Triad City Beat | Q&A: Maya Brooks is the first Black curator for SECCA and NCMA


Featured Photo: Maya Brooks (Photo by Daniel White)

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

Tell me about your background in art.

My background in art started a long time ago. When I was 14 I decided to become a curator, so I started looking for jobs and got to know the profession of museum curator. I’m actually more of a historian than an art historian. I received my bachelor’s degree in anthropology from UNC Chapel Hill and my master’s degree in history from UNCG.

As for my love of art, I grew up in Atlanta and they used to take us to the Hyde 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 the representation of two museums?

So I only came to SECCA in June. I’m primarily at the NCMA; That’s where our home base will be. That’s where I do my exhibition work most of the time. I’ve been with NCMA since 2020. I can bring this experience to SECCA and I will try to be there once a week.

I was originally hired to help with reinstallation at the NCMA, but then I got this promotion. This new position began to combine my roles at the NCMA with a re-establishment of the SECCA. SECCA has been part of the NCMA for years, but there hasn’t really been a strong relationship between the two.

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

Because of my background in anthropology and history, I am able to reflect on the social structures that surround art. It’s not just about the art itself. We’re not creating art in a vacuum here. So to be able to talk about that part, to be able to talk about the transition through art phases, media, how the field grew and developed. That’s how the story comes through for me.

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The press release spoke about your passion for bringing diverse audiences and artists to museums. Talk about it.

What I think is an intracommunity lens. I come from the community that I want to serve and want to serve. I want little Black and Hispanic kids to come and I tell them they need to be in these spaces and they deserve to be in this space as much as everyone else. Ever since I got hired, people who wouldn’t normally come to the programs, who wouldn’t feel comfortable, would come and say, “We just wanted to meet you,” and that’s what it’s about.

In the past, people have told our stories without us sitting at the table, and often it’s wrong or told in ways that don’t relate to our experiences. I can tell when a white person is writing for a black audience; There isn’t that spark. I want to be able to speak from my own experience and the experience of the community and my family and incorporate that into the exhibitions, the programming, the whole museum experience if I can.

Of course, many institutions have taken a close look at themselves after the upheavals of 2020 when it comes to race. Do you think your hiring and new role reflects SECCA and NCMA considerations on race management?

As for black curators, I’m the first and only one at the NCMA. I never thought I’d be first to anything, so it weighs on you. I have a very personal connection to the African American History Commission with the state and I work with black organizations and HBCUs that I bring to my work, but it’s also a way of thinking Who does this but me? I know there are others, but being reminded of them is really hard. I speak openly and frankly about this, but I have encountered many microaggressions at work that have affected me in ways that my peers sometimes don’t understand. It was interesting.

Maya Brooks (photo by Daniel White)

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

I feel like people want it to be that push for more diverse people, and it just wasn’t. The hard truth is that there is still a lot of gatekeeping going on. There are still many people who sit at the table and refuse to leave. They still influence what happens in museums. Until that is resolved, we won’t see the desired change.

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It just feels like slow progress, bringing more people of color and more sexuality into these spaces, but I’m hopeful. I think people try their best and we’ve seen a lot of counterculture where people create their own spaces. I see that in communities where people call themselves curators, and I think that’s okay. 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 one could speak freely about the Black experience and freely do so for oneself. It has been categorized as a folk museum in the Hyde Museum but it is fine art. She uses yarn and takes it and does this huge scene. I’m just like that how does your brain work

I also love photography and documentary photography as I can capture real scenes from life. I love hip hop photography. Brother Ernie is also a great inspiration to me.

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Any big projects you’re looking forward to?

I’m delighted that our new curator of 20th Century and Contemporary Art, Jared Ledesma, is also black. He is Latino and I look forward to working with him. We’re talking about doing a fiber art show, a show about southern religiosity. Also, I really love animation. I want to explore different media. Beyond the exhibitions, I look forward to working with the space itself. I explore different ways of thinking about the history of the Hanes house and his legacy and 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 like to create a music library. I collect records and I want so much to have a record library in there. It would be great to have a cup of coffee and listen to music while looking at the art. I really want to use it as a place of leisure and art at the same time, so that you can see something everywhere.

Find out more about future SECCA exhibits at secca.org.

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