As Me with Sinéad — 10: Kimberly Drew

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As Me with Kimberly Drew transcript


[00:51] Sinéad Burke: Welcome to As Me with Sinéad. I know what you’re thinking. Week after week, I talk about my next guest as somebody who is extraordinary. And it might sound trite and perhaps predictable, but it’s absolutely true. And no one underlines that quality and characteristic more than this week’s guest. I genuinely couldn’t think of a better person to speak to around the questions and the entire purpose of this show. Because this person has reinvented social media for the purposes of showcasing black art — from reshaping norms around beauty, and who we get to see on the walls and in the corridors of historic institutions. You may know her as @MuseumMammy on Instagram, but I have the great privilege of being able to call her my friend. Recently, she even came backstage with me to Seth Meyers here in New York, where I currently am, just as a support. And her friendship and kindness and fierceness meant so much to me and settled my nerves. This week’s guest is the extraordinary Kimberly Drew. For this interview we were together in New York. And we talked about how she ended up doing what it is that she’s doing, and what’s shaping her approach to work and to life, which at the moment are so inextricably linked.


[02:08] Kimberly Drew: Really, I’m committed to three things — making the art world more equitable, being a very good friend, being a very good member of my family. Everything else is kind of just extra. And of course, there’s like the parts of me that I bring to all those things. But for me, work is really just such a priority. 


[02:24] Sinéad Burke: What’s on my mind at the moment is that I’m in the middle of reading Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror. And she’s talked a lot about how we are conditioned for optimization. How we always want to be the best version of ourselves, and we rarely live in the present but in this idyllic reality that doesn’t exist at all. And as we approach the end of the year and begin to contemplate what 2020 might hold for me, and you, for us, I’m trying to curtail myself from thinking of an optimized version of myself. I’m just trying to be happy and healthy in the skin and the body that I’m in. Are you ready for this week’s episode? Let’s go!


[03:08] Sinéad Burke: We met a year ago this week. 


[03:09] Kimberly Drew: Yeah, we did. 


[03:10] Sinéad Burke: To give you a little bit of an insight, almost 12 months ago, I slid into Kimberly’s DMs in a very consensual way. I was like, ‘hey, is that you across the room?’ And it was. And over the past 12 months, it has blossomed into a very transformative and important friendship. Kimberly, welcome to As Me. How are you? 


[03:31] Kimberly Drew: I’m well, Sinéad. Thank you so much for having me.


[03:34] Sinéad Burke: This is such a treat. I’m conscious that people listening to the show may know of you from Instagram. They may know of you from the Met. They may know of you from Out Magazine, from lots of different ways. But how do you define and describe yourself in a personal and professional capacity?


[03:51] Kimberly Drew: Yeah, I’m in a moment of figuring out how to answer that question. So I left a position as a social media manager for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I served for three years, basically building out the imprint of the Metropolitan Museum on social media. So how do people come to know that institution via these digital channels was kind of the question that I had to answer. And since then, I’ve transitioned out and into a life as a writer, sometimes influencer, full-time friend, full-time daughter. And really in a moment of stepping into power, which feels really good. Because it really is a time of more questions than answers. It’s like in grammar there is like the question mark, and then there’s the interrobang. Like, I’m an interrobang moment. 


[04:40] Sinéad Burke: I thought you were going to say you are an interrobang. I was like, I’m into it. 


[04:42] Kimberly Drew: Yeah, yeah. A little bit a question mark, a little bit of exclamation point. Like that’s just kind of where I’m at.


[04:47] Sinéad Burke: I’m an ampersand. But it was interesting when I asked you to describe yourself, you described positions and roles that you have held. But who are you? 


[04:58] Kimberly Drew: I actually am a person absolutely in this moment that feels very defined by my work. You know, I wish I could have a more humane answer, but I really am very serious about the things that I’m doing and how I want to be remembered. And it is the work. You know, I could lie and say, like, oh, I’m this and I’m that, but really, I’m committed to three things — making the art world more equitable, being a very good friend, being a very good member of my family. Everything else is kind of just extra. And of course, there’s like the parts of me that I bring to all those things. But for me, work is really just such a priority.


[05:31] Sinéad Burke: When did you come to that decision?


[05:34] Kimberly Drew: I don’t think I ever wasn’t in that space. So I was always a kid who was overachiever, you know, going to Saturday school, or going to night school, going to boarding school, ending up at, you know, this women’s college in western Massachusetts. So I’ve always been a person who had a lot of energy. Interested in kind of a question mark of how to improve myself and improve the world around me. And I’m in a moment now where everything’s starting to make more sense, right? So I think my charge forward suddenly makes sense. And so I’m just like very seated in the work. 


