Tyler Blackwell

Curator of Contemporary Art at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky
Headshot of a man with round glasses.

Photo: Courtesy of the Speed Art Museum

Music Credits: “NY<” composed and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand. Used courtesy fo the Free Music Archive.

Jo Reed: From the National Endowment for the Arts, this is Art Works. I’m Josephine Reed. Today we’re exploring how an historic museum is adapting to contemporary challenges and making art accessible to all. I talk to Tyler Blackwell Curator of Contemporary Art at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky. We discuss the museum's legacy, its innovative strategies in the post-pandemic world, Tyler's commitment to amplifying the voices of queer and historically underrepresented artists, and his role in curating exhibitions that resonate with diverse audiences. It’s a conversation that showcases how art institutions can evolve and thrive by meeting the needs of their communities. I began my conversation with Tyler Blackwell by asking him for a little history about the Speed.

Tyler Blackwell:. So the Speed Art Museum, which is in Louisville, Kentucky, a really wonderful city for so many of us that live here and so many of us that get to visit here for one reason or another, whether it's Bourbon or the Kentucky Derby. The Speed is the largest and oldest art museum in the state of Kentucky, and we are coming up on our 100th year. In 2027, it will be the 100th birthday. The museum was founded in 1927 by Hattie Bishop Speed, who had initially opened the museum as sort of a dedication to her late husband, J.B. Speed, and since then the museum has grown each decade, and we are able to keep growing and keep thinking about the future. So in 2016, we had a new addition to our campus, and right now we're undergoing some extensive outdoor renovation for a new art park.

Jo Reed:   I know you weren't there. You came in 2022, but, public spaces are still adapting to the challenges brought by the pandemic, and I'm wondering how the Speed is doing that.

Tyler Blackwell: That's a good question. I think it's a thing that many art museums across the U.S. are thinking about, and like many institutions, we pivoted during the pandemic, of course, to thinking about our offerings online, and that is something that we are still trying to think about the ways in which we can be active in terms of our digital and our online presence in terms of the offerings that we're able to provide for people who might be a few blocks away or people who might be halfway across the world. But as we are all trying to grow our attendance towards pre-pandemic levels, we're trying to quite often think about the strategies in which we are employing to bring more art out so that there is an exciting new reason for visitors to come to the Speed, to frequent the Speed, to become members of the Speed, so that we can gradually keep growing our mission in terms of the people that we are inviting in and grow our mission in terms of the ways that we are able to more properly and perhaps over duly telling the stories of our community.

Jo Reed: In what ways is the Speed working to become more tuned to community needs, for example?

Tyler Blackwell: So I'm the Curator of Contemporary Art here at the Speed, and so one aspect of that is to try and think proactively about the ways that contemporary art, and of course contemporary artists here mean living artists most of the time, artists who are making artworks recently, or artworks that still have some sort of socio-political or socio-historical resonance for different groups of people. We are working with them to think about ways that we can invite more art that is dealing with the issues of today into our gallery spaces. So what does that mean? I think that many museums are thinking about these issues in terms of trying to be more responsive, and certainly in 2021, and really 2020, after the horrific murder of Breonna Taylor here in Louisville, the Speed wanted to think very swiftly and strongly about how we might be able to make the museum a place for conversation to happen, and so that resulted in this exhibition, which was curated by Allison Glenn in 2021, that was called Promise, Witness, Remembrance, and that was the beginning of this formation of a community program in which we would invite folks to contribute to the ideas and the programs that we might be offering. The community panel contributed directly in what might be appropriate or inappropriate for the Speed to be putting on its walls or discussing with its patrons, discussing with its visitors, and also just trying to make us a better, more actively cognizant space in terms of who we are listening to and why are we listening? And so now that sort of momentum in terms of community outreach has continued to this day, and so now, as the curator of contemporary art, I get to invite artists from across the spectrum to either form exhibitions, or I get to consider ways in which we might acquire new works for our permanent collection that are speaking to stories of today, so that means maybe inviting or acquiring works that are dealing directly with historically marginalized issues, so that means queer folks, that means women, that means often artists of color, to bring their work into our space so that we can be, again, a more responsive, more proactive gathering place for all kinds of visitors.

