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MCA gets a fresh face and outlook from new curator

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

You may already know her from the stylish print ads for J. Crew in which her lanky frame is clad in dark denim jeans, a white tee and a casual, rolled sleeve jacket.

No doubt about it, in hiring its newest curator, 34-year-old Naomi Beckwith, Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) has gotten something of a cover girl. But it also has tapped the talents of a young African-American curator with deep Chicago roots, who is returning to her home town with an impressive list of credits, including a four-year stint at the prestigious Studio Museum in Harlem, most recently in the post of associate curator.

In announcing Beckwith’s appointment, Michael Darling, the James W. Alsdorf chief curator at the MCA, noted her work on “30 Seconds Off an Inch,” her much-discussed Studio Museum exhibit that probed the notion of black artists’ use of materials as opposed to just their socio-political roots and viewpoints. He also pointed to her management of the museum’s Artists-in-Residence program.

“As we expand our commitment to artist residencies, Naomi brings great expertise in this area,” Darling said. “And her scholarship on African-American art will strengthen the MCA’s collection.”

Raised in Hyde Park, Beckwith attended Lincoln Park High School and went on to Northwestern University to pursue a pre-med curriculum. When she was a child, she had dreamed of being a doctor, but, as she confessed, “Chemistry just got me and I gave up, ultimately switching my major to history and focusing on Africa, while also taking courses in art history.

“All along I had been spending a great deal of time at Northwestern’s student-run Dittmar Gallery [which focuses on the work of emerging female and minority artists], and the Sternberg Gallery in Glencoe,” Beckwith continued. “But I hadn’t thought of curatorial work as a professional option.”

Nevertheless, she applied for the yearlong Masters Program at the widely admired Courtauld Institute of Art in London, got accepted, and left the place with high marks for her thesis on contemporary black artists Adrian Piper and Carrie Mae Weems. From there it was on to New York where Beckwith got a job in event planning for the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), and also became involved in the BAMart project that drew on the fundraising potential of the works of visual art created for performing arts projects at BAM. At the same time, Beckwith was a Rubenstein Critical Studies Fellow at the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program, and from there moved on to be a Whitney Lauder Curatorial Fellow at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Since arriving at the Studio Museum in 2007 Beckwith has curated several important exhibitions, including, most recently, two shows of work by international artists — Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (a young, black portraitist from London), and Zwelethu Mthethwa (a South African photographer). (It was at a lunch at the Studio Museum, where she was talking to representatives of J. Crew — a company that supported the museum — that she was tapped for the company’s 2009 catalogue. “I just screamed,” she said.)

“I adore the MCA,” said Beckwith, who will begin work here on May 11. “Coming back home to Chicago — as a professional rather than a student — is the opportunity of a lifetime. And my family, which is scattered throughout the city, is ecstatic.”

Beckwith said she hopes to continue to focus on “an exploration of black culture in the broadest global sense. But first I need to get reacquainted with the city and spend time with the MCA team.”

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