[06:08] Sinéad Burke: And was that feeling of energy and wanting to have an impact on the world around you, was that nourished by family and friends growing up, or is it something that you’ve realized?

[06:18] Kimberly Drew: Yeah, I would say that I’m definitely the product of excellent nurturing and nourishing. My parents are extremely supportive, even if they have no idea what I’m talking about. They’re like the best thing. I had a family member who’s who pulled me aside at Thanksgiving and said, ‘you know, honey, we have no idea what you’re doing, but you look like you’re having fun.’ 


[06:41] Sinéad Burke: With family not knowing the intricacies of your work, is there a friction or frustration over there or is that a comfort?


[06:43] Kimberly Drew: I think it’s a duty, right. I think for both of us, we’re in fields that are extremely exclusionary, right? In the world of fashion and very much in the world of art now, because I’m bringing you along with me, in these spheres that a lot of people don’t feel like they can access. And my family, demographically speaking, is one of those groups that has traditionally been excluded from the spaces that I find myself in now with comfort. And so I’ve taken it as a duty to really make sure that they feel welcome in any space that I’m in. To make sure that they know that if there’s a question of something that’s confusing, that I’m there to answer it. Because I was once in a moment where I needed them to teach me about the world. You know, I wasn’t born with generosity. I wasn’t born with thoughtfulness. I wasn’t born with a duty to other people. I learned that from them. You know, they taught me how to love. They taught me how to care. And they taught me that being curious was a strength. And so when they bring curiosity to the things that I’m doing, I feel a duty to make it clear. 


[07:45] Sinéad Burke: the traits that I’m most proud of or, the traits that I tried to hone and craft most, are curiosity and kindness. And they both have different definitions for other people. But do you have any kind of cognizance or memories of being curious as a child, particularly in relation to art? Or is it young person — like where did this appetite and hunger for either being part of the art world or being interested in it come from? 


[08:09] Kimberly Drew: I think I’ve always just been a selective person. So there is a funny story from my childhood where I was like in kindergarten, and there was an art project that we were supposed to do. And I think from a very young age, I knew who the good artists in the class were. And instead of executing the project on my own, I gave another classmate my lunch to do the project for me. 


[08:31] Sinéad Burke: Clever.


[08:32] Kimberly Drew: I’ve always been this person. Literally forever been this type of person. You know, there was one time that same year where we had naptime and I hated naptime. Now I crave naptime. How dumb I was. But instead of taking naptime, I painted my entire nook green. I was like, oh, I is my first installation. You know, my poor mother coming to pick me up every day with like some new story about something I destroyed. With those two stories, I would say that I’ve always kind of been a person interested in — curious about — not just seeing the world as beautiful, but also a level of taste — which sucks, you know, like I wish some in some ways that I had more of an openness. And I like — and that’s why I like bringing friends to see things because I’m like, ok, yes, there’s always going to be someone who thinks and sees things differently than you do. And so that for me, has always kept me in a moment of trying to embrace what curiosity looks like, because I think there’s so many times, especially in the age of Instagram and all that stuff, whether you like or dislike, has to be such an urgent thing. 


[09:30] Sinéad Burke: How do you measure what’s good? And has that metric changed since you were a child, since that ability to say, ‘that’s good art, that is not.’ How do you measure it?


[09:41] Kimberly Drew: I think it’s a feeling. I don’t think it’s something that can be quantified. I’m a person — I think we both share this, we love order, right? And so being able to see things done with a certain level of finesse. I think that there are certain things that have always been kind of soothing to my eye, or intriguing to my eye. And one thing that I’m super passionate about in the work I’m doing is granting people the terrain to have a confidence around the things they like and don’t like. Because I think oftentimes because of industries that are built on commerce, right, so we can talk about art in this like flighty kind of way, or we can talk about the business of art. So what does it mean if Kerry James Marshall sells for $25 million or DaVinci sells for $52 million dollars, does that mean that you have to like those works? Absolutely not. But because you have that number in the back of your mind, you might sit and stare and tilt your head and think, OK, I have to find something that I like about this because it’s worth a lot of money. And that’s just not true. You know? How can we have that confidence that we bring to food, per se, or music, per se? You know, there’s people out there who don’t like Beyoncé. And I’m just like, wow, like, that’s mastery. If you can say you don’t like a master of music? And, you know, of course, you know, no one says those things about, you know, Picasso or Warhol at of scale that I’d like to see. And not to say ,oh, I want them to, like, hate the white guys, but just, I want people to have a confidence around the things they like and don’t like.


