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THE VIRGINIA MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS (VMFA) named Valerie Cassel Oliver its new Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. Recognized for her ability to connect with artists and identify promising emerging figures, Cassel Oliver is expected to invigorate the department, introducing an innovative exhibition program and a broad range of new artistic voices. 

Cassel Oliver joins the Richmond museum from the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston where she served for 16 years, rising to senior curator. She starts at VMFA on July 7.

“Valerie is one of the most dynamic and respected contemporary curators in her field. She brings an impressive network of contacts from across the arts community, and she has an established record of organizing exhibitions that explore topical themes that resonate with viewers,” said VMFA Director Alex Nyerges. 

“In her new curatorial role at VMFA, she will have the resources to apply her talents in building our museum collections. Based on her previous experience, as well as her curatorial vision, she will undoubtedly push the institution in exciting new directions.”


IN ANNOUNCING HER APPOINTMENT, VMFA emphasized its intention to expand its collection with a commitment to improving representation. According to the museum, Cassel Oliver’s “first priority at VMFA will be to review the modern and contemporary art holdings, and develop a collection plan. A primary focus for her acquisition strategy, in line with the museum’s strategic plan, will be to add more works by African American and African-diasporic artists.”

Based on what is currently on view in VMFA’s collection galleries, its sincerity is evident. The 21st century art exhibition features works by Jack Whitten, Thornton Dial, Titus Kaphar, Julie Mehretu, Mickalene Thomas, Trenton Doyle Hancock, and Kehinde Wiley, along with installations by Radcliffe Bailey and Theaster Gates. 

Paintings by Beauford Delaney, Jacob Lawrence, and Aaron Douglas appear in the 20th century galleries, along with painted plaster busts by Richmond Barthe of Booker T. Washington and Paul Laurence Dunbar. The museum’s new acquisitions include a major Romare Bearden collage and paintings by Palmer Hayden and Eldzier Cortor. The Hayden and Cortor works are on view.

“Recent, considered acquisitions have positioned VMFA for sustained dialogues in contemporary art. I’m excited to continue that conversation, thinking not only of the current collection and the legacy of these works from a new perspective—a perspective that takes into account my own imprint through new acquisitions and exhibitions,” Cassel Oliver said.


DURING HER LENGTHY TENURE at CAM Houston, Cassel Oliver organized countless group shows and solo exhibitions “that generated greater audience engagement by extending the artist’s reach beyond traditional institutional walls.” Standouts include “Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art” (2012). A touring exhibition spanning the 1960s to present, it was billed as the first comprehensive survey of performance art by black visual artists. 

“Benjamin Patterson: Born in the State of FLUX/us” (2010) was dedicated to the work of Patterson, the founding member of Fluxus who was a contrabass musician and longtime arts administrator. She also organized “Hand+Made: The Performative Impulse in Art and Craft” (2010), which featured 20 artists, including Nick Cave, Sonya Clark, and Saya Woolfalk. Co-curated with Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, “Cinema Remixed and Reloaded: Black Women Artists and the Moving Image Since 1970” (2008) presented work by 40 women artists from Australia, Cuba, Europe, Kenya, South Africa, and the United States. 

Recent exhibitions highlight Cassel Oliver’s collaborations and profound connections with contemporary artists. “Trenton Doyle Hancock: Skin and Bones, 20 Years of Drawing” (2014) was the first in-depth consideration of the artist’s substantial body of drawings, collages, and works on paper. She also curated “Jennie C. Jones: Compilation” (2015-16), a mid-career survey of 11 years of work by Jones whose practice explores parallels between jazz and visual art. Last year, she presented “Angel Otero: Everything and Nothing” (2016-17), the first survey exhibition of the painter and sculptor.

Previously, she co-curated the Whitney Biennial (2000), and directed the Visiting Artists Program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Early in her career, she administered grants as a program specialist at the National Endowment for the Arts.


“THIS VMFA APPOINTMENT is a wonderful opportunity to begin a new chapter in my curatorial career,” Cassel Oliver said.

She continued: “I look forward to working in partnership with Alex, Michael [the museum’s chief curator], and the entire curatorial team to open up the canon to include not just African American and African-diasporic voices, but many different voices.

She said: “There are artists from myriad social and cultural backgrounds who are not fully represented in today’s art world, and we need to ensure their stories are part of the rich narratives we bring to life in our museum. I bring a perspective of inclusivity, and I want to create a context that engages a public that can see itself reflected in the museum. Doing so allows the discussions around art to be broader and only serves to make the entire field stronger.”

Howardena Pindell is the subject of Cassel Oliver’s first exhibition at VMFA. Co-curated with Naomi Beckwith of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, “Howardena Pindell: What Remains to be Seen” is the first major survey of the artist’s work. Spanning five decades, the exhibition opens at MCA Chicago Feb. 24, 2018, and will be presented at VMFA in January 2019.


Compelling catalogs have accompanied Valerie Cassel Oliver’s recent exhibitions, including “Cinema Remixed and Reloaded: Black Women and the Moving Image Since 1970,” “Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art,” and “Jennie C. Jones: Compilation.” Also consider, “Howardena Pindell: Paintings, 1974-1980”was published recently to complement an exhibition at Garth Greenan Gallery in New York.

–Victoria L. Valentine

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