Interview: Chana Budgazad Sheldon on Representation

Interview: Chana Budgazad Sheldon on Representation

“Art as a tool for engagement has really been the center of everything I've done.”

Chana Budgazad Sheldon is the executive director of The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in North Miami, FL. MOCA is an internationally renowned institution as well as an important part of the North Miami community. Prior to MOCA, Sheldon was the executive director of Locust Projects, Miami's long-running nonprofit experimental exhibition space, and later served as the Miami director and national program advisor for ProjectArt, a nonprofit organization that provides free after-school art classes to underserved youth in public libraries through an artist residency program. Sheldon started her career at Casey Kaplan, a contemporary art gallery in New York City, where she worked for seven years, ultimately becoming its director.

We spoke with Sheldon about her plans for MOCA, the importance of representation in art, and the power art has to change lives.

How did you first become interested in art?

I grew up in New York and some of my earliest memories are of going to MOMA with my mom. I studied art through school and in college, and when I graduated I knew I wasn't going to pursue a professional career as an artist, so I ended up applying for a position at a commercial gallery in New York where I got to work with artists directly.

My first job was with the Casey Kaplan gallery, where the roster of artists included people like Trisha Donnelly who at the time had never had a show and has gone on to be internationally known. I worked on her first show and got to see the progression of her career. A gallery's job is really to nurture an artist's career and make sure that it grows in a way that will be long lasting, by placing the artists in the right museum shows and in the right collections.

Carsten Höller was at the gallery at the same time. He was very well known in Europe and just starting to be shown in New York at the time but was much further along in his career. I've always felt very fortunate to have had those different experiences and relationships that were the foundation for everything I've done since then. The way that the gallery was run was very personal, and we were friends with the artists. So it wasn't just a business relationship. And that always meant a lot to me and I brought that to Miami when I moved here and started working with Locust Projects, which is an artist-centric experimental art space.

What was it like making that transition?

The move from the commercial art world to the non-profit one has been an amazing transition. Locust Projects was founded by artists for artists and is about just supporting ideas and not so focused on the end product. Usually, it was rather experimental, just pushing the limits and laying the foundation for future projects that an artist would show at a museum.

I was with Locust Projects for eight years and it was the first gallery in the Wynwood area. When I joined we were just moving to the design district and we were really able to fill in a lot of voids and expand our programs. Miami's still an up-and-coming city, so it's been fun to grow with it.

How did you end up at MOCA?

Between Locust Projects and MOCA, I worked as the Miami director and national program advisor for ProjectArt which is a New-York-based not-for-profit that works with artists and places them in residencies in public libraries. Their artists would develop artwork and also teach free art classes to kids.

This was happening all over the country and I worked with them to get it off the ground in Miami at libraries that are targeted specifically in areas where there are not after school classes that are very accessible, so the libraries are these safe spaces for kids to hang out after school. I was only there for just under a year, but it really created an awareness of different communities and how to change lives through art.

That ended up being the perfect segue to MOCA. When I found out that they were searching for a director I reached out and expressed interest and was eventually selected and it's been wonderful. MOCA has always been one of the most important institutions in Miami, and it's one of the longest-running institutions in the region. Actually when I started at Casey Kaplan gallery one of the artists had exhibited at MOCA and I remember how much it impacted her career, and when I came down for Art Basel every single year MOCA was the place we went.

It's in the heart of North Miami which is a majority-minority area, it's in the center of the town square of North Miami so people are walking around, the kids come over after school for the teen art programs, the nearby families come to our summer camps. I've always believed in this kind of transformational effect of art. And I think MOCA is a place for that.

You only recently started at MOCA earlier this year but what is something that you're excited to do there that you may not have been able to do at other times in your career?

We’re working on a historical show that will open during Art Basel that will be groundbreaking because these artists have not had a museum exhibition of this scale devoted to them before. It's an exhibition of work by AfriCOBRA which is a collective that came out of Chicago in the late '60s, early '70s, and essentially made some of the first political African American art. These artists really paved the way for African American art and it's a story of community and resilience and celebration. These artists came together at that time in Chicago and came up with an aesthetic, one that included bright text and what they call "Coolade colors," and they often incorporated images of positive African American figures, musicians, and leaders. So it was really about bringing the black community together during the black power movement in a really positive way.

We're working with a curator from Chicago named Jeffreen M. Hayes. And these artists are near their late eighties. Eight of the ten artists are still with us and most of them will be coming to Miami for this opportunity to honor them and celebrate them and really hear them because they have a lot to say.

What are other ways MOCA is helping represent communities that have traditionally not been represented in art?

Certainly, there's an awareness on an international level of going back and revisiting collections and programs to make sure that they're inclusive. We have the opportunity to do that from the ground up with all the programs and exhibitions that we're planning. Again, North Miami is a majority-minority community with a large Haitian and Hispanic population, it's really a microcosm of the majority of Miami as a whole, and our exhibitions will reflect that. Our exhibitions will present a space where the community can come and see a reflection of themselves in our shows.

What are some ways that you think art institutions, in general, can better represent the people that they serve?

Listening is a really big, important part of the process. Since I joined MOCA I've spent the last year talking to its constituents, everyone from the kids that are coming to our summer camps and their parents to leaders of the immediate community and leaders of the art community. Really hearing about where the voids are and trying to respond to them and create and tweak our programs to serve their needs.

There's a freedom with art, that we see in doing classes with kids where they get to socialize and interact and move their bodies in whatever ways they need to express themselves. And then there's the physical space of a museum or a gallery where people gather and experience art and get inspired by it. Art as a tool for engagement has really been the center of everything I've done.