Joey Orr, the MCA Chicago’s First-Ever Deputy Director and Chief of Curatorial Affairs, In Conversation

Dr. Joey Orr/Photo: Max Wagner

We found out over the weekend that the Museum of Contemporary Art is appointing Dr. Joey Orr to the newly created role of Deputy Director and Chief of Curatorial Affairs, in which he will oversee the MCA’s Artistic Division, including exhibitions. He’s leaving the University of Kansas after seven years, where he served as the Mellon Curator at the Spencer Museum of Art and as affiliate faculty in Museum Studies and Visual Art.

We conversed over email this weekend.

You’re not a stranger to Chicago or the MCA. Can you talk briefly about your connection to the city and what you’re most excited about returning to? (Are you from Georgia originally?) 

I cut my teeth in Atlanta, at first as an independent curator involved in installation and public interventions, until I got my first institutional curatorial gig at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia (MOCA GA). My first real engagement with the city of Chicago was back in 2001 when I was playing a supporting role in a symposium organized by the Alliance of Artists’ Communities to think of creativity as a public-policy priority. When I moved here in 2006, I was a graduate student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), living in Wicker Park and working at the Joan Flasch Artists’ Book Collection. After I graduated, I began teaching at SAIC while bartending to make ends meet at a little place in the Gold Coast called Bistrot Zinc, which recently closed. The MCA has always felt like my home museum. When I returned in 2015 as a curatorial postdoctoral fellow, my collection research led to a lot of publishing that has culminated in the forthcoming paperback version of my book, “A Sourcebook of Performance Labor,” which explores firsthand accounts of the performance labor that supports the work of other attributed artists.

I am excited about so many things, including rejoining the art community and working with the MCA’s amazing team. And then there are great possibilities with some recent major gifts to the collection, including the D.Daskalopoulos Collection Gift and the Fields Collection Gift. 

Did I mention food? Food! Chicago dogs, duck fat fries, pho, ramen, tacos, and the spaghetti carbonara at Via Carducci… yes, please!

You’re coming into a newly created role, at an implicitly higher level than past chief curators at the MCA. How did that come about and what might it mean in terms of the future of the institution? 

I was excited to learn that leadership was thinking through new articulations for this role. For me, it was a signal that the MCA is a living institution, by which I mean they are being responsive in real time and thinking on their feet. The other Deputy Director, Gwen Perry Davis, is someone I have had deep respect for ever since I was in the curatorial department as a postdoctoral fellow. We work and communicate very well together. I think it is a signal of cohesive leadership under Madeleine Grynsztejn that will make both artistic commitments and operations more sustainable and inevitably strengthen the institution. That is my hope and my goal.

What’s your vision for the MCA: what might change, what will stay the same?

I see curators as community-access points who enable our publics to author their own questions with institutional resources—everything from our collections and institutional spaces to our networks of artists, performers, and other cultural producers. The age of the curator as VIP is decidedly over. That is a pretty uninteresting game. We are in public service here. Because of my own personal interest in and commitment to installation, performance and forms of socially based works, I am excited to revisit the institution’s legacy in performance communities and how these commitments can be explored, rekindled and ignited in new ways.

Your background reads very “academic”; with a PhD and invocation of the word “research” in describing your roles and your work. Talk about research as it applies to contemporary art and how that might manifest in future exhibitions and events at the MCA?

Things have changed a lot now, but when I received my master’s degree, art history as an academic discipline still seemed to me a very conservative, nationalist project. I was located in the Visual and Critical Studies program at SAIC. They describe that program as an overlap between studio and scholarly production. My PhD from Emory University was interdisciplinary and practice-based in that same spirit. First and foremost, that training has meant that at the center of my curatorial practice is the recognition that art is a way to question and understand ourselves and the world. It has also meant that I have experience fostering cultures of cross-disciplinary collaboration that can dive deep while remaining accessible. What artists often offer to our collective vision of the world is how to explore our knowledges and each other in ways that are conjoined with commitments to understanding and social justice. I see these commitments as strengthening and extending the MCA’s current work.

A major curatorial thrust these last few years has been in expanding the canon, so to speak, to include previously underrepresented peoples as well as regions of the world. Can you comment on this and how it might or might not connect to your work and vision?

With the recent rolling back of rights that were achieved through so much early struggle, we have to understand that there is always work to be done. I hope your question about expanding the canon is no longer a radical proposition, but we must always be diligent. We live in a moment when it is critical to support our institutions, and statements are just not as interesting as what kinds of questions and cultures the institution helps to produce. I believe you can see this commitment reflected in the work of the MCA’s very talented curators, Carla Acevedo-Yates, whose recent exhibition “entre horizontes” brilliantly explored artistic and political connections between Chicago and Puerto Rico, and Jamillah James, who recently curated the MCA’s incredible presentation of “Faith Ringgold: American People” with Jack Schneider. The MCA’s Bilingual Initiative, which aims for the institution to be fully bilingual by the end of this year, is also part of this effort. From my first curatorial project in transitioning neighborhoods to my last exhibition, “Black Writing,” at the Spencer Museum, my work has generally been invested in art as a way to reflect, critique, and offer new possibilities for our shared world. I am honored to join efforts with this incredible team.

I hear you’re off to Venice for the Biennale. What are you most interested in at this year’s iteration? When will you arrive in Chicago?

The collective, MadeYouLook, showed a sound installation at documenta in 2022 that blew me away. I have been in conversation with those artists, Molema Moiloa and Nare Mokgotho. I am very interested in their work, and they are representing South Africa this year. Back in 2019, I had the privilege to work with Fatimah Tuggar, who is one of the artists representing Nigeria. And I am a longtime supporter of artist Dread Scott. His new conceptual work, “All African People’s Consulate,” is a collateral event I am excited to experience. And of course, Choctaw-Cherokee artist Jeffrey Gibson is representing the US. I got to know his practice much better a couple of years ago during his solo exhibition at Site Santa Fe. There is always so much to see, and I always get introduced to artists I have not yet encountered.

I will be starting my new role at the MCA at the end of the summer. Let’s go!

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