Ken Montague Talks with Trevor Schoonmaker
at Program on Collecting at National Gallery of Art
Transcribed and prepared for publication by John Welch
Kenneth Montague, a Toronto-based art collector and founder/director of Wedge Curatorial Projects in conversation with Trevor Schoonmaker, chief curator and Patsy R. and Raymond D. Nasher Curator of Contemporary Art, Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, March 9, 2014. Moderated by Maria Kanellopoulos, Wedge collection manager and exhibition coordinator.
Kenneth Montague and Trevor Shoonmaker enjoy a relationship based on mutual collecting and curatorial interests. In this conversation, they discuss Montague's collecting experience and vision, and the history and mission of their institutions and collaborations. These collaborations include their work on the Becoming: Photographs from the Wedge Collection exhibition at the Nasher Museum. The conversation was the 11th program in the National Gallery of Art's "The Collecting of African American Art" series.
Founded in 1997 in Montague's home, Wedge has evolved from a commercial gallery into a nonprofit organization, Wedge Curatorial Projects. Focusing on photo-based work with a strong emphasis on the African diaspora, Wedge Curatorial Projects has collaborated with local and international institutions to create original exhibitions, educational programming, publications, and film and music series that speak to youth about shaping their own identity.
Founded in 2005, the Nasher Museum has swiftly become a preeminent, contemporary art museum. Exhibitions organized by Schoonmaker at the Nasher include Street Level: Mark Bradford, William Cordova and Robin Rhode (2007); Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool (2008); The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl (2010); and Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey (2013). Schoonmaker was an independent curator is New York when he organized Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti (2003-2005).
Kenneth Montague: I’m a dentist, live and work in Toronto Canada. I was born in Windsor, southernmost city in Canada across from Detroit, Michigan.
Parents came from Jamaica — a kind of very interesting almost tri-cultural experience for me being a little Canadian, a little American and a little Jamaican. So I think that certainly informs what I do as a collector now.
But it’s also a very interesting time that I grew up in. I was born in the 1960s’ Civil Rights Movement era. Detroit was a real touchstone place. There were lots of events and activities that marked my consciousness growing up — the music, the politics, even the style and fashion of that era; it’s a lot of who I am.
And when I became a dentist many years later, after many years of being interested in art, I recognized that I wanted to have a longer relationship with art that I saw in magazines and journals. And I started collecting — a very organic process. Wedge actually started as a gallery in my home.
(Referring to Powerpoint image) Here is the loft residence I lived in around 1997 in Toronto. There's a big move in that city toward reusing industrial buildings as residences, so this is an old knitting factory. It’s wedged shaped, you see on the left there. That became the Wedge Gallery.
Later I realized there's sort of a double meaning, the wedged-shaped space, the work that I am collecting which is a focus on black identity. It’s about bringing those artists and artworks and wedging them into the mainstream of contemporary art, so that's this name, “Wedge,” and hence the name of my collection, “The Wedge Collection.”
And then I started curating work from my own collection as it grew. Did a show in 2009 called Headroom, using hair and hairstyles as a trope of identity, and put it together within a larger exhibit with the Museum of Canadian Art in Toronto. And, so moving forward, I realized I could tell stories out of my own collection and it became the sort of collecting impetus — storytelling.
I'm on the Tate Gallery's African acquisitions committee in London, and because of the travels with that committee, I am starting to go to the continent a lot more and see works in South Africa and Ethiopia and Nigeria, and so forth. So, I thought, we'll bring some of these works to Canada. This is the only project that is bringing this kind of work to Canada.
Thelma Golden of The Studio Museum in Harlem, a friend over the years, and a big supporter says, "You're taking these works from around the world — you need to tell your own stories, and tell people about the African Canadian experience.”
So I put together a show of works from my own collection that had to do with thinking around being black in Canada. And we did it as an intervention in The Royal Ontario Museum, which is not unlike this space (the NGA), a kind of classic grand old museum in Toronto with big pictures and paintings of our European forefathers. We inserted images of young black Canadian men throughout the gallery space. It (Position as Desired) was a very effective show and a very popular show.
