On a quiet Monday morning at the Birmingham Museum of Art, Horace Ballard shared his first impressions of Birmingham and goals in his new role of curator of education. In addition to the awarding of his doctoral degree by the end of the year from Brown University, Ballard holds a master’s degree in American Civilization and Public Humanities from Brown, a master’s degree in Religion from Yale Divinity School, a bachelor’s degree in American Studies, and in English Language and Literature from the University of Virginia.
Weld: What does a curator of education do?
HB: It’s kind of a role created to oversee a bunch of different things. I oversee someone who does school and teacher programs. I oversee someone who does community arts-based programs. I oversee someone who thinks about teen and college programs. I oversee all of the labels and exhibition design in the galleries, and I also think about the strategy for visitors, and I also think about families and small kids.
I think many people are kind of like, “Great, you think about docents and you think about giving kind of control over the tours,” which is absolutely true, but I’ll be honest, that is the smallest part of my day.
Weld: Do you feel a connection to Birmingham’s history with the Civil Rights Movement?
HB: You know, it is one of those incredible histories that, for better or for worse, I think permeate everything that happens, from picking where I was going to live to thinking about whether I was going to keep my old church or start a new church, to some of the first people I reached out to in the city at the BCRI with a couple of working artists who took me on a tour of Diamond Hill and some of the neighborhoods that were lost in the ’60s and ’70s.
It was one of those reasons I said, “Birmingham has to be the place where we can really think about education and interpretation and get it right.” If we can get it right here, we can do it anywhere. The rich history of Birmingham and the new energy that’s here is ready to think in very intellectual and playful ways.
How do you acknowledge a past that is important, but then how do we move through it to something different without eschewing it? Without putting it in a corner? Without forgetting it?
I see that so much in art. Artists, whenever they’ve lived have always thought about the same issues in history: How do we take technology that’s available to us now and say something about our moment?
And so, the history is always on my mind. I think there are times when, as I move throughout the city or as I have certain conversations, it’s very clear: “You did not grow up here.” People are like, “You’re either not encumbered by that history in the same way or you would not have asked that question if you would have been here in the ’70s,” or something. And I like that tension. I hope it’s a productive one ultimately.
Weld: What is the future of art with shortening attention spans? What is your job as the education curator to capture the attention spans of both the young and the old?
HB: I think one of my things is to essentially try to make the work and the museum space inviting, so that I can say, “Your five seconds, your five minutes, your 50 minutes are all valuable.”
In my day, I think about what an invitation to a 3-year-old or a 30-year-old look like that would make them just sit down in front of a work of art. What questions do I ask? What questions do they come with that might expand that time? And then, when do we insert our curatorial or museum voice?
In the field we know two things. Number one, that people are like, “Interpretation, what’s that?” So, we would like you to leave with a question, and if there’s some way that you can get back to me — whether in a guest book or through an app or a Post-it — what your question is so we can respond to you and answer your question. All the research is telling us that people are begin to look at museums as a space for networking, as a space to engage with other people who are interested in the same things.
I know that perhaps for a city like Birmingham it’s more effective on any given afternoon for teenagers and their parents and adults to just have coffee, sit and read, see people who look differently and similarly to them sitting and reading and feeling comfortable in this space. It’s a balance between programs and events that bring the collection and those questions and bring some kind of knowledge vs. a beautiful space in the middle of the city that’s open to all. I think both are very important, but as our demographics and as our culture flows and changes in the South, we have to be open to being more inclusive, and that means sometimes we talk less about art and more about human experience. Then it’s up to me and my colleagues to remind individuals that the questions of their everyday experiences are the same questions artists and makers have been experiencing for years.
Weld: What have you seen that the BMA in its education curatorial services is getting right? And what are you going to change?
HB: I like that every conversation here begins with, “Who’s our audience? How do we grow that audience?” That I like, that we start all of our conversations that way and really engage with our visitor.
What I would change — I think that because of our history, because of asking those questions, we wanted to be a lot of things for a lot of people. And I think the difficulty with that — particularly as the BMA is about 65 years old — is that we haven’t necessarily understood how we want our own collection to grow. We haven’t been very comfortable with perhaps putting on a program that some people really might not like. We haven’t necessarily been as risky as we could have been. We haven’t necessarily been like, “Here’s the trend in modern contemporary art, and we’re gonna rock it. [Laughs] And, Birmingham, you’re ready. You think you’re not ready, but you’re ready! And we’re just gonna do it — we’re gonna tell you how ready you are.”
One of the things that I would really love to do is to begin to have conversations not just about the past — but about really hard questions that are engaging our time. And I think that as curator of education, that something that I need to do. It’s like, I get to look at that 18th century sculpture, and I get to work with the curators to research it to know its making and then I can put just a question on the label, or we can use technology like our app and Smart Guide to then refer people to other collections in other places to works of art that are going on in Birmingham. To work with the BCRI: “We have this, but they have a Roma exhibition. You need to go over there and look at that.”
So, one of the things I want to work on is broadening our collaborations so that people in some ways go, “I want to go to the BMA because it’s a cool space and lovely and the questions I see there I know I’m going to see at all these other places around town,” so that we start collaborating more with the things going on around town.