Featured photo: Maya Brooks (photo by Daniel White)

Maya Brook is the new assistant curator for contemporary art at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art. She will serve both the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) in Raleigh and SECCA, which is an affiliate of NCMA. The new position, which started on June 2, builds on the past two years of Brooks’ experience as the Mellon Foundation Assistant Curator at NCMA.

Tell me about your background in art.

My background in art started a long time ago. When I was 14, I decided I wanted to be a curator, so I started looking up careers and learned about the job of museum curator. I’m actually a historian more than I am an art historian. I got my undergraduate degree from UNC Chapel Hill in anthropology and masters in history from UNCG.

As far as my love of art, I grew up in Atlanta and they used to take us to the High Museum all the time. One of my favorite artists was Annie Greene. So this job really combines my love of art and history. 

How will you balance representing two museums?

So I just joined SECCA in June. I’m primarily at the NCMA; that’s where our home base will be. That’s where I have been doing my exhibition work for the most part. I have been at NCMA since 2020. I’ll be able to bring that experience to SECCA and I’ll try to be there once a week.

Originally I was hired to help with reinstallation at NCMA, but then I got this promotion. This new position started as a way to combine the roles that I have at the NCMA with a reincorporation of SECCA. SECCA has been a part of the NCMA for years but there hasn’t been a really strong relationship between the two. 

Tell me how your background in history will impact your work as an art curator.

Because of my background in anthropology and history, I’m able to think about the social structures that surround the art. It’s not just about the art itself. We are not creating art in a vacuum here. So being able to talk about that part, being able to to talk about the transition through art phases, mediums, how the field has grown in and developed. That’s how the history comes through for me. 

The press release talked about your passion for bringing diverse audiences and artists to the museums. Talk about that.

What I think about is an intracommunity lens. I’m from the community that I plan to serve and want to serve. I want little black and Latinx kids to come and I’m telling them that they need to be in these spaces and they deserve to be in the space as much as anyone else does. Since I was hired, people who would not normally come to the programming, who would not feel comfortable have come and said, ‘We just wanted to meet you,’ and that’s what it’s about.

In the past, people have told our stories without us being at the table and oftentimes it’s wrong or it’s said in a way that’s not connecting to our experiences. I can tell when a white person is writing something for a Black audience; there’s not that spark. I want to be able to speak from my own experience and the experience that the community has, and my family has and put it into the exhibitions, the programming, the entire museum experience if I can.

Of course, after the uprisings of 2020 many institutions took a hard look at themselves when it comes to race. Do you think your hiring and new role is a reflection of SECCA and the NCMA’s reckoning with how to handle race?

I’m the first and only at the NCMA as far as Black curators go. I never thought I’d be the first at any kind of stuff, so it does weigh on you. I have a really personal connection to the African American Heritage Commission with the state and I work with Black organizations and HBCUs which I bring to my work, but it is also kind of thinking, Who is doing this beyond me? I know that there are others but being reminded of that is really heavy. I talk about this openly and I’m outspoken, but I’ve encountered a lot of microaggressions at the job that have impacted me in a way that sometimes my coworkers don’t understand. It’s been interesting.

Maya Brooks (photo by Daniel White)

In your opinion, what does the future of art museums look like? What should it look like?

I feel like people want it to be this push for more diverse people and it’s just not been. The hard truth is that there’s still a lot of gatekeeping. There are still a lot of people who are at the table who refuse to leave. They’re still influencing what’s happening in museums. Until that is solved, we won’t see the change we want to. 

It just feels like slow progress to get more people of color, more sexualities in these spaces, but I’m hopeful. I think people are trying their best and we’ve been seeing a lot of counterculture where people are creating their own spaces. I see that in communities where people are calling themselves curators, and I think that’s fine. It’s different, but it’s a beautiful thing.

Who are some of your favorite artists?

Ms. Annie Greene is up there for me. It’s a nostalgia thing. The idea that you could freely talk about the Black experience and freely do that for herself. She was categorized as a folk museum at the High Museum, but it’s fine art. She’s using yarn and taking it and making this huge scene. I’m just like, How does your brain work like that?

I also love photography and documentary photography, being able to capture real scenes from life. I love hip-hop photography. Brother Ernie is a big inspiration for me too.

Any big projects you’re excited about?

I’m excited that our new curator for 20th Century art and contemporary art, Jared Ledesma, is also a person of color. He’s Latino, and I’m excited to be working with him. We’re talking about doing a fiber arts show, a show about Southern religiosity. I also really love animation. I want to explore different mediums. Beyond the exhibitions, I’m excited to be working with the space itself. I’m exploring different ways to think about the history of the Hanes House and their legacy and their family.

I also want to start a new library. We have a library, but it needs a little revamping for people to use. I would love to make a music library. I collect records and I want a record library in there so bad. It would be great to be able to have a cup of coffee and listen to music while looking at the art. I want to really use it as a place of leisure and art at the same time so no matter where you turn there’s something for you to see.

Learn more about SECCA’s future exhibits at secca.org.

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