I have a kind of a life where I work as a dentist, do collecting as a personal endeavor, and try to build that collection around black identity. And now have a non-profit with Maria which I now run — Wedge Curatorial Projects. And so we do these curatorial projects with these themes in mind.
Trevor Schoonmaker: We met in 2007 at the Venice Biennale via my wife Teka who knew Ken from when we lived in New York many years ago. We've been able to work on a couple of projects together over the years.
Ken's downplaying his role in Toronto. He really is culturally engaged not just through visual art but through music, design, fashion, cuisine — everything. His engagement with culture and trying to bring a very new sort of voice to Toronto and Canada is really significant.
This engagement of cross disciplines in the art world is something we share.
A couple of highlights (relating to Shoonmaker's engagement of cross disciplines) are:
A small show, Propeller, out in Los Angeles 2005, when some artists I am very close to, like Hank Williams Thomas, were just beginning.
A show called The Beautiful Game: Contemporary Art and Football with a colleague now at LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), Franklin Sirmans. At the time it was the first show on soccer in the U.S. ever, amazingly. And now he has recreated it out in Los Angeles. It’s really fantastic.
My first show at the Nasher Art Museum was a three-person show with artists Mark Bradford, William Cordova and Robin Rhode. Robin is from South Africa, William is originally from Lima, Peru and later moved to Miami, and Mark Bradford is from Los Angeles.
And then, Barkley Hendricks:Birth of the Cool exhibition, and this is really where Ken and I intersected.
Ken Montague: A painting called Blood (Donald Formey) by Barkley Hendricks was on view at the White Chapel Gallery in London, in the show, “Back to Black,” which was about black identity in the 1960s in the UK and US and in the Caribbean.
I was so fascinated with this painting — and was a photography collector to that point — so it was a big jump for me to think about paintings in the collection. It really dawned on me you can tell the same stories in different media and I was restricting myself by calling myself a photography collector.
I love this painting; never thought I could acquire it. I thought it was something that would be impossible to obtain and I met Trevor and Teka. They were like, “Yeah, we know the artist. You should talk to the artist.”
Trevor says he's doing this show, a long-awaited solo exhibition on the paintings of Barkley Hendricks, who’s been a sort of underground figure in African American art and culture. It was just a great moment to find that we have this synergy around artists that we feel passionate about.
So I bought the work, Blood, and then lent it to Trevor for his touring show, Birth of the Cool.
I have to say Trevor's been a great champion of artists who I think the general art world tends to keep on the periphery. Trevor's sensibility as a curator is such that he has an affinity for, and seeks out, artists that I think need to be moved into the mainstream. And that's much like what I've been doing with Wedge in Canada. So there's a real synergy in what we're doing and I think that’s why we tend to pass the baton between each other a lot.
We're trying to build collections in some way to speak not only to our own tastes but to try to bring people into the (art) world that need further consideration, more scholarship, more investment in terms of collecting.
Becoming: Photographs from the Wedge Collection is the true point of intersection. This is when Trevor said, “Ken, you've got this show that you've put together that had a small opening at MOCAD in Detroit but we can embellish this. We can make this into a real museum show that has a better representation of works in your collection. We have a slot next year, so think about bringing this show to the Nasher." So we worked very closely with Maria (Kanellopoulos).
Trevor Schoonmaker: One of the reasons we wanted to do this show at the Nasher is because it had a great synergy with what we are trying to do today at the Nasher. But, also because we're such a young institution. The Nasher just opened in October 2005. And to bring in a collector like Ken — who is trying to do something at a very high level to help educate our young audiences and collector base in the community — had importance beyond just the mounting and executing of the exhibition itself. I wanted to tell this story of "Becoming" through Ken himself, like through a personal narrative.
Ken Montague: It is like a very personal expression. I’m not the type of collector who needs and wants to have the latest work or the most valuable work or what's hot in the market right now.
