New curator at the Harvard Art Museums discusses the role

Museums have long been a place of passion, community, and connection for Horace D. Ballard, the newly appointed Theodore E. Stebbins Jr. Associate Curator of American Art at the Harvard Art Museums, who took over his new role on Sept. 1. They have also been an important constant in his life. Ballard, who began frequenting museums as a child and started working in them as a teenager, got a B.A. in English literature and American studies from the University of Virginia in 2006, an M.A.R. in religion and visual culture from the Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School in 2010, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in American studies and American visual culture at Brown University in 2012 and 2017, respectively. Ballard comes to Harvard from the Williams College Museum of Art, where he was curator of American art. In Cambridge he will oversee the museums' collection of pre-20th-century American paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts.

Q&A

Horace D. Ballard

GAZETTE: How did you first get interested in art?

BALLARD: We moved around quite a bit when I was younger. My mother and father were keen that no matter where we were, I could always be engaged in something in order to make friends and make a new place "familiar." Local theater groups and a love of music and dance were big for me. Another was soccer and local leagues. But another of those familiar things was art museums. As a Black child, I felt instinctively that museums were not neutral places. However, we had this idea in our home that no matter where we were, one could walk into an art museum and feel connected to the entire world and have one's point of view expand. And I remember deeply, when we moved to Northampton, Pennsylvania, near Allentown, my first field trip to the Allentown Art Museum, with its wonderful Frank Lloyd Wright room. I loved it so much that my mother took me back there every Saturday for a month.

Museums became a focal point whenever there was something changing in my life as a way to gain perspective on the world. I had a birthday party at a museum at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina, when I started high school. In college, at the University of Virginia, when I wanted to make a little extra pizza money, I began working at the Fralin Museum of Art with pre-K audiences on Saturday mornings, teaching them colors and songs from different parts of the world. This love for museums and facilitating experiences for audiences of all ages followed me to Yale, to Brown, and to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), where I worked with K-12 audiences. No matter the age, we can start from the visual evidence of how lines make shapes, and shapes and colors make compositions, and compositions tell us narratives … This was kind of what I did for fun but also what I did to get to know new communities.

GAZETTE: And how did your varied academic interests finally dovetail with your love of museums?

BALLARD: My intellectual paths and my interest in the arts are wide and varied. They started in music, and then moved to dance, and then modern literature, and then the history and theory of music composition, and then poetry — I studied that deeply in grad school. But interestingly, by the time I graduated from Yale, I looked back and realized I'd been working at museums for over 10 years, and I thought, "Maybe this is more than a side opportunity to get to know communities. Maybe the conversations I'm having that sustain my work can actually become the work." And that's when, in my last year at Yale, I worked with the wonderful then-Deputy Director Pam Franks and five other student co-curators on the exhibition "Embodied: Black Identities in American Art" that critically attended to the Yale University Art Gallery's holdings of work made by artists of the African Diaspora over 400 years. Then I moved to Brown University and worked full-time with the RISD art museums education and public engagement department. That's when I realized that these two worlds were not separate, that they really were the same path.

GAZETTE: What appealed to you about the Harvard job?

BALLARD: The collections! I am an Americanist, which is to say I think about the elastic relationships between people, objects, place, labor, and ideas across the colonial and national frameworks that have impacted, and continue to shape, the people and cultures of the Americas. The unparalleled breadth and the quality of the collections of the Harvard Art Museums and our partners at the Peabody are extraordinary. To be able to really engage these objects and to have colleagues who want to collaborate and think together about the big questions of our time by learning from the material and visual archive of the past is pure delight. I was just so heartened from day one of the search, the fact that everyone said, "If you need anything, if you want to chat about anything, we're here. Here's my cellphone. Don't hesitate." That meant a lot.

I am especially invested in 18th- and 19th-century portraiture. The collections boast the most famous and representative examples of Washington Allston, John Singleton Copley, Robert Feke, James Frothingham, Henry Inman, John Singer Sargent, my beloved Gilbert Stuart, Benjamin West, so many others. These are the artists and contexts I love so deeply. To steward a collection in which they and their contemporaries are represented across their careers in depth, and to be able to be in an ecosystem like the Harvard community within the Greater Boston region, it was just it was a no-brainer.

I also recognize that some hear those names and the adage of museums being places where one sees "old white men in white wigs installed on the white walls of the gallery" comes to the fore. This is something I have always reckoned with — personally and professionally. These artists have long been part of my thinking about the Americas, and thus I see them and their respective works as being invested in the creation of a national identity and a national school of art; and as we know, all processes of ideological formation are necessarily a performance. Becoming is necessarily frenetic and often anxiety-prone. It is the same in art. I believe we need to really think critically about the cultural work American landscape and portraiture are doing and how they were and remain sites of investigation, of contestation, of performativity around gender, race, colonial identity.

I feel like if we can interrogate the moments in culture when political anxiety rises to the picture plane, then we have a roadmap, don't we, for our own understanding of where we are in our own moment, how portraiture is always tied to politics and propaganda, and the legacies of disparity we still need to think through and to resolve. Those portraits to me evince major, unresolved questions in the very fabric of what a nation-state can be, and clearly 250, 300 years later, we have not resolved those questions. Each generation must push it forward.

GAZETTE: In this current moment, can you say more about the way museums are involved in the ongoing work of rethinking and reframing their galleries and collections?