Jo Reed: Tell me what you consider when putting together an exhibit. Can you walk us through the curatorial process, and why don't we use Crosscurrents: Contemporary Art from the Speed Art Museum Collection and Beyond, as an example, perhaps?

Tyler Blackwell: Sure. That's a really good opportunity to think of a recent program that I put together. So Crosscurrents is part of a broader initiative that was reconsidering where art in our museum campus got to live, where permanent collection galleries are located in our buildings, and Crosscurrents was the first iteration in which contemporary art, which had been previously located on the second floor of our new building not the first place that visitors get to walk into when they enter the Speed. We moved contemporary galleries to our historic building, our 1927 building, which is often the place where you first walk in the door, quite literally. And Crosscurrents was a first take of my look at the collection as I arrived, and so that meant pulling out artworks that maybe had not been seen, as I took a fresh look with new eyes coming into this environment to think of what artworks might be, again, relevant, what might be powerful, what might be meaningful in a contemporary visitorship that is consciously plugged into what is happening across the world. And so that means also that in addition to pulling out some fan favorites, it meant some discoveries for me. There are many, many great artists, as you can imagine, like everywhere, that have artists who have sort of fallen into the cracks, and their artworks, who have been in the Speeds Collection maybe for decades, who have not ever been on view, perhaps, or they’ve not been on view for a very long time, and so with my fresh perspective arriving here in Louisville, I was able to think about a new way in which contemporary art galleries now centered in the museum in their new location, might be able to confront our visitors with the issues of today and invite our visitors to think, again, what art can do in terms of speaking to the issues of the moment.

Jo Reed: I’ve seen photographs of the exhibition and I was struck by the way you juxtaposed different pieces of art from different eras and different media so that the artwork seemed to be in conversation with each other

Tyler Blackwell: Yeah, I think that that's very apt. Certainly most of the artworks that were on view, I purposefully placed them next to things that they maybe have never been placed together before, and so that means that new voices, if you will, if we think of an artwork as having a voice, we think of the artist who made that artwork as having a voice, it was a new opportunity for a confluence of these voices to be speaking together to create maybe a theme just by being next to each other, or maybe it is a sort of larger prompt of issues or ideas that feel like they could, again, spur a visitor who maybe is not so familiar with contemporary art, maybe finds contemporary art in the range of media, as you described, to be difficult to enter or uninteresting to enter, and so hopefully that premise, Crosscurrents, to be thinking of the word crosscurrents, thinking of the many different ways in which things can bump into each other, the way that things can coexist. Again, the voices are maybe all talking at the same time, but perhaps you can pick up one thing and listen to that voice for 30 seconds or 2 minutes or however long you like, and then you move on to the next thing, and then that is perhaps informed by what you just looked at or what you just thought about. So it really is a great opportunity for us to highlight our contemporary collection, which is growing slowly and surely to highlight more and more and more voices.

Jo Reed: Well, as you said, your curatorial practice includes a strong focus on queer and historically underrepresented artists. How do you approach showcasing these artists? How do you reach out to them? How do you incorporate it so that it becomes quite central to your work at the Speed?

Tyler Blackwell: Sure. I think that is a very good question, and that's a question that is part of the ongoing work of museums and part of the ongoing work of a curator who is working with living artists, and that can, I think, mean many different things, and that can shake out in many different ways. My own scholarly interests and backgrounds are wide-ranging, and then my own ways in which I move throughout the world in my own interests and the places that I want to go and the artists I want to talk to and the thinkers and the scholars or the makers of things that are very different from my own interests, all become part of a way in which that I then get to enter the world as a person who is going as a representative of the Speed Art Museum, and that becomes a grassroots effort simply by trying to visit things and attend different openings and go to talks and go to lectures and go to concerts. It all is part of the slow work, the indirect work, that leads us to a place in which a comfortability, both perhaps with me and with the ideas that I'm interested in trying to get up on the walls or in the museum and therefore perhaps a comfortability with the museum, and there is a no exact way, so it all is sort of a learning process to figure out how and where should I be and what is most actively part of a community that I need to be conversing with that are doing really transformative things, and how should the Speed be a part of that? So I don't know if I'm answering your question, <laughs> but I think it’s a sort of unclear but reactive community engagement strategy just to be a part of the folks that you want to be a part of.