[11:04] Sinéad Burke: But do you think that’s assumptions that are placed within institutions? That there is this fear or nervousness for critiquing what is supposed to have power, what is supposed to have notoriety from either historical perspective or whatever is owned by the majority? 


[11:20] Kimberly Drew: I think it’s a matter of how you look at the duty of it, right? So museums, their duty is to preserve history. Their duty isn’t necessarily to establish hierarchy. That’s something that happens, you know, because people come and they say, OK, I really love this show versus the show, blah blah blah. This is criticism, of course. But what the institution is doing in and of itself is just to do its best to collect based on their mission, right? The mission isn’t to, say, prioritize necessarily. Of course, if there is, you know, the potential to have an acquisition of five different things, you as a museum want to find what the ‘best one’ is on whatever metric that you’re using. But that hierarchy doesn’t necessarily have to exist. So it’s a complicated one. 


[11:59] Sinéad Burke: And those missions have been created quite a long time ago, when those institutions were not as inclusive as they should have been, or as they still need to be, depending on the institute. How does that how do those missions need to change, or what can be done? Because exactly as you said, you’re choosing the five best pieces for an exhibition, perhaps. But if it’s a contingency of people who think, act, look, feel the same, then the definition of what’s good or not is probably quite two-dimensional. 


[12:31] Kimberly Drew: And I think it’s a complicated issue, right. And I think it’s one that you have to think about within a chronology. Because if you’re doing a show about Dutch masters, and you’re looking at a particular era and time, you’re going to get a bunch of white people. That’s just the fact of the matter, right? And of course, there’s incredible scholarship that helps us to revision those things, right? Like, I love those discoveries where you’re like, yeah, here’s this person that was working that you had no idea existed. Like, those shows are really powerful. But I do think that it’s important within any conversation or context around thinking about diversity or thinking about inclusion in the way that exhibitions are built. To also understand that, like, there are some things that are just what they are. But then if you think about it within a chronology, you must also think, how can we divide within our programmatic calendar to make sure that we’re covering more groups? That has to be a priority. It’s not just the same ones that, you know, people, quote unquote, will visit. For example, at the Guggenheim they had an exhibition recently by an artist named Hilma af Klint, who is an artist who was like pretty much unknown, but made amazing paintings. And in her lifetime decided that she didn’t want anyone to see them. And set some, like, credence, where it would take X number of years to be able to show them. 


[13:41] Kimberly Drew: And when they came to the Guggenheim on display, it became the most visited exhibition ever. Under no circumstances would someone project that that would happen. But it is a courageous curator that said ‘we have to do the show.’ And who knows how it was received when it was presented, but it’s important that those kinds of stories are brought to the fore as often as possible. So I think you have to hold both of those truths at the same time. And I don’t know that we’re there yet, but I think for me as a person who’s interested in change in the art world, like, I have to also hold true and understand to the fact that like if you’re doing a survey on Iranian art, the artists are going to be from Iran. That’s just the truth. But there should also be a consideration within your collecting practice, within your exhibiting practice, to try to find as much diversity as possible, whether that be through what’s on the walls, the programing that’s happening, and/or the staff that works on those things. 


[14:30] Sinéad Burke: And just being conscious of that. You spoke there — at the very beginning, I thought it was interesting — where you were talking that leaving an institution and how you are now coming into your power. And in many ways that feels like a dissonance, because we associate power with institutions. And my naive assumption would have been that you would have had more power within that entity rather than creating one on your own. And I would just love to hear more about your thinking on that. 


[14:55] Kimberly Drew: Yeah. It’s an interesting one, because when I was leaving the Met, there was a part of me that just had to sit with the fact that I knew I would be losing a lot of power. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of people that do associate institutions with power in a way that is disparaging for marginalized people. You know, when I first got that job at the Met, I was talking to someone who had worked at the Met like a million years ago. And he said, ‘they hired you?’ I was just like, are you kidding me? Like, no, no, no, no. We’re not playing this game. I know why I was hired and I know what I can do. But I was thinking to myself, OK, what happens when I’m out? And people ask me what I do and, you know, whatever. How am I going to answer that? Because saying the Met got me through so many bullshit conversations. And at the end of the day, they’re just bullshit conversations, you know? And so on the note of power versus not having power, I think in many ways seeing some of the broader changes that I want to see in the art