BALLARD: It is such an important question, and it reminds me of the incredible work we all have to do, and what it means to be a curator at this moment in time in history and in our broader culture. It's hard to address that question with specifics before I've begun my new post and gotten to know my colleagues and joined their ongoing conversations. However, there are a couple of values that I hold dear and that guide my thoughts.

In a moment of institutional rethink, we have to question the idea of elite judgment. Because the idea of elite judgment, when it is next to ideas of "good or correct" provenance, automatically puts certain artists — those who have not had a record of auction or successful gallery museum showings — in a different category before we've even looked at influence and the technique, before we've even evaluated the narrative, the subject, the conventions around posture, gesture, and so forth. And so, I think this is a moment where thematic understandings of history that allow for multidisciplinary and multi-perspectival understandings can help us innovate with authenticity through and around and beyond the traditional stories we tell. That is what I'm really interested in and what I think is so needed in the 18th and 19th century, particularly.

It also calls to mind the differences between a curator who is stewarding in collaboration with colleagues a major historic collection like the Harvard Art Museums and curators who are working at institutions that do not have historic collections. The collections are our archive. They are a site of memory and a site of wonder, but also the collection as a site of deep reckoning and deep pause, and deep re-evaluation, and deep learning — it's really that latter in which I situate myself and think about the work.

GAZETTE: The Harvard Art Museums is, as part of its core mission, a teaching museum. With your own background in teaching, can you speak to what it means to be coming to an institution devoted to education?

BALLARD: With one exception, I have always worked in academic museums. My first jobs in museums as a teenager consisted of this part-time work in the early mornings, before classes or on weekends, working with K-12 groups. I saw how quickly and how exuberantly all of us from the 3-year-old, to their parent, to the sixth-grade brother and sister, to my undergraduate peers — and then gradually to graduate students that I've had the honor these past four years to mentor — how we all come alive before a work of art. How we all, if we allow ourselves, can really focus our attention and do that deep intellectual work of holding what we've read and what we know and what we've experienced on one side, and observing what we actually see on the other, and hold them both and allow the former to provide historical material, cultural context — and allow our direct empirical observation in the moment to both guide the refining of our questions, but also to be the experience from which we reach out to form community with others looking with us. And so, it's this idea of bringing the close read and the analytical study and the visual analysis from the seminar room into the galleries and saying, "This, too, is a learning space." And it doesn't just encompass those of us enrolled in the course. It encompasses everyone under the sound of our voice, under the power of the work.

As a curator at one of the world's great teaching museums, one of the aspects of lifelong intellectual curiosity I get to model for our audiences is attention to the form inquiry takes, whether it is an article, an exhibition, a gallery talk, a monograph, a recipe, a seminar, a symposium, or a creative intervention. Academic museums have an expectation of research, of exhibition, and of connoisseurship unparalleled in other aspects of the field. The Harvard Art Museums have the integral advantage of the expertise of our colleagues at the wonderful Strauss Center for Conservation and Technical Studies. This allows ecological and material histories, processes of making, and artistic choice to be central to our understanding of works of art. To be a small part all of that, and to be able to learn and grow in my own pedagogy and my teaching practice from students and colleagues, is just so exciting.

I think a lot about Christina Sharpe's incredible metaphor of being in the wake of the atrocities and violence of chattel slavery, and the incredible power of that metaphor and its maritime traditions to inform us, to be deeply capacious in the ways in which we can comprehend the way that culture impinges upon our understanding of any moment, but also deeply reflexive and deeply careful about the language that we use in any moment. And it is not a scientific method, but it is informed by that deep idea of hypothesis, experience, evaluation, refining to a new mode of analysis and a new question to test. We can call it prototyping; we can call it design thinking. It goes by so many important and critical names, but at its base is inquiry, and it's what all of us are capable of doing from the age of 4 to 400 if we are given the permission to realize that the only thing we need to do in a moment is to hold our full selves as we attend. And I think that's the ethics of attention that is so important to my work. And to have incredible students to engage in that with, to learn from, to look with, that's the goal, always.

GAZETTE: What do you see as your biggest challenge?

BALLARD: To be 100 percent honest, I think the biggest challenge will be wanting to meet everybody, do everything. And I will need to do some of that (laughs). Part of the great joy of being a curator is traveling, meeting people, going to different collections, discerning what we can dream together by determining where that nexus of passion and possibility for stakeholders and resources lies. The added gift of being a curator at an academic museum is needing to quickly build relationships with faculty, staff, students, and learning the various curricular relationships between a collection and its audiences.

I think the big challenge will be making myself available for those conversations and that big-picture strategizing, while also realizing that my primary responsibility is to learn the collection as richly, as deeply, and as quickly as possible. I will want to carve out daily time to say: "I'm just taking two hours to go to the study center," or "I'm taking half a day just to see what's on the walls." And I think that it relates to what I was saying before about facilitating moments of engagement, where students and the Harvard Art Museums' various publics can hold both themselves and what they know and attend to what they see before them. That's the curator's challenge, too. We spend years, sometimes decades if we're fortunate, researching a handful of artists and a movement and a school and an era, understanding 200, 300, 400, 500 years of a national tradition. And we are called upon to speak from that point of expertise. But we also must set aside deliberate time to keep looking again, and again, and again, even at works that we wrote our dissertations on, and that we have known for years. For they always have more to teach us.

Interview was lightly edited for clarity and length.