Words and Photography by Elyse Wild
Juana Williams has an innate curiosity about the way art impacts our lives, whether we create it or view it.
“A lot of what has happened in your life leading up to the moment you look at a piece has to do with how you feel about that work of art,” she expressed. “I am very interested in the process of creating and the story behind a piece.”
Williams is the exhibitions curator at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA). She considers the role service to the community, as art has the potential to help us embrace perspectives other than our own, process current events and project the voices of the unheard.
“What interests me the most is that with art you can talk about anything,” she remarked. “I study a lot of sociology, psychology and different kinds of sciences — things that people may not think goes into the curation of visual arts.”
When Williams was hired by the UICA last summer, she was working as an independent curator and assistant to the chair of the Wayne State University Art and History Department. She graduated from Wayne State with a Bachelor of Arts and a master’s in art history. She spent her first three years of college pursuing a math degree. When she realized she wasn’t interested in any career that involved math, she decided to explore her long-held interest in the arts. It was during an art history class when her current path unfolded before her.
“It merged the two things I am most interested in — creativity and research,” she expressed. “Art history is very focused on research and understanding the past and digging through it. That is why l landed in contemporary art — the whole span of art history is involved in contemporary art because everything that happened in the past is used to create exhibitions now.”
Williams curates four floors of exhibition space in the 44,000 square-foot, LEED-certified building that houses the UICA. She says the building design, coupled with the fact that it is one of the few non-collecting galleries in the nation, makes the UICA a unique and exciting arts institution at which to work.
“This building is very unusual in terms of museums and galleries,” she said. “It is so fun to curate these spaces because all of the floors are different.”
When Williams is considering work for a show, the artist’s perspective is central to her approach; she collaborates with them to ensure their work is displayed in such a way as to amplify the message behind it.
“A lot of what has happened in your life leading up to the moment you look at a piece has to do with how you feel about a work of art.”— Juana Williams
“I love working with artists,” she said. “I am really respectful of artists and their craft and what message they are trying to send to the world, and how they want their work seen.”
And, rather than allowing her personal taste to dictate her choices, she always considers the community in which the work will be viewed.
“I always go into it thinking about the audience,” she said. “Sometimes, the art doesn’t resonate with me, but might with someone else, or it might fill a gap that I feel needs to be filled.”
As curating is primarily a solo-endeavor, Williams finds audience engagement to be rewarding.
She describes receiving feedback from the local refugee community about the recent group exhibition entitled, “Or Does It Explode?”, which documented the impact of forced migration.
“There were people who told me about how the exhibition reminded them of their time in refugee camps,” she said. “Hearing their stories and how it impacted their lives, that makes a difference to me.”
“Breaching the Margins,” a juried exhibition that depicts how marginalized groups manage their lives in a society that largely excludes them, is on display at the institute until Aug. 18.
“There are a few queer artists who have told me how much they feel seen — that the exhibition makes them feel more accepted in West Michigan, “ she said. “That is rewarding.”
Viewing contemporary art can be a transformative, and sometimes challenging, experience. Williams advice is to be receptive to whatever the artist is trying to impart.
“If you chose to go in with an open mind, an open heart and curiosity, you will get more from it … When you go into a space, if you are open to receiving whatever message it is, you will have a much more pleasant or profound experience.”
For a list of current and upcoming exhibitions at the UICA, please visit UICA.org.