Jo Reed: There’s also authentic representation that's really important, and trying to ensure that is crucial.

Tyler Blackwell: Yes. Authentic is the word. I think we are not in the business of being a tokenistic institution or inauthentic, if you will, but rather the Speed and the museums that I have worked at have all very proactively been a part of trying to make the museum a place that is exciting, meaningful, interesting, powerful, educational for every single person who might walk in.

Jo Reed: What challenges do LGBTQ+ artists face in the contemporary art world?

Tyler Blackwell: Well, I think much like many other groups who again have been historically marginalized groups, there are remnants of years and decades past in which folks who have not been allowed to be part of the conversation to walk in the door, to have a meaningful dialogue with the stakeholders or the power holders. So,while we're able to invite folks in there is maybe just a sort of inherent anxiety from queer makers that they would not be accepted for the work that they're making or the ideas that they're having, simply because it's queer and it's not part of a mainstream train of thought. And so it really is part of my job to create a space in which all ideas can exist equally and can coexist and have equal importance.

Jo Reed: How do you judge the success of an exhibit?

Tyler Blackwell: <laughs> Oh man, that's a good question. Let's take a curator survey.

Jo Reed: <laughs>

Tyler Blackwell: I think, of course, for me, it is often an exhibition or an installation or some sort of special presentation, is that inviting a new dialogue? It's most fun for me when I get to walk through the galleries of a presentation of something that I have worked on and seeing people frown or not necessarily knowing what they're looking at, if only because you know that the artwork and the work that you have done to put these things, again, in conversation with each other, is making someone pause and think. And so that just personally is very good indicator that whatever sort of presentation or simply by maybe having a work hanging in your galleries is making someone experience something that perhaps they have not experienced before or think about something they've never thought about before, and that is, I think, quite often the power of art, right, and that is the power of contemporary art, certainly, because there are so many wide-ranging ideas at play. And then, of course, if we're thinking about larger institutional metrics, it's always we're excited to think about the ways in which many X visitors visited during X period of time, the sort of traditional ways in which something is successful. But that makes a museum sound a little cold, and I think that that is not necessarily the case. It just is simply one way in which we have to think about the solvency <laughs> of a museum, so lots of different ways to consider success, I think.

Jo Reed: Well, that leads so nicely to my next question. Thank you, which is we really don't think of museums often as community spaces, but it seems like the Speed is really working to change that. Can you share some ways how?

Tyler Blackwell: Sure. I think that the Speed is moving towards a model in which… community space is one way to think of it, but it's also a place where we hope that we can become increasingly a site for gathering and for exchanging of ideas, and so something like the art park, which I mentioned earlier, which is really a sculpture park that sort of encircles the museum, is going to be a very significant green space in a part of Louisville that does not have a lot of public space for being outside, and so that is sort of one way. That's a very basic and foundational way that folks might just be outside without ever coming into the museum, and they're surrounded by art and they can gather and they can sit with their families or they can come with their friends and just sit on the grass.

Jo Reed: I don't mean to interrupt you, Tyler, but I read that this is going to be open 24 hours a day.

Tyler Blackwell: Yeah, exactly.

Jo Reed: That’s amazing. That is amazing. Because we're all acquainted with outside spaces and museums that are surrounded by gates and have very strict rules <laughs> about when you can come and when you can go.