Pretty much all of my collecting in this Wedge Collection has grown around trying to find reflections of self in works that I acquire. So that it ends up being about learning about my own history as a black Canadian. The works spiral out from there.
Pubic Dimension of Wedge Collection
Trevor Schoonmaker: You’re doing something unique. You're not just collecting and amassing work for your own private viewing. You're actively making work available to the public. Can you say a little about that drive in your reasoning?”
Ken Montague: I think it's around that idea that Thelma [Golden] pushed about telling your own stories. I was a bit surprised that people could relate to such a personal vision. But you recognize that we all have our own stories. And they’re complicated stories, about migration and about community, about family, about race.
It sort of makes people feel safe to discuss these things when they see a collector putting the stories forth in public institutions. It wouldn't be doing any good for me to collect this work and keep it in art storage. It needs to get out there so that it can mix with the other stories.
And you start building not only scholarship, but a community sense of belonging and becoming around the artwork. You want it to actually become part of the public archive and public knowledge.
And the various themes — gender, even the style — I think these things are tropes that move throughout nations and communities when you think about the black identity globally.
And, you think about the past in issues around the legacy of slavery, the Black Atlantic and so forth. It’s really important to think about that sameness and difference as we move forward. I think the collection in some way serves that purpose: to go, “Oh yeah, I see myself in that image too.”
Ken Montague: What Maria and I are doing now with The Wedge Curatorial Project — which is again a not-for-profit organization — is thinking more and more about stories around Canadian Caribbean, Caribbean Canadian black identity.
(Referring to Powerpoint image) Here is a show we did last year called Reggae or Not on the birth of dance hall — this Reggae Jamaican music style — and thinking about the way it evolved both in Toronto and Kingston, Jamaica.
We've just finished a show called Home. And here’s a young photographer named John Blak who is a Jamaican Canadian like myself, second generation, and he's showing images both from Jamaica and Toronto.
And the show that we are getting ready for now will be a primary show of the Contact Photography Festival which is held every May in Toronto. It’s called Pictures From Paradise and is a survey of contemporary Caribbean photography. And so we're moving forward. Again, knowing that I am Jamaican Canadian, you can see how much it influences not only what I collect but also what I'm interested in as a curator.
Trevor Schoonmaker: Part of our collecting strategy has been building from our exhibition program and acquiring works by artists we have shown in the building. But the other part of it is to have sort of a sub-focus on artists of African descent. And there are a plethora of reasons for that, not the least of which is that there are a lot of scholars at Duke University who are really terrific scholars in the field — Rick Powell being at the top of the list for us in art history there.
And so any exhibitions and any works we have in the collection are used regularly by students by faculty, by the community.
(Referring to Powerpoint image) This is an exhibition organized in 2010 called The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl. It's really the first look at records — outside of showing album cover art — in terms of looking at them as metaphors to speak about larger issues.
And this one, an artist some of you may know: Carrie Mae Weems. And Malick Sidibé.
The Carrie Mae Weems work, Ode to Affirmative Action, that we acquired was a work that she produced in 1989 that had only been shown once in Buffalo and it had just been in her studio. I found out about it through Rick Powell. And I approached her and her gallery and we acquired it for the show. We're really excited to have that work in the collection.
And then a young artist like Xaviera Simmons, who produced this brand-new body of work for the Record exhibition — an artist who is also in the Wedge Collection — New York-based, and a terrific, creative young mind. This is a project where she came down to North Carolina for the exhibition. She traveled around the state and came up with these characters sort of set in the environment. She shot photographs from the shore to the mountains as this sort of traveling itinerant musician. From there, she sent these images to musicians and they created musical compositions. We produced our own LP for her with this exhibition. So not unlike what Ken's been doing with his Wedge Project.
Some Artists Represented in Wedge Collection
Kenneth Montague (listing artists):
Brendan Fernandez, born in Kenya, grew up in Canada. He's thinking about hybridity a lot in his work.
