How I Got My Art Job: Naima Keith of California’s African American Museum on Quitting a PhD to Pursue Her Dreams

The museum's deputy director got her start during a curatorial stint at the Hammer Museum.

Naima Keith. Photo courtesy of the California African American Museum.

From fabricators to mummy conservators to private collection managers, the art world is full of fascinating jobs you may not have realized even existed. In artnet News’s column “My Art Job,” we delve into these enviable art-world occupations, asking insiders to share their career path and advice for others who wish to follow in their footsteps.

This week, we spoke with Naima J. Keith, deputy director for exhibitions and programs at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles and co-curator of Prospect.5 New Orleans in 2020. 

Education: I’m originally from LA, but I went to Spelman, a women’s historical black college in Atlanta. That’s where I was introduced to art history. Both of my parents are collectors, so I was exposed to art at an early age, but I really discovered my own passion for art the end of my freshman year.

How I got my start in the art world: I went to UCLA for graduate school. I intended to get my Ph.D. because I thought that was the curator route. But as I was finishing my Master’s, I got a job working at the Hammer Museum on the exhibition “Now Dig This!: Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980” with curator Kellie Jones. I fell in love curating and I ended up leaving the program before I finished the Ph.D. It was just really where I wanted to be. I completed my Master’s and then left to completely devote myself to the Hammer. I was a curatorial fellow, which was paid for by the Getty grant for Pacific Standard Time. I was there for three years.

Naima Keith interning at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2004. Photo courtesy of Naima Keith.

Naima Keith interning at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2004. Photo courtesy of Naima Keith.

How I got the job I have now: I was at the Studio Museum for five years, from 2011 to 2016 (and I was an intern there in 2003). My husband and I had been long distance, but once we learned we were having our daughter, I started to thinking about coming back to LA. At the same time, the board at the California African American Museum (CAAM) was looking to drastically change their exhibition program. The attendance numbers had been waning and they really wanted to turn the museum around. They had hired a new director, George O. Davis. He’s an amazing manager and administer, and they were looking for someone with a museum background to complement his skill set.

When the museum reached out to me, it was just perfect in a lot of ways. I grew up coming to CAAM and my mom was a board member here in the mid-1990s. It was serendipitous!

My favorite part of the job: The museum has a long legacy of supporting emerging artists that I’m excited to build upon. It’s a great opportunity to support up-and-coming artists of color who might not have had opportunities to show their work in museums on the West Coast. And it is very exciting being a part of a management team that is trying different things and experimenting to try and bring a diverse audience. I love curating shows, but I like having the opportunity to think about the museum as a whole as well.

Diana Nawi and Naima Keith. Photo courtesy of Prospect New Orleans.

Prospect.5 curators Diana Nawi and Naima Keith. Photo courtesy of Prospect New Orleans.

What my typical day looks like: My typical day starts between 5 and 5:30, getting my son a bottle. He is so young, so my husband and I are sleep training him right now—technically I’m woken up at 2:30! I scroll through my email to see what to expect for the day and if there are any New York-sensitive things that I can respond to really fast. Around 6, my daughter wakes up. My husband and I take turns over who takes the babies to school and I’m usually in the office by around 8:30.

My assistant books appointments for me starting at 9 and I’m in back-to-back meetings all day related to exhibitions, programs, and marketing. I check in with the head of marketing about three times a week and with the curators every other week. I’m also pretty hands-on with our quarterly brochure, and I curate a show myself every season, so there are meetings with artists.

I pretty much eat lunch on the run, but I try to schedule in a Soul Cycle at lunchtime once or twice a week to build a little me-time into the middle of the day. I leave here no later than 5:15 to pick up the kids. We get home at 6:30 and then I am in full-time mom mode until they go to bed. Then I try to talk to my husband if I’m still alive and awake. There are some last minute emails, and then I fall asleep.

Naima Keith and her kids at an art show. Photo courtesy of Naima Keith.

Naima Keith and her kids at the Institute of Contemporary Art Los Angeles’s Nina Chanel Abney show. Photo courtesy of Naima Keith.

My biggest challenge: Managing so many people. When you’re organizing an exhibition you’re in communication with a lot of different departments, but there’s a difference between informing everyone and managing them. Management is a skill that I’m still very much growing—figuring out ways to understand and inspire people’s skill sets, and then hold them accountable. Going from the curatorial department to managing multiple departments has been the biggest learning curve.

My biggest accomplishment: Receiving the Driskell Prize from the High Museum was very rewarding. David Driskell was an artist and a scholar who made amazing contributions to the field, so I was very proud to received a prize named after him.

But when I first joined CAAM there were like 300 people at our openings. Now we have 2,500 or 3,000 people. To have so many people enjoying the museum—sometimes I just stand back at an event and think, “Wow, this is exactly what I wanted this to be like.” Those are proud moments.

My most influential mentor: I have been really lucky to have a lot of great mentors. Thema Golden, for example, continues to be immensely influential in how I think about museums, exhibitions, and working with artists.

Naima Keith and Thelma Golden in 2018. Photo courtesy of Naima Keith.

Naima Keith and Thelma Golden in 2018. Photo courtesy of Naima Keith.

Advice for those who want a job like mine: Don’t be afraid to take risks (within reason!). If you really believe in an artist, an exhibition, an idea, don’t be afraid to pursue it. Do the research, and once you feel confident don’t be afraid to step out and see it through. Put in the work necessary to complete that goal.

One thing I wish I could tell my 22-year-old self: You’re never going to make a lot of money! I didn’t go into it for the money, but I’ve had a great time along the way. There’s never going to be a dull moment, and you’re going to be lucky enough to work with artists and curators who are going to be amazing. So soak it all up—your workaholic work ethic will pay off.

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