• By:  Leia Safshekan

Tidewater Women’s Leia Safshekan-Bishop met with Chicago native Kimberli Gant, who was recently appointed curator of modern and contemporary art at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk. Kimberli holds an M.A. in art history from Columbia University and is pursuing her doctorate.

 TW: Where does you passion for art come from?

G: Osmosis. My parents collected art [and] took me to museums. I found out that my paternal grandmother was an illustrator. 

 TW: So it’s in the genes?

G: Maybe. Art was around. It was on the walls at my house. It was on the walls at my friend’s house.

 TW: Did you know that you wanted to work with art when you were in college?

G: No. A [humanities] professor put a lot of art into the class and it interested me. I was like “This is it!”—much to my parent’s chagrin. 

 TW: Did you work in the arts right out of college? 

G: No. I worked in marketing and advertising for several years. I bartended, too.

 TW: Meanwhile you kept knocking on doors, trying to build connections until you eventually found a gallery where you wanted to work.

G: I emailed the director for six months. We finally met for dinner, and there was a job opening. I said, “I’ll take the job!” I needed to be in that environment. 

 TW: What was that experience like?

G: It was an incredible learning experience. I learned the art of the art hustle. When you don’t have huge institutional support, you learn to find people who can help you. I learned to reach out others. I called curators and asked many questions. It was definitely a trial by fire, but it was the best thing. I learned so much—I became a jack-of-all-trades. 

 TW:  What did you learn during that time that you use in your current position?

G: I learned to think from the perspective of the other departments to understand their point of view. At a smaller institution, you don’t have the luxury of not communicating.

 TW: Did you know you wanted to be a curator?

G: I think the art world, unfortunately, is cloaked in mystery. No one really knows what a curator does. 

 TW: It’s become a verb for anything. I saw a grocery ad recently offering “curated meats."

G: “Curator” has a pop culture, skewed image…

 TW: Did your professors or advisors ever suggest curating as a career option? 

G: Universities are not pushing grads into museums. It’s not considered a successful position.

TW: I think we do a poor job of teaching kids about the jobs that are available in art. 

G: You can do so many “traditional” positions in a creative environment and stay within that world. We have accountants and administrators. You can have a “practical” job and still be in an art space.

 TW: There are so many things we forget to tell young people 

G: Yeah, like you can fail, too.

 TW: Absolutely. Which exhibits—excluding contemporary art—do you keep coming back to?

G: The Ancient Worlds gallery. I’m very drawn to that. 

 TW: It’s the ordinary objects that always get me. It’s strange to call a cup art, but art is everywhere.

G: It can be people quilting.

 TW: You work with a lot of international artists and art. You curated “Wondrous Worlds: Art & Islam Through Time & Place” and have an interest in African art. What draws you to these narratives?

G: So many exchanges spanning the globe are related, and we need to understand—to bring them to the forefront. We need to highlight these stories and conversations that you may not read in a history book.

 TW: What would you say to parents about introducing their children to art?

G: Bring them early. Let them see all the beautiful forms of expression in the world. Then teach them to support it. 

 For more information about current and upcoming exhibits at the Chrysler, visit www.chrysler.org.

Leia Safshekan is a writer, military spouse, and mother, raising her family in Va. Beach. A California native, Leia likes reading and exploring nature with her family and dogs. Leia was awarded the Dickseski Prize for Fiction and is a student at ODU.

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