Corine Vermeulen-Smith, originally from the Netherlands. An artist who was one of the early art community people to come to Detroit, maybe 10 years ago. So Detroit Michigan as you all know has its share of issues and problems around the city that is sort of getting smaller, and lots of industrial space, and kind of in a lot of ways is the place I think of as globally, not just in America, as sort of a post-industrial city. . . .There is a very interesting community of artists in Detroit and she is taking pictures of people in that community. This is a little boy William with the striking red hair. He sort of seems like a post-Detroit poster boy.
Elaine Stocki, Canadian. She just finished her MFA at Yale. In her first two weeks of school, she went to a party, and went by a fraternity house and looked up and these frat guys at Yale University were dressed up In Ku Klux Klan masks. She couldn't believe it. It really shocked her and her first body of work she produced as an MFA student was this sort of rethinking and restaging of this terrible vision.
She put an ad on Craig's list and got people, mostly homeless guys, to be photographed. She restaged putting these masks on, and sort of throwing these leaves down from a balcony. The work is called Balcony and is sort of an offering of peace. So she's taken this terrible thing and put a new image together. It makes you think about the original act. So it's a kind of terrible beauty. She is an artist to watch.
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Turner prize contender last year. She's a fantastic painter. She paints from her head, not with models. She thinks about the history of painting in her work. She writes stories — a beautiful writer — and puts those subjects and those characters into her paintings.
Stephen Burks, New York-based African American artist. Reimagined baskets from Senegal as lip of modernist stool. I like this idea of hybridity .”
Xaviera Simmons — here she is thinking about the black body and repositioning it. She's out in the Colorado River. This image is called Denver.
Viviane Sassen, met at Paris photo. I was in Paris three years ago for the big photo fair. I was really struck by her unique vision. It’s like she's creating a new visual language. And also her story, her formative years were in Africa. Her father was a medical doctor working in Kenya and she is originally from the Netherlands. She was a five-year-old living in Africa. She has a unique way of thinking about the body that's informed by her African experience. And so it's all about concealing and revealing.
Hassan Hajjaj — I bought the work a few years ago because I saw it at an art fair in Africa, in Mali. Sarah and I went on a honeymoon to Morocco recently and saw his amazing studio there in Marrakesh. He is forging a kind of new way of thinking about Moroccan identity which is really a rock 'n roll kind of thing. He's lived in London and in Marrakesh and it informs his work. There is a vibrancy of color and and graphics. There are layers and layers of meaning to the work. He has a show in New York right now and just finished one in L.A. You will hear a lot about Hassan Hajjaj as his message spreads in the contemporary art world.
Meera Margaret Singh, who is thinking about coming to Canada. This kind of specific art to the Canadian experience is very much what I'm doing now as a collector. (Montague also showed works by other artists represented in his collection including Kehinde Wiley, Mickalene Thomas and Ebony Patterson.)
Schoonmaker's Formative Experiences
Trevor Schoonmaker: This is part of who I am and how I was raised. I'm from North Carolina. I think being of the south and from the south, particularly the family that I grew up in, you see how it's entwined with African American culture, and it's inescapable. It’s American history. So I don't really see it is so much African American, or white American, or Latin American.
My parents, of course, get all the credit because I was raised in an environment where I didn't just grow up in a white environment. Lots of their friends and colleagues and peers were not only African American but a very cosmopolitan international group. Because my father was a professor at Wake Forest University and my mother was an attorney who ran for state senate, they were always engaged in politics and I was always at that these political rallies, and always around these professors from Europe and from Africa and from Latin America. And those were the people in our house all the time. So it’s just very normal to me.
We moved to Germany when I was four. And we went to Jamaica. I went to Kingston when I was about eight in the late 70s. And we lived in London in 1981. We went to Brazil because my best friend growing up was Colombian. Just these various experiences led to a later intellectual pursuit of African American and diaspora art and history.
Some Nasher Museum Acquisitions
(Trevor Schoonmaker lists acquisitions.)
Sanford Biggers, someone I've known and worked with for many years. We just opened a show last week of contemporary acquisitions. These are actually on the wall right now (at Nasher) as we speak.
