Curator Kevin Tervala Reflects On His Time at the Baltimore Museum of Art

He has curated eight exhibitions so far and has learned something from all of them.

A headshot of man wearing a dark shirt and glasses
BMA curator Kevin Tervala. Maximilian Franz / Courtesy the BMA

A few months ago the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) named Kevin Tervala as the institution’s new Eddie C. and C. Sylvia Brown Chief Curator, a role he previously filled on an interim basis for almost a year. Before this posting, Tervala served as head of the Arts of Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific Islands department since 2017, and he brings to the table plenty of ideas about how to program such material for a city as diverse as Baltimore. Observer recently caught up with Tervala to hear about his new role and his thoughts about the art world at large.

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You’ve been at the BMA since 2015. What’s unique about it as an institution? What does it do better than others?

In 2018, the BMA went through a strategic planning process that resulted in a radical revision of our mission and vision statement, one that commits us to “embodying a commitment to artistic excellence and social equity in every decision from art presentation, interpretation and collecting, to the composition of our Board of Trustees, staff and volunteers.” This commitment is deeply felt at all levels of the BMA, and since 2018, we have moved rapidly to transform our organization from top to bottom. This has only been possible because of the incredible people who have committed themselves to this institution, from the staff and Board to the artists and Baltimoreans who put their trust in us.

What are some of your favorite shows that you’ve worked on in your tenure there?

That’s a tough one! I have had the privilege of curating eight exhibitions in my time at the BMA, ranging from small, one-gallery presentations to sprawling, multi-gallery projects. Of these, two stand out as my favorites: “Kuba: Fabric of an Empire” (August 19, 2018 – February 24, 2019) and “A Perfect Power: Motherhood and African Art” (April 5, 2020 – March 7, 2021). In “Kuba,” the BMA examined the relationship between the political history of central Africa’s Kuba Kingdom and the designs embroidered into the textiles created for and worn by the kingdom’s elite. This was an enormously fun project to research—one that involved carbon dating a cache of textiles to create a 250-year timeline of Kuba two-dimensional design—and the results helped us understand the important role of fashion when it comes to the exercise of power.

In “A Perfect Power”—an exhibition that examined the role of maternal iconography in historic central African states and societies—I curated the show alongside a truly brilliant cast of scholars and students, including Oyèrónké Oyěwùmí, a professor of Sociology, Africana, and Women’s Studies at Stony Brook University; Jennifer Kingsley, Director of the Museums & Society Program at Johns Hopkins University (JHU); and Michael Harper, Hae In Kim, Maria Kyriakakos, Clara Leverenz and Andrea White, undergraduate students in a Spring 2019 Curatorial Practicum that I taught with Jennifer Kingsley at JHU. This collaborative curatorial process was so enormously important in making the exhibition the success that it was, and it also made it a ton of fun.

How do you program for both the people of Baltimore and the broader art world?

This is a great question and one that speaks very directly to everything that we are about at the BMA. Our director, Asma Naeem, has made it her mission to interweave global and local histories, and we are shaping our exhibition program and our curatorial strategy for collection galleries to bring these narratives to the fore. And it is quite an easy task. Baltimore is and always has been a global city. So, if you are focusing on Baltimore-based artists and Baltimore-based narratives, you are naturally going to be focusing on histories of interaction and exchange. Our upcoming retrospective on the legendary Baltimore artist Joyce J. Scott—”Joyce J. Scott: Walk a Mile in My Dreams” (March 24 through July 14, 2024)—makes this clear. Joyce has lived in Baltimore for most of her life but has traveled the world to learn and make with other artists. Her artworks and her artistic practice are deeply grounded in this city, but they are also related to the artistry and the history of our world.

You have a PhD in African Studies from Harvard. What drew you into the field?

I fell in love with African art during my freshman year of college. At the time, my undergraduate alma mater—the University of Maryland—required all its students to take a history or theory of the arts class as part of its general education program, and I signed up for an Introduction to African Art course to fulfill that requirement. At the time, I had no idea what art history as a discipline was and had never taken a college-level humanities class. I had, in short, no idea what I was getting into, and I fell absolutely in love with what I was seeing. Part of this is because African art history is filled with a dazzling array of visually arresting works that delight the eye and challenge the mind, and part of this is because art allowed me to transcend myself and my personal experiences.

Art by people of color seems to be more popular than ever with collectors and curators. How has that affected the field?

While I would agree that the “art market”—that amorphous entity centered in global financial capitals—has finally recognized that people from across the world have been creating gorgeous and thought-provoking artworks for millennia, I think it is also important to recognize that the perceived novelty of this emphasis is something of a localized phenomenon. Collectors, curators, scholars and artists throughout the Global South have been collecting, curating and thinking about artworks created by artists of color for centuries. And there are plenty of scholars and curators in the Global North that have also made it their life’s work to champion artists of color and the works they produce. The “art market” is simply catching up. And it is high time they do so. We need more exhibitions and scholarship focused on historic and contemporary artists of color. We need more collectors to support artists and galleries that focus on these works.

Your museum recently acquired its first piece of performance art. What does this tell us about the future of your acquisitions strategy?

We could not be prouder to be the institutional steward of Jefferson Pinder’s phenomenal performance piece Ben-Hur. And though this is our first acquisition of a performance, it will certainly not be the last. Indeed, we are committed to caring for all forms of artistic expression and are continuously revising not only the collecting roadmaps that guide our acquisitions strategy but also the internal policies and procedures that guide the way we collect, research, exhibit and care for artworks. Take “Making Her Mark: A History of Women Artists in Europe, 1400-1800,” for instance. This exhibition—which was on view at the BMA between October 1, 2023 and January 7, 2024 and opens at the Art Gallery of Ontario on March 27, 2024—uncovered and valorized women artists who worked in artistic mediums that have historically been ignored by mainstream art historians and art museums. By putting artistic mediums like lace and paper quilling on the same level as painting and sculpture, our brilliant curatorial team showcased the extraordinary diversity of artistic creativity in early modern Europe.

Similarly, much of my research revolves around artworks made by nomadic artists, and what I have found is that the normative artistic mediums of many nomadic artists are quite different from the normative artistic mediums of many sedentary artists. There is, as I am fond of saying, a little bit of art in everything, and at the BMA, we want to make sure we are showcasing and uplifting the sparkling diversity of our shared creative spirit.

What would you say you’ve learned in your nine years at this institution?

I think an easier question to answer might be what haven’t I learned? I feel incredibly privileged to have spent the last nine years working alongside the most intelligent, passionate, hardworking and innovative group of colleagues (both in and out of the museum). Through them, my approach to pretty much everything has been radically transformed. And I think that is the biggest lesson I have learned at the BMA. Our work is always better when we engage—openly and deeply—with one another.

Curator Kevin Tervala Reflects On His Time at the Baltimore Museum of Art