Tyler Blackwell: Right. And I think that that's simply one way in which the Speed is trying to think about removing barriers for different folks, and so thanks for pointing that out because that’s a unique context and because yes, you have to pay your admission ticket or something like that and then you drive down a road and then there's your sculpture park. But yes, this will be a place sit outside at any time of the day. If we wanted to, we could go and sit there at three in the morning and spend some time with a Sol LeWitt sculpture or something else. But that's one way, this wonderful art park, which is, again, under construction at this very moment, slated to open partially in 2025. Then another way that the Speed is thinking about its openness, and again, trying to make itself a gathering place, is simply by incorporating more seating in the galleries, and that sounds so basic, but it is not so much about adding a more single benches here and there, but rather creating little pockets of comfortable seating that is so you can come into the museum. Perhaps you're students at the adjacent University of Louisville and you are coming to study, you're coming to read, and you know that there's this one space in the museum that is usually pretty quiet and you are surrounded by amazing, amazing artworks from all over the world and you have the most comfortable chair you've ever sat in, and so simply by, again, creating more space and more invitations for sitting, gathering, talking perhaps. Museums do not have to be this quiet place that we also consider as being, you know, I often see people shushing   other folks in the galleries.

Jo Reed: It's more like a church.

Tyler Blackwell: Yeah, exactly. And that is really not what museums, at least the Speed, is not interested in that sort of model. So we're trying to think about ways to make it less difficult for you to think of the museum, of a museum as this shiny thing on the hill that is for the elite, and rather it is also just a place to come with your friends and sit.  And if you wanted to just come and sit in our cafe and have a glass of wine or have a sparkling water or have whatever and then you could walk into the galleries for 30 seconds and then that's your entire visit to the Speed, then that is fine with us. So again, we're trying to break down those barriers in terms of just making it a more amenable space for anybody who could walk through our front doors.

Jo Reed: Well, again, you've leaped so nicely into my next questions. Thank you, Tyler. And what are some of the ways the museum is trying or has tried to break down financial barriers for visitors?

Tyler Blackwell: That's a very good question. So there are a number of ways that we are trying to think about that, and I think an important one is a program in which you can essentially self-identify as a person or a family who can self-identify as perhaps a museum visit is cost prohibited for you and you essentially receive a special membership that allows you entry at any time, and you don't have to prove any financial difficulty or anything like that, but we’re open and our visitor services team is ready to help and to aid just in terms of trying to get that set up for anybody who might walk in the door again. And then also, of course, there is always free admission for University of Louisville students, and that there are tens of thousands of University of Louisville students, and then also on Sundays in Louisville museum admission is free, and that, of course, is our most popular day. So as we are trying to, again, open the doors more frequently and more readily so that every barrier is taken down, we’re inching towards a model in which the museum hopefully is totally accessible without any cost. We’re not quite there yet but we’re working towards it.

Jo Reed: And what about you, Tyler? How did you get into the curatorial business?

Tyler Blackwell: Oh man. I thought that I wanted to be an artist when I was in college and I slowly learned that perhaps I did not have what it took to make it <laughs> as a living, working artist. And I was fortunate to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, so I was quite aware of really, really exciting talent across many different fields because there were students and friends around me who were just total, complete geniuses. And I applied to an internship program at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, a curatorial internship, and after a few weeks there everything just came into focus for me and I realized that curatorial work is a different creative practice. And while I maybe was not the one who needed to be making groundbreaking works of art, perhaps I could still make a contribution simply by rethinking, interpreting, putting someone else's work next to each other, writing about someone's work. These are all perhaps meaningful contributions, and here I am, after having worked at a number of different institutions, to try and figure out which institution is the best fit for my interests.

Jo Reed: And what is exciting to you about contemporary art?

Tyler Blackwell: Well, of course, it is about the only way in which we can talk about what is happening in the world right now. And so artists are soothsayers in many ways because whatever might be happening quite literally on the other side of the planet or something that is part of the larger discourse in our world, artists are thinking about, responding to and making artworks that are enabling us to think about things that we maybe understand, but they open up our brains and they force us perhaps to think about something sideways in a way that maybe we've never looked at before. So that is just always exciting for me as someone who is a consumer of information and consumer of a lot of different methods of communication, and so artists are the people who are helping us to think better and to think differently about things that are familiar to us.

