh.

Prior to her position at UICA, Williams worked in Detroit as the Assistant to the Chair at Wayne State University Department of Art and Art History. She is an active freelance contemporary art curator and arts advocate.

AAP spent some time with Williams in Pittsburgh and wanted to dive into her curatorial practice and personal goals towards the contemporary arts scene. AAP Marketing & Web Coordinator as well as artist member, Jamie Earnest, had a Q&A with Juana to learn a little more.

Juana Williams. Image: Adam Bird.

Juana Williams. Image: Adam Bird.

Jamie: We are so excited to be working with you for our 107th Annual Exhibition! As an active freelance curator and institutional curator, what are your goals and mindset when creating an exhibition? 

Juana: “I’m excited to jury the 107th Annual Exhibition for AAP. This has been an incredible experience for me because as a very dedicated advocate for the arts, I understand the value of an organization such as AAP. I am honored to participate in continuing the legacy of such a significant organization, not only in Pittsburgh, but also in terms of the arts in our nation.

I take different approaches while curating depending on many factors such as location, surrounding community, type of exhibit, etc., but my first priority is providing a space for the voices of artists be to expressed as authentically as possible. I believe there’s so much value in the process of creative expression itself, and I try to act as a facilitator of sharing that creative work. Of course, I consider the intended and expected audience but my curatorial voice is considerably informed by my own experiences and knowledge, merged with the intentions of the artists. Ultimately, I truly hope the exhibitions I curate both act as a bridge between the artists and audiences, and also offers some form of value in the lives of those who experience them. With the 107th specifically, I hope to showcase the incredible talent within Pittsburgh and surrounding areas.”


Jamie: Coming from Detroit and Grand Rapids to Pittsburgh, what is your approach to working with arts organizations and artist communities outside of your home base?

Juana: “Although much of my identity is predicated on being a Detroiter, I’m also an advocate for the arts across the globe. It’s useful to work with artists in locations outside of Michigan and to learn about different ways that artist communities are thriving across the nation. However, in so many ways, we’re all working toward the same goals, to highlight the work and continue promoting the importance of the creative spaces.

I view my position of curator as a position of service. So, I’m always hopeful to aid artists and communities, not only through studio visits, critiques, and exhibitions, but also through building connections. I understand the importance of recognizing the local community but I hope that I can bring my own experiences as an outsider, to provide a different perspective. 

I love that I’m able to work with Pittsburgh because geographically, it’s not too far from Grand Rapids. Hopefully, that will bode well for collaboration in the future. I also noticed many similarities between the artist community it PGH and artist communities in Detroit. So, although I approached this opportunity differently than I approach opportunities in Michigan, there are some techniques that have remained constant.”


Jamie: Being 109 years old, the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh has seen countless changes in society, art movements, and culture. How do you hope to embrace the long history of the organization while bringing it into the current contemporary arts scene?

Juana: “I’ve always felt it was more important to listen than to talk, especially with regards to bridging the gap between history and the present. During my visit to Pittsburgh in June, I had the pleasure of meeting a number of current AAP members and learning about the history of AAP. There are a variety of ages, backgrounds, mediums, and experiences within AAP. I’m grateful for the meaningful conversations I was able to have with a few artists. The importance of the history of AAP does not need to be explained. I just hope to elaborate on AAP’s history by continuing to promote the previous success, while also understanding the necessary flexibility to accommodate the ever-changing art world and needs of artists.”


Jamie: What would you say are the social, communicative, and artistic responsibilities of a curator in this day and age?

Juana: “I always have a difficult time answering questions similar to this one. A significant part of curation is documentation and examination; considering what information is so prevalent that it’s worthy of documenting and examining for contemporary and future societies. Although art history spans the past, present, and future, often simultaneously, it’s a very subjective field. Those deemed as storytellers are the gatekeepers for what information is shared, elevated, and saved. I don’t believe that all curators work from the same viewpoint or agree in their responsibilities. I take the unpopular stance of understanding individual curators as the deciders of curatorial responsibility. The definition of curator has changed drastically overtime and I feel that curators should have the freedom to create exhibitions that resonate with them, or that they feel are important in some way. The hope is that curators will consider the needs and wants of artists and audiences. However, those needs and wants are constantly changing. I don’t feel a personal responsibility that necessarily agrees with the personal responsibilities of curators, as a whole. We are complex people, just as in other professions, and I don’t believe we should be forced to always uphold the same responsibilities. Although I tend to focus on themes in contemporary culture as the basis of my curatorial practice, I believe there’s a place for many different types of curation and exhibitions.”


Jamie: What are your personal goals as a curator? What do you hope to bring to the profession?

Juana: “I’m still figuring that out. This will always be a learning experience for me, and I’ll always mold my practice to what feels valuable in the moment. I’m not too concerned with long term. Honestly, I hope to give artists opportunities to share their stories, especially those who have been silenced, or feel unheard. I’m not particularly interested in focusing on my own career success, in a traditional sense. I see my success in gaining control over spaces, as opportunities to yield my platform to artists. They’re the ones creating the work, I’m just the narrator. I hope that we can collaborate to document our cultures, create interesting and valuable exhibits, and bring about important and profound discussions.”


Jamie: What advice would you give to young curators, especially young women and women of color, about forming a curatorial voice and making connections?

Juana: “I have learned a great deal in the few years I’ve been curating. I’m continually learning from my own experiences, as well as advice from others. I would give young curators, especially women and women of color, the same advice that I’m constantly giving myself. I would say, the absolute most important advice I could give is to focus inward as often as needed. By that, I mean, don’t gauge your own success by someone else’s. What keeps me grounded and not completely overwhelmed with work, is to continuously remind myself why I’m doing this work. Because my reasons don’t necessarily align with anyone else’s, it’s imperative that, rather than comparing myself to others in similar positions, I continue to believe in the work I’m doing, and focus on creating with my own ideas of success in mind.

Oftentimes, women are expected to be humble and “play small” but we are powerful forces. We should bring all of who we are to the table without concerning ourselves with not fitting into the boxes created for us. It’s easy to be intimidated by our own goals and to feel that we need to change ourselves because the majority of curatorial positions are still dominated by white men. However, we have to remember the value we bring by sharing our unique experiences and expertise. I’d argue that having the curatorial lens of women of color can be incredibly value to organizations and businesses that lack those diverse perspectives. So, when we’re invited to spaces, we should understand the importance of bringing our distinct voice to that space.

Also, ask for what you want. Don’t be intimidated by any individual, an institution, or someone’s position. The worst that can happen when you ask for opportunities is for someone to say no, but you’d be surprised by how many yeses you receive. It’s particularly important in this industry, as women, and women of color, especially, to advocate for ourselves. There won’t always be doors opened waiting for you to walk through. Sometimes, you’ll have to create your own entry points. A number of my opportunities came from me making it clear what I wanted and the right person taking a chance on me. I’ve made a ton of connections through seizing the moment and making sure I was genuine in my approach.”


Jamie Earnest