With her bright orange eyeglasses and colorful, stylish clothing, Valerie Cassel Oliver looks every part the artist as she strides through the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, even though she is a curator.
Originally from Houston, Oliver is the new Sydney and Frances Lewis family curator of modern and contemporary art at the VMFA.
Like artist Howardena Pindell, the subject of her debut show at the VMFA, Oliver is an African-American art curator at a major museum in a field that is predominately white.
“She really was a pioneer and a heroine to me as a curator,” Oliver said, referring to Pindell’s role as a trailblazer for women of color.
Oliver grew up as the youngest girl in a family of eight children in Houston’s Third Ward at the tail end of the segregation era. Growing up, art museums seemed like another world. But she became enamored of the art world and worked her way up in it.
She started out at the Black Arts Alliance in Austin, Texas, and worked at the National Endowment for the Arts while getting her master’s degree at Howard University. In 2000, she organized the Biennial for the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. She spent the last 16 years at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, a noncollecting museum.
“Moving to a collecting museum with an encyclopedic collection like the VMFA means leaving a mark in a very different way,” she said.
Oliver is taking over the reins from John Ravenal who left the VMFA in 2015 to become the executive director of the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, Mass.
It’s her job to bring up-and-coming work to the museum and her vision will shape what kinds of art Virginia is exposed to.
“As a curator, you’re highlighting things that are new and forward-thinking. It’s bringing a skillful eye to what has staying power and what shapes a moment in a particular time,” Oliver said. “The survival of our institutions is to reflect our world, which is more fluid, and people are looking to museums to encounter that.”
In announcing her appointment, the VMFA emphasized its intention to use her expertise to add more works by African American and African artists to its collection.
“Art museums should not be satisfied with putting forth one particular narrative, because the world around us is so diverse,” Oliver said from her office overlooking the VMFA sculpture garden. “The survival of our institutions is to reflect our world. The world is much more fluid and I think people are looking to museums to encounter that.”
Oliver has been at the VMFA for roughly a year and lives in the West End with her 7-year-old son. She said that she’s enjoying Richmond’s smaller size, restaurants, pedestrian-friendly streets, and vibrant arts scene.
“There is a hunger for contemporary art here,” she said. “I want that to continue. I believe that art is a living, breathing history, and we’re writing it as we go along.”