Jo Reed: You initiated the Current Speed Exhibition Series and you curate it. Can you tell us a little bit more about the series and what your thinking is over the course of it?

<crew talk>

Tyler Blackwell: Yes. . Current Speed is a new program that I started whenever I came to the museum because I was interested in this notion of trying again to embed contemporary art and emerging or maybe under-known contemporary artists and their ideas and their objects that they make into the program here at the Speed more frequently. So Current Speed is an annual program at this point, an annual exhibition series at this point that is dedicated to introducing the Kentuckiana region, and so of course we say Kentuckiana here <laughs> because we're just across the river from Indiana, introducing this sort of region to an artist that they likely have not seen before. So in that way, we are able to invite a new perspective into our space and also invite a conversation. Again, this is all about conversations. Everything at the museum is about inviting conversations. We are able to think about how and why a museum audience in the Kentuckiana region should see this artist, and so that is a fun and different way of combining my own interests and ideas of being aware of what is happening with emerging artists across the United States and sometimes across the world and inviting them to be a part of the Speed and be a part of Louisville and be a part of Kentucky, which is, I think, a significant way to broaden thinking in general. And again, too, it's not just emerging artists and it's not just artists maybe that we're unfamiliar with, but it is also artists that for some reason in their careers they have been underlooked, and so that goes back again to thinking about this idea of trying to serve and service the folks who maybe have, for one reason or another, been marginalized during their careers. So this series is meant to be a place, a platform, a foundational space, for them to either have a first museum exhibition, or it is maybe their first show in a very long time or maybe it's dealing with a specific body of work that has never been seen before. I don't know. We're only two years into it, so we'll see what happens. <laughs>

Jo Reed: I have to give you a shout out about that, Tyler, also your emphasis on mid-career artists. It's so hard. It really is. It's such a hard way to make your way in the world. Incredibly rewarding, but it's difficult, and it's really wonderful to see mid-career artists especially getting a leg up, because there's an emphasis on emerging artists, rightfully so. And then, you know, you're in your golden years and you're having a lifelong celebration, and often mid-career artists just need a boost.

Tyler Blackwell: Right. Yes, and I think that that is increasingly something that the art community, the art world, is trying to be better about, which is looking in our own backyard, number one, but also thinking about folks who, for whatever reason  who have never become the superstars or have never become the market stars or never become X, Y, and Z and really offering a chance to flesh out their practice, because there are so many artists that are so deserving and quite literally not enough time and enough space, and so the Speed is really doing a great job of thinking about that and that ties into while I'm doing the Current Speed series, my colleague, fari nzinga, who is curator of African and Native American collections here at The Speed, is also working on this long-term project devoted to the Louisville Black avant-garde who are working in the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s. Is this group of artists who lived or started their careers in Louisville and then became some names that are very familiar to us like Sam Gilliam or Bob Thompson, but also there are just as many folks that are totally unknown to a broader audience.  And so each year leading up to this major show, there is a small focus exhibition devoted to a single member of that group who came up through Louisville, and specifically this is dealing with Black artists who are working in that time period. So the Speed, in addition to the work that I'm doing, we're thinking about that on all fronts here. And so, all of those things in each curatorial area, we're thinking about the broadness of how and why we should be showing more.

Jo Reed: What is the funnest part of your job? What do you enjoy the most?

Tyler Blackwell: <laughs> Well, I enjoy being able to visit artists in their studios and having those sorts of conversations, because as I said earlier, contemporary artists see the world a bit differently. Each contemporary artist sees something differently or is informed by a very specific thing. So every time I get to go to a studio and spend time with an artist, I learn something new, and it's very difficult to say that there's anything difficult <laughs> about going to someplace in New York or, I don't know, another random spot, perhaps a small town where an artist has had their entire life's work and you get to sift through those drawings that are 40 years old or something like that, to try and piece together a story or a narrative of their history. That is the most fun part of my job is just interacting with artists.

