Sims, Lowery Stokes 1949–
Lowery Stokes Sims 1949–
Art curator, historian, museum director
Some thought Lowery Stokes Sims was insane for leaving her prestigious position at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art for the director spot at the lesser-known Studio Museum of Harlem, which focuses on African-American art. Sims made her name by introducing minority artists to the Met, and plans to lead the Studio Museum, founded during the social upheavals of the 1960s, into a position as a leading showcase for international art.
Born February 13, 1949, in Washington, D.C., Lowery Stokes Sims grew up in the Queens borough of New York. She enjoyed visiting New York’s museums, and, by the time she was 16, was a member of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She received her bachelor’s degree from Queens College in 1970, and went on to earn her master’s in art history from Johns Hopkins University in 1972. Sims first joined the staff of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1975, as an assistant in the education department. Sims gradually advanced to become the Met’s first African-American curator. Further graduate studies took her to City University of New York, where she went on to earn her master’s degree in philosophy in 1989 and her doctorate in art history in 1995.
As a scholar and curator of 20th-century art, Sims was instrumental in bringing African-American and other minority artists to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She helped build the museum’s collection by adding works by such African-American artists as Robert Colescott, Faith Ringgold, Adrian Piper, Betye Saar, and Lorna Simpson. She established her professional reputation with the success of her first solocurated exhibition, which featured the work of Stuart Davis, in 1991. Her curation of exhibitions of the work of Paul Cadmus in 1995, and Richard Pousette-Dart, in 1997, only added to her prestige. But colleagues are quick to point out that Sims was not just a great curator for African-American work, but a well-respected curator of any genre. “The last thing she’d want is to be pigeonholed as an African-American curator,” Metropolitan director Philippe de Montebello said in ART-News.
When The Studio Museum in Harlem needed a new director in 1999, it moved swiftly to secure Sims for the spot. Sims was selected as new director of the museum less than one month after director Kinshasha Holman
At a Glance…
Born February 13,1949, in Washington, D.C. to Bernice Banks Sims and John Jacob Sims Sr. Education: B.A., art history, Queens College of the City University of New York, 1970; MA, art history, Johns Hopkins University, 1972; M.Phil., City University of New York, 1989; Ph.D., art history, City University of New York, 1995.
Career: Assistant, museum education, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1972-75; adjunct instructor, Queens College, 1973-76; instr., School of Visual Arts, 1975-76, 1981-86; assoc curator, 1979-95; curator, 1995-99; exec, director, The Studio Museum in Harlem, 2000-.
Member: Grants commission, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975-77; museum aid panel, New York State Council on the Arts, 1977-79; Art Table, College Art Association, 1983-; Assn. of Art Critics, 1980-; National Conference of Artists; visual arts panel, NY State Council on Arts, 1984-86,1987-92; College Art Assn.,, 1994-97; Tiffany Foundation, 1995-97; Center for Curational Studies, 1995-,
Awards: Fellowship for Black Doctorate Students, Ford Foundation, 1970-72; Employee Travel Grant, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1973; numerous publications; American Artists and Exhibition catalogs; Honorary Doctorate, Maryland Institute College of Art, 1988; Honorary Doctorate, Moor College of Art and Design, 1991; Frank Jewett Mather Award, College of Art Assn., 1991; One of Grain’s Magazine Top 100 Minority Executives, 1998; Achievement in the Arts, Queens Museum of Art, 1998.
Addresses: Office —Executive Director, The Studio Museum in Harlem, 144 W. 125th St., New York, NY 10027.
Conwill announced her resignation. Sims had worked with the museum before, having co-curated the show of Wilfredo Lam and his contemporaries that appeared at the Studio Museum in 1992-93. She also regularly contributed essays to Studio Museum exhibition catalogues.
Many in the art world and some close to Sims were taken aback when she announced she was leaving her prominent post at the Met. After over 25 years at New York City’s formidable Fifth Avenue institution, her name was highly regarded in high museum circles. As the only accredited American museum to specialize in African-American art, the Studio Museum had always positioned itself outside that lofty museum establishment. Many saw the new position as a step down. “There were friends and relatives who thought I was insane to leave,” she told ARTNews. “It will be different from the Met, but there’s no reason to think it’s second-rate.” Still others bemoaned the loss of a black curator from one of the city’s leading museums, a step in the wrong direction for those interested in breaking down the color barrier of the art world.
As far as Sims was concerned, the offer couldn’t have come at a better time. The Studio Museum was in the midst of a major renovation and expansion, and its identity as a significant institution was maturing. “This is about how I see myself as an African-American woman at the turn of the 21st century,” Sims told ARTNews. “I knew the museum was at a pivotal point.”
Sims wasted no time when she started at the Studio Museum. One of her first moves was to hire Thelma Golden, a former curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, as deputy director. Known for her own daring and provocative approach to curatorship, some of the exhibitions Golden curated have fueled debates among black artists, collectors, and scholars. Given the Studio Museum’s history of tackling controversial issues, many observers thought the Sims-Golden team was up to the task of continuing in that vein. Sims was confident that the Studio Museum would continue to be a forum for debate and discussion. “The Studio Museum should not shrink from controversy,” she told ARTNews. “We want to take more chances.”
As a progressive curator, Sims had introduced many African-, Native-, Latino-, and Asian-American artists to museum goers at the Met. In her new position at the Studio Museum, Sims was would be responsible for attracting much-needed resources to a lean institution. At the Met, her role as a fund-raiser had gone untested, but at the Studio Museum, it would be critical to her success as director.
The Studio Museum was founded with a sense of community in mind, in response to the lack of attention paid to African-American art by mainstream museums. “Then in the 1980s the mainstream woke up and started to take notice,” she told the New York Times. “So it’s time for us to re-examine our mission.” She proposed the possibility of bringing African biennials to New York City, such as those held in Dakar and South Africa. Sims wanted the museum to grow into a place where unknown artists could come to develop, but also where museum goers could depend on finding the best national and international African-American art and culture. She told the New York Times, “African-American artists who are growing are going to need to be nurtured. That’s essentially what we have to do. And despite the much-vaunted concept of globalism, I personally feel we all still need a sense of our uniqueness on this planet, and that’s where a Studio Museum comes in, where people know that their culture is being promoted and preserved, and where they can always go.”
Art in America, December 1999, p. 128.
ARTNews, May 2000, p. 66.
New York Times, February 28, 2000, p. Bl.
Additional information was provided by the Studio Museum of Harlem publicity materials, 2000.