Deborah Grant, recently acquired work, New York-based artist. She just had a great show at the Drawing Center in New York. Appropriating imagery and the aesthetic language of Bill Traylor and then she re-contextualizes it. She's done this with other artists — Jean Michel Basquiat, Picasso, and so on — and she has an amazing way of conflating the present with the past.
Zanele Muholi, South Africa. Great example of someone who I learned about through the show, Becoming. The Nasher bought her work after this horrific hate crime against her in South Africa for documenting gay and lesbian culture. Her house was broken into — if you haven't heard this — and nothing was stolen, nothing of value was taken. It was just her hard drives that were taken and destroyed. So someone was really trying to stop the work she's doing. So I thought the best thing that we could do would be to support her by buying her work. And that's what we did at that time. . .
Future of the Wedge Collection
Trevor Schoonmaker: When we're building a collection at an institution, a museum, certainly my personal taste comes into play to a degree. But I really have to think about a much larger mission at hand and how does it (the acquisition) work for a teaching institution? How does it speak to our audience in Durham and North Carolina? Will it live on for many years to come? I'm curious about how much you think of the future of your collection and how you collect?
Ken Montague: There is a constant thinking around storytelling, around how the objects go together. And around legacy. What about beyond the time of me? Are these works in an archival state so they'll live beyond me? And you hope at some point it won't be just the one context of this Wedge Collection but maybe the works will live and breathe in some other way. It might be at another institution. It might be that in some way over time, with the kind of digital technology that we are enjoying now, as it goes along, maybe more people can share in the works in a more visceral way, in a way that we can't really appreciate yet.
And it’s not just about value (but about) purchasing something now that feels like it fits the collection. Not worrying too much about its prospective value in the future. Just going, “I need to have this because it works with this and this and this.” I would say that trumps buying something that is an investment for me. It’s more about where it fits in the history of my collecting. Where the collection is now and where it is heading, which I think, in the case of the Wedge Collection, is becoming more inclusive, more inclusive of various media.
And moving, as you see, beyond ideas of just black identity, seeing artists of various communities that share these tropes and ideas, and that you can bring more into the fold, and recognizing there are other artists that I kind of need to wedge into the mainstream. So that's where it’s going — moving more inclusively as we move forward.
Trevor Schoonmaker: Looking ahead do you see family members taking this on? Do you see the collection in a Canadian institution?
Ken Montague: I think about that a lot. Maria and I talk about that a lot — about the future of the project. I think there needs to be much more scholarship, many more of these talks.
(Also) people who come in and catalog the work. From an academic point of view, we need a grad student to sit with us and make sure that everything is in place and that we have good records.
We need to start writing more about the work. If I really want to get on the manifesto, I'd say we need more black collectors. Certainly in Canada there is a small black community (of collectors) but also, globally. With my work with the Tate, I realize there's a dearth of black collectors. We need more black collectors. We need more black curators, storytellers, gallerists.
There are enough black artists coming into the fold now. But we need people who control the dissemination of the work, the storytelling, so I think that all has to come together, and that's going to take time.
Trevor Schoonmaker: And [more board members].
Kenneth Montague: And I think that you know when you reach that critical mass, it will just happen in an organic way. Right now it might be early to start a museum on African Canadian Art but I think the vision and the goals, maybe even from now to start moving Wedge into a physical space which becomes the center for learning and a center for excellence in African and African Canadian study.
It's hard to know, Trevor, whether it all is to be given to another institution. I have a lot of connections in our local institutions. It may be that it becomes part of one, or the signature collection of another institution. We just keep fighting the good fight and we keep putting the shows together, working through these ideas and I think, at a certain point, it just builds a groundswell of interest and it becomes the institution that you've envisioned. We just keep doing the work like you're doing.
The recorded Montague-Schoonmaker conversation was transcribed and edited for publication by art historian John Welch. The editing consisted of very minor modifications to alleviate some of the repetitions of spontaneous conversation.