Guggenheim curator Naomi Beckwith wins Driskell Prize

Guggenheim curator Naomi Beckwith wins Driskell Prize

The High Museum of Art on Thursday awarded this year’s Driskell Prize in African American Art and Art History to Naomi Beckwith, the deputy director and chief curator of the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Beckwith, the Guggenheim’s first Black chief curator, is the 19th winner of the prize named for the late artist and scholar David C. Driskell, which recognizes African American artists and professionals who have made significant contributions to African American art.

“For Naomi to get this award is just underlining the specialness of what she’s been able to accomplish — not only as a curator and a museum leader but also as a real leader in the field,” said Huey Copeland, an art historian who won the Driskell in 2019. Past winners include artists Ebony G. Patterson, Willie Cole and Amy Sherald, as well as curators and historians Valerie Cassel Oliver and Adrienne L. Childs.

“I am deeply, deeply humbled to be in this compendium of amazing thinkers and curators, many of whom are friends,” Beckwith said. “Wow. It is quite something to be mentioned in the same breath.”

To Black curators, the fact that Beckwith holds a prominent and visible role at one of the most important cultural institutions in the world, particularly as a Black woman who champions diversity and inclusion in all aspects of her work, is a sign of progress in an industry that isn’t always welcoming to changes in perspective and ways of operating.

“Just by her intelligence and her presence, she is opening doors for so many other folks to follow in her footsteps. She’s setting a model of what it means to be a politically engaged, ethically attuned, conceptually rigorous thinker, scholar, curator and cultural worker, operating at the highest levels,” Copeland said.

Childs, who won the Driskell in 2022 and was on this year’s jury, said that when the prize was first conceived, it was “unthinkable” to imagine that a Black woman would be a chief curator at the Guggenheim. That Beckwith has not only done so but also brought dynamic, inclusive programming and practices to “an institution that’s been around for a long time and has needed a change is significant,” Childs said.

Beckwith arrived at the Guggenheim in the summer of 2021, after a period of tumult and reckoning at the museum. Its artistic director and chief curator had stepped down months earlier following allegations of discrimination at the institution. In a 2020 letter, curators at the museum described it as “an inequitable work environment that enables racism, white supremacy, and other discriminatory practices”; and in 2019 a Black guest curator also accused the Guggenheim of racism. (The museum later said an independent investigation found no evidence of racist treatment of the guest curator.) Like many institutions, the Guggenheim’s leaders vowed to prioritize inclusivity.

“The Guggenheim Museum celebrates the well-deserved recognition awarded to Naomi with the Driskell Prize,” J. Tomilson Hill, chairman of the Board of the Guggenheim Museum, said in a statement. “Naomi is a catalytic thinker and leader whose scholarship continues to revise and expand the canon of art history through her commitment to amplifying the work of African American artists everywhere. She contributes a critical voice to our contemporary dialogue, and her curatorial practice moves us ever closer to a more considered and equitable world.”

Artists, art historians and curators who have worked with Beckwith throughout her career said highlighting the work of a broad spectrum of artists has always been at the core of her approach as a curator, above and beyond the institutional calls for diversity and inclusion in recent years.

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“Naomi has a history of being very sensitive to and devoted to elevating voices and perspectives of African American artists,” said Randall Suffolk, the High Museum’s director, “and that makes her deserving of the prize.” Beckwith’s popular 2018 retrospectives of works by Howardena Pindell and Nick Cave at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, for example, didn’t just showcase the artists’ most famous works but framed them as part of broader conversations about inequality, racism, revolution, gender equality and more. Copeland said Beckwith is brilliant at staging work in exhibitions but also at engaging it “in ways that are really at the cutting edge of art historical and critical practice.”

“For me, it is so important to make exhibitions that create new narratives around artists,” Beckwith said. “I’m not interested in just saying, ‘Here’s the best work by X and Y artists or recent work by artists of a certain generation.’ I’m trying to make statements about what’s important to recognize in this artist’s work for all of our history.”

The prize includes $50,000 of unrestricted money to aid the recipient’s work.

Beckwith, 47, was raised in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, a few blocks away from the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center. Though she loved art, for as long as she could remember, she’d wanted to be a doctor. She felt that a lot of progress had to be made to improve reproductive and sexual health, and care for women’s bodies, especially for those of Black women.

“I had this fantasy that I would open a clinic on the South Side of Chicago,” she said, so she went to Northwestern to study biology and get on the premed track. But along the way, she couldn’t ignore her love of art, so she made the “very difficult decision” to pivot from science to art, ultimately graduating with a degree in history and African American studies. Beckwith had never been able to imagine art as a real career.

She wasn’t alone in that.

“When I told my mother I was not going to be a doctor and I wanted to be a curator, she basically hung up on me,” Beckwith recalled, laughing. It wasn’t until a few months later, after seeing an article about the Whitney Biennial with a photo of one of the curators — Cassel Oliver — that her mother got on board with the new plan.

“There was a portrait of Valerie in the paper, so Mommy could see that this was a Black woman, and that allowed my mother to relax and realize that there was an entire career that her daughter could embrace and be consistent about because there was somebody who looked like her doing it already.”

After Northwestern, Beckwith headed to London, where she got a Master of Arts from the Courtauld Institute of Art. Since then, she has held fellowships at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia and at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and worked as an associate curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem before returning to Chicago in 2011. At the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, she held several curatorial roles and was named a senior curator in 2018. Three years later, the Guggenheim came knocking.

Beckwith said that she’s glad she made the change from science to art; that following her passion has brought her great joy in life. She also concedes that, to her, art and science aren’t all that different.

“Both career paths were motivated by a deep love and care for Black people, Black lives and Black culture,” she said. “On the one hand, I wanted my medical practice to take care of Black bodies, and now, on the artistic side, I’m more interested in taking care of the Black spirit.”

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