Lizzi Skalka was a graduate intern for Academic Programs at the Johnson Museum this summer. She is a graduate student of art history at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, where she focuses on global contemporary art, especially international art exhibitions.

As our long summer in quarantine drew to a close, I interviewed Andrea Inselmann (pictured, at left), who has been the curator of modern and contemporary art at the Johnson since 2002, for a chance to see how she approaches collecting and exhibition design at the Cornell institution. Andrea and I are both fascinated by global contemporary art, especially that which is produced by living artists reacting to the issues of the time, and the political and social concerns which impact both artist and audience. I interviewed her not only about her own experience at the Johnson, but her opinion on the practice of global art and its effect on the art world as well.

When it comes to politically minded art, artists often fluctuate between disciplines: As I brought up to Andrea, Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu started her career as a printmaker, but of late she’s produced meaningful works of both film and sculpture. This seems to be true across the board, with contemporary artists remaining faithful to ideas rather than particular mediums. At the same time, there are certainly patterns to be seen. I myself have seen a turn toward digital and time-based media in recent biennials. Artists seem to be attracted to the moving image and its ability to tell stories, to document, and to demonstrate multidimensionality.

When I asked Andrea about this trend toward digital media she explained that to some artists it might lend itself to political work. “Contemporary artists are commenting on popular culture,” she told me. After all, it is digital media which bridges the gap between art and daily life. “The moving image is what we are surrounded by,” she continued, pointing out that digital media is being generated all around us, and to pick up on cultural trends means producing artwork using the same vocabulary.

That’s not to say that traditional mediums—say, painting and sculpture—are obsolete. There are certainly those artists who take on the challenge of radicalizing these classical fields. Kehinde Wiley, another artist who came up in our conversation, uses his paintbrush to rewrite history. In his contemporary adaptations of historical subject matter, he places the black subject in the spotlight, replacing white figures with black models in modern dress. On the merit of these efforts, Andrea commented that it is perhaps more valuable to make political art in traditional media than digitally, since such work can point a finger at the history of the discipline. She explained that traditional media are in fact “fertile ground to upset the canon,” lauding artistic practices which work to diversify Eurocentric histories.

I asked Andrea about what is being done to decolonize the Johnson Museum—that is, to reroute the focus of the collection away from the Western canon. Andrea continues to update the modern and contemporary collection, steering her department toward acquisitions of underrepresented artists in the Johnson’s collection. During her tenure she has helped the Museum to acquire important works by women artists like Claire Falkenstein, Amy Sillman, Ana Mendieta, Ellen Gallagher, and a number of other leading contemporary artists. While Andrea is being supported to make the Johnson’s contemporary collection more inclusive, she asserts that collections of historical works can be updated as well.

When I asked her what the role of art is when it comes to social and political change, Andrea maintained that art can be a major player. “A lot of contemporary art is at the cusp between art and activism,” she said. Not only does art bring attention to certain issues, but the work itself can be a tool for demanding change. She gave as an example Protest Banner Lending Library, created by artist Aram Han Sifuentes (pictured, at right), a project included in her 2019 exhibition how the light gets in where makers can design their own fabric banners that can be checked out by activists to carry during protests. Sifuentes and artists like her are straddling the line between fine art and social engagement.

Just as artists are reaching out and interacting with their communities, Andrea says that curators too can be a force for change. “Change your ideas about qualifications, about what makes an artist or curator,” she told me. Though they work within the confines of an institution, curators don’t have to play with the cards they’ve been dealt. It’s their job to make choices, just how informed those choices are is up to the curator.

Ultimately, what I learned from Andrea is that there are many different kinds of curators—each guided by her own principles—but a good curator brings a range of artists to her audiences, putting them front and center. A good curator is not limited by personal preferences and biases, but chooses powerful artworks with strong messages, regardless of medium or style. When those messages are strong enough, there is often no distinction between artist and activist.