Andrea Barnwell Brownlee has a calm, measured way of outlining her mission as an art historian, writer, curator and director of the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art. But when the subject turns to presenting the work of black women artists throughout the diaspora — and disrupting any preconceived notions about who gets to have a say in the conversation — a playful gleam animates her eyes.
“My responsibility as an arts advocate is never to tell anybody what to like or why to like it, but to provide a space for open dialogue,” she says. “I’m more fired up by the person who visits our museum and asks, ‘What in the world is going on?’ I love creating opportunities where people can come in and we duke it out.”
Brownlee’s idea of museums as incubators for rich, healthy discussions took root when she was growing up in Alexandria, Virginia. Regular field trips to the museums, galleries, gardens and zoo of the Smithsonian Institution balanced time spent in the classroom and taught her to view the world as a place of open possibilities. Teachers and docents encouraged her to spend time with art, dig deep and experience it with all five senses — six, when counting the place where art can kindle imaginations, reveal new paradigms and change minds.
The education continued when Brownlee enrolled at Spelman in 1993. Though the college would not break ground on its Fine Art Museum until the following year, she recalls being surrounded by original works of art in a small campus gallery, in dormitories, with and in the residence of then-president Johnnetta B. Cole (the school’s first African American female president), who regularly invited students to view her collection.
Retired art history professor Dr. Akua McDaniel recalls Brownlee as a bright student. “Andrea was a progressive thinker and very aggressive in terms of presenting her ideas about works of art publicly,” says McDaniel. “She used to challenge my ideas and ways of seeing things, and was always at the forefront of discussions and debates in the classroom.”
By the time Brownlee completed her junior year of study at the University of Essex, 45 minutes southeast of London, her original idea of majoring in medicine or economics was replaced by a commitment to double majoring in English and art. She interned at the Smithsonian American Art Museum after graduation before resuming her studies at Duke University for a Masters in Art History in 1997 and a PhD in Art History in 2001.
Her parents were completely supportive every step of the way, with one proviso, says Brownlee. “My dad would say, ‘You can major in whatever you want to, but you have to figure out how to convert that into a paycheck.’” Fortunately, the operative question was never how to make a living, but how to delay saying “yes” to a series of tempting dream job offers.
One year into her MacArthur Curatorial Fellowship at The Art Institute of Chicago, while writing her dissertation, Brownlee received a call from Spelman, asking her to assume directorship of their new museum. Determined to earn her doctorate, she declined the overture. A repeat offer followed the next year, with the same response. But when a third call came in 2000, she was ready to return to her alma mater.
As museum director, Brownlee has helped burnish the reputations of established artists like sculptor Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, narrative quilt-maker Faith Ringgold and photographer Carrie Mae Weems, each of whom have works in Spelman’s permanent collection. And she anticipates critical and popular acclaim for the museum’s current exhibition, Deborah Roberts: The Evolution of Mimi through May 19. The collection of more than 50 collages, paintings and hand-painted serigraphs offers a fresh perspective of vulnerability, body image, popular culture, self-image, the dysfunctional legacy of colorism and the weight that society places on black girls.
Introducing museum-goers to less familiar names is high on Brownlee’s list of priorities. She and Karen Comer Lowe co-curated Undercover: Performing and Transforming Black Female Identities in 2009 to examine the motivations and means of people who manipulate their images. The group show juxtaposed the works of Cindy Sherman and Lorna Simpson with those of South African sculptor Nandipha Mntambo and Kenyan-born British studio potter Magdalene Odundo. At the time, Mntambo and Odundo were relatively unknown. In the interim, however, the former has gained artistic and critical attention internationally, and the High Museum organized a solo exhibition of the latter’s ceramics.
Vanessa German, an artist based in Pittsburgh, has benefited from Brownlee’s willingness to amplify the voices of emerging talents and put them in dialogue with established artists. In the fall of 2016, German’s works were included in Africa Forecast: Fashioning Contemporary Life, which documented black women’s history with fashion. This fall, she will return to give a lecture and stage a performance piece in conjunction with Ruins and Rituals and the college in the process of acquiring her mixed-media sculpture Delia on the plane or Cabbage Slicer.
“I don’t know if people realize how rare Andrea is,” says German. “She has an encyclopedic knowledge about black women who make art, and has made them the focus of her life’s work and scholarship. She might be soft-spoken, but she is so joyful . . . not only when showing the art, but when in conversation with artists. I feel like she’s a secret treasure.”
As a gatekeeper in the world of arts and culture, Brownlee is an outlier in a field where African Americans comprise four percent of the professional field as directors, curators, conservators or senior management. She intends to reverse the trend by piloting a curatorial studies program at Spelman. She and Curator of Collections Anne Collins Smith are teaching a class in the discipline this semester. By 2021, the college’s Curatorial Studies concentration within the Department of Art and Art History will be a reality.
“The Mellon Foundation has been extraordinarily supportive of our vision,” says Brownlee. “They invited us to submit a proposal for growing the arts and feeding the pipeline — which includes an emphasis on coursework, mentorships and making sure our students are interfacing with working artists and institutions. And we are working on making sure that every student seriously considering this field will have two consecutive summers of internships at museums around the country.”
Salvador Salort-Pons, director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, was one of the first people to partner with Spelman, promising to give his first Spelman intern hands-on experience with the institute’s upcoming retrospective on Vincent van Gogh. Likewise, the Studio Museum in Harlem and Whitney Museum of American Art in New York have pledged their practical support.
The other barrier to be surmounted, from Brownlee’s perspective, is that of perception.
“Oftentimes, in academia, the arts are relegated to leisure activity,” she says. “[But] our collective mission at Spelman is to find ways to penetrate that wall and let students, parents, faculty, administrators and guests know that the museum is an academic resource as well as a venue for incredible visual splendor.”
Dr. Richard Powell, an art history professor at Duke University, praises his former mentee not only for the breadth and depth of her academic knowledge but for her acumen as an administrator. “It would be great if we could just sit in our ivory towers and write essays and exhibition catalogues all day,” says Powell. “But Andrea understands the business of art. She knows that you also have to raise money, collaborate and work with designers and publishers to execute on any vision.”
An alumna of the Getty Leadership Institute and a member of the Association of Art Museum Directors, Brownlee has also served on boards of several arts organizations including the Hambidge Center for the Creative Arts and Sciences and the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund. Still, it’s her role as an educator, both in and out of the classroom, that keeps her fired up and ready to “duke it out.”
“Art is critical to our emotional, spiritual, creative survival,” she says. “Compelling, firsthand interactions with visual works of art tend to defy expectations. Once people are introduced to it, it’s intoxicating. It informs our everyday lives — how we think, move, interact with others and what we talk about. If more people understood that, funding for the arts would look different.”