Jo Reed: I'm curious what advice you might give to somebody who's getting an MFA in arts administration or curatorial work, emerging curators or art professionals who are passionate about art and they're also passionate about inclusion and they're also passionate about community engagement. What advice would you offer them?

Tyler Blackwell: That is a great question, and that's a question that we, all curators, I think, are asked a lot, and things that we think about a lot. And I think that my answer is really deeply informed by the years that I spent working in Chicago, where I was able to work at an alternative art space, an artist-run space, really. I think that something that would be important is to always find a way to really get plugged into your own surroundings. And so I mentioned earlier going to openings and going to events and programs and things like that, and when I say that, I really, really mean it, and I think it's like you show up someplace, you go to, if you're interested in working with artists, it is you've got to be where the artists are and you've got to make yourself known to the community and familiar with the community. And I think it is so, so, so important to show your genuine interest in folks, and just to be a kind person and to have conversations. So again, starting from a really, really grassroots point of view in which in Chicago if somebody wanted to have an art show and there was not space for it, then oftentimes they would quite literally have a show and invite anybody who want to come, an opening, in their own living room. I know many people who have done that, and so it depends on if you are interested in something and you don't have space for it, then find a way to make an exhibition, find a way to write about someone and find a place to put that writing. There are many ways in which we can increase our visibility as thinkers and makers, and slowly, if you're interested in different opportunities, those different opportunities will perhaps make themselves known just by simply, again, being a kind person, a kind, curious person. That is <laughs> my advice. Don't be a jerk. <laughs>

Jo Reed: That is very good advice.


Jo Reed: And finally, what are you hoping to accomplish over the next few years at the Speed?

Tyler Blackwell: That's a very good question. Well, one thing that I have worked to do very quickly here is I’ve tried to acquire a number of works that address gaps in the Speed's collection, and every museum, every public institution, has gaps or holes in their collection, if we're thinking about a chronological or art historical storyline, and I'm, as we've talked about a little bit, I'm super passionate about issues of queer identity and issues of representation by folks that are, again, have been historically marginalized in museum context and gallery context. And so I think the more that I bring to bear these sorts of points of view in acquisitions and things like Current Speed, I think it becomes more familiar and more ingrained in the Louisville culture as being increasingly open to more and different and perhaps even alternative or queer ideas that are making, essentially, the museum a place for really important conversations to happen and a place where you can, if you're maybe part of one of those marginalized groups, you can come to museum and see representation of yourself on the wall. And that is just, I think, so important on many different levels because that is, if you see yourself on the wall of a museum, then perhaps that means that you are part of society. <laughs> Imagine. <laughs>

Jo Reed: That becomes the big invitation.

Tyler Blackwell: That becomes the big invitation.

Jo Reed: Tyler, I think this is a good place to leave it, 

Tyler Blackwell: I'm so grateful.

Jo Reed: Oh, thank you so much for giving me your time and really, for all the good work that you're doing.

Tyler Blackwell: Well, thank you. That's nice to hear.

That was Tyler Blackwell Curator of Contemporary Art at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky. You can find out more about the museum’s exhibits and programs at Speedmuseum.org. We’ll have a link in our show notes. 

You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts—follow us on the platform of your choice and keep with the work of the endowment at arts.gov. I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Curator of Contemporary Art at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, Tyler Blackwell discusses the museum's mission and adaptation to post-pandemic challenges and his own commitment to amplifying the voices of queer and historically underrepresented artists. He shares his journey into curatorial work, his passion for contemporary art, and his vision for furthering the Speed's initiatives as a more inclusive and engaging community space.

Blackwell talks about the museum’s response to significant events such as the murder of Breonna Taylor in Louisville with the 2021 exhibition Promise, Witness, Remembrance, which came together through community involvement and dialogue.  He also highlights the museum’s efforts to center on its community by creating inclusive spaces, such as a 24-hour-accessible free art park, increased seating to make the museum a gathering place, and efforts to reduce financial barriers for visitors. He discusses his own curatorial process in creating the exhibition Crosscurrents and shares his passion for contemporary art and how it helps us think differently about current issues. 

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