Camp, Kimberly 1956–
Kimberly Camp 1956–
Museum administrator, artist
The director of Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Kimberly Camp presides over the largest black-oriented museum in the United States. As a museum administrator with a widely noticed record of accomplishment in both the exhibition and management arenas, Camp is one of the country’s brightest young stars in museum work, a field in which African Americans have historically been underrepresented. In addition to her ambitious and consuming career as an administrator, Camp is an important artist in her own right—another rarity among museum administrators.
Kimberly Camp was born on September 11, 1956 in Camden, New Jersey. The only child of Hubert Camp, an oral surgeon and jazz trumpeter, and Marie Dimery Camp, an office worker and artist, she grew up in an artistic environment. “I always went to museums, all different kinds of museums,” she told Constance Prater of the Detroit Free Press. Another childhood memory involved trips to visit relatives in a steel town in Pennsylvania. She told Prater that the trips gave her “a sense of perspective on how people live, on family values, on how you’re supposed to treat the elderly.” The visits would influence both Kimberly Camp the artist, who often painted family scenes, and Kimberly Camp the administrator, whose career would involve her deeply in the effort to preserve and interpret black history.
Camp finished high school at the age of sixteen, and went on to earn a degree in fine arts and art history at the University of Pittsburgh, graduating in 1978. For several years after that she engaged in various activities that deepened her creativity and honed her skills in museum work. She worked on exhibitions at various museums in a freelance capacity, began making and selling African dolls called Kimkins, and headed an anti-graffiti mural project in her hometown of Camden. Camp reamins chairman of the board of the company she founded, Kimkins, Inc. Realizing that she combined a creative streak with strong business acumen and an aptitude for building community support for artistic institutions and activities, Camp returned to school and earned a Master’s degree in arts administration from Drexel University in Philadelphia in 1986.
Hired by the Pennsylvania Council for the Arts as program director for its artists-in-education and minority-arts
At a Glance…
Born September 11, 1956, in Camden, New Jersey, daughter of Hubert Camp (an oral surgeon) and Marie Dimery Camp (an office worker and artist). Education: University of Pittsburgh, B.A., 1978; Drexel University, M.S. in Arts Adminstration, 1986.
Career: Arts administrator, city of Camden, early 1980s; program director, Pennsylvania Council for the Arts, 1986–89; director, Experimental Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 1989–94; director, Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Detroit, 1994–98; The Barnes Foundation, executive dir, 1998—; creator and chief executive, Kimkins, Inc. (maker of African dolls), 1982–; numerous exhibitions of painting and “soft sculpture” (dolls); public art commissions in Pittsburgh and in Cape Coast, Ghana, 1998.
Awards: Named fellow, Kellogg National Leadership Program, 1997; Spirit of Detroit award, 1994; Award of Distinction, Kentucky Art and Craft Foundation, 1994; Purchase Award, J. B. Speed Art Museum, 1988.
Addresses: Office —Executive Director, The Barnes Foundation, 300 N. Latch’s Lane, Merion, PA 19066.
divisions, Camp quadrupled annual awards funding during her three-year tenure. In 1989, a friend suggested she apply for the directorship of the newly formed Experimental Gallery in Washington, D.C., a new unit of the Smithsonian Institution. Chosen as founding director, Camp took bold steps. “We pushed the envelope,” Camp recalled in an interview with Black Enterprise; with Camp at the helm, the museum offered such controversial exhibitions as Etiquette of the Undercaste, an exploration of homelessness that viewers entered by lying down on a model of a morgue drawer slab and being pushed in. “My point is that you spend so much on exhibitions, they ought to change you,” Camp later told the Detroit Free Press. “They ought to inform. They ought to stick.”
In 1994, Camp was persuaded by a recruiter to apply for the directorship of Detroit’s new Museum of African American History (since renamed the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History after its founder).
She was selected for the job and presided over the construction of a new 119,000-square-foot building that is the country’s largest facility devoted to African American culture; it was four times as large as the space the museum had formerly occupied. After the new building opened in April of 1997, the museum experienced a 300 percent increase in attendance and an increase in its annual budget from $1.2 million to $6.7 million.
Once again, Camp masterminded a dramatic entrance to the exhibition space. Designed by Ralph Appelbaum, famous for his design work on the exhibits at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the new museum’s exhibits are accessible by way of a steel bridge flanked by a model of a ship’s hold, to which are shackled human beings, mostly children—a slave ship and its cargo. Local black teenagers volunteered to pose for the models of the slaves, re-enacting the tragedy that had befallen their ancestors.
The museum drew large crowds in its first months of operation, attracting generally favorable notices from museum critics. On several occasions it provided space for significant community events, the most important of which occurred when the body of former Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young lay in state in the building’s spectacular rotunda. Camp has experienced her share of criticism, however. Local artists and vendors protested the participation of white personnel in the museum’s design and construction. Sellers at the museum-sponsored African World Festival took to the street in front of the museum to protest increased fees for display space. Journalists raised questions about the proportion of the museum’s budget devoted to administrative costs, salaries, and travel. Also, museum founder Charles H. Wright led a group of former personnel who took issue with Camp’s emphasis on prestigious traveling exhibitions at the expense of locally generated material. Attendance and fundraising figures, while impressive, failed to meet ambitious goals.
Camp, whom acquaintances have credited with considerable stubbornness and strength of will, met her critics head-on. She took particular issue with those who deplored white participation in the construction of the museum, telling the Detroit News, “Excluding people puts it on a bigotry theme. I want everybody to come to this museum, to experience the best of our culture.” In 1998, the museum unveiled a major exhibition of photographs and other memorabilia from the old east-side Detroit Black Bottom neighborhood that was designed to appeal to the local community. There were also signs that year of a rapprochement with former director Wright, whose name was added to the museum’s official designation. Camp also contended that general budget classifications gave a misleading impression of how the museum allocated its resources. She pointed out, for example, that the institution’s large travel budget served mainly to bring speakers and other presenters to the museum itself, not to facilitate staff junkets to other destinations.
Despite all of the controversy surrounding her new position in Detroit, Camp remained active as an artist. The Kimkins dolls continued to rack up commercial sales, and Camp’s dolls were featured in a number of local and national art museum and gallery exhibitions of “soft sculpture.” Camp has also exhibited her paintings widely. Detroit News critic Joy Hakanson Colby remarked, “Camp’s paintings celebrate her family and ancestors by lifting black and white images from old snapshots and giving them a new life on canvas. She uses hot, singing colors, indulging her imagination and sense of fun when she dresses her father in a brilliant turquoise suit and her stern great-great-grandmother in a scarlet dress.” Her works are included in the permanent collections of such prestigious organizations as the J. B. Speed Museum in Louisville and Reader’s Digest.
Appointed a fellow of the Kellogg National Leadership Program in 1997, Camp has received numerous awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, a New Jersey State Senate citation, the Spirit of Detroit award, and selection as one of the Outstanding Young Women of America. In late 1998, Camp’s talents received even more recognition: it was announced that she would be leaving Detroit to assume the position of executive director of the Barnes Foundation, a prestigious private art museum in Philadelphia. Known for its collection of French post-impressionist masterpieces, the Barnes Foundation museum is also home to a large collection of African art.
Black Enterprise, May 1998, p. 58.
Detroit Free Press, February 17, 1994, p. C1; April 6, 1997, p. E1; September 25, 1998, p. B1.
Detroit News, March 31, 1995, p. C11; January 12, 1996, p. B2; May 1, 1996, p. C1; April 30, 1998, p. E6; May 18, 1998, p. A1; May 27, 1998, p. S4.
Emerge, February 1997, p. 72.
Essence, September 1997, p. 78.
National Geographic World, December 1986, p. 22.
New Orleans Times-Picayune, April 19, 1998, p. A40.
U.S. News and World Report, May 26, 1997, p. 54.
Washington Post, January 30, 1991, p. B1.
—James M. Manheim
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