Jamillah James Takes the Lead as the First Curator at LA’s New Institute of Contemporary Art

James calls the institutional match a "slam dunk."

Jamillah James. Courtesy of Paul Mpagi Sepuya.
Jamillah James. Courtesy of Paul Mpagi Sepuya.

With its rapidly expanding gallery scene in the Downtown Arts District and beyond, Los Angeles has been touted for its focus on hot new artists in recent years. The scramble to harness this youthful energy has also inspired museum redesigns left and right.

Enter Jamillah James, who joins the newly re-branded Institute of Contemporary Art, LA (formerly the Santa Monica Museum of Art) as its inaugural curator downtown. The appointment, which James characterizes as an institutional “slam dunk,” comes months after the ICA LA relocated to a sprawling 12,700-square-foot space in the Arts District.

“[The ICA LA] have been early supporters of countless artists I hold dear, like Liza Lou and Mickalene Thomas,” James explained in a phone conversation with artnet News, adding that “they’ve been a champion of artists of color which is important to me.” James told artnet News that she plans on delivering more of the same, with special attention to local artists as well as international names.

Njideka Akunyili Crosby, <em>5 Umezebi Street, New Haven, Enugu</em> (2012). Courtesy of the Hammer Museum.

Njideka Akunyili Crosby, 5 Umezebi Street, New Haven, Enugu (2012). Courtesy of the Hammer Museum.

James, currently the assistant curator at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, has been working as a curator for over a decade. During a 2013 curatorial fellowship at the Studio Museum in Harlem, James organized a cross-generational group exhibition titled “Brothers and Sisters,” which featured works by artists Alma Thomas, Glenn Ligon, Julie Mehretu, and Jack Whitten, among others.

Elsa Longhauser, the ICA LA’s executive director, told artnet News that James came highly recommended by Thelma Golden and her colleagues. Longhauser first encountered James’s work at the Hammer, where the curator organized a Njideka Akunyili-Crosby solo exhibition, but it was James’s role on the Hammer’s 2015 Charles Gaines show, which originated at the Studio Museum, that sealed the deal.

Given her track record, which has found her working with breakout stars like Alex Da Corte and Akunyili-Crosby, James seems committed to doing whatever it takes to make the ICA LA succeed.

Programming for the ICA LA, which opens in 2017, has yet to be announced, but both James and Longhauser conceded that big things are on the horizon.

“Everything is in flux right now,” James said. “But we have lots of really grand plans to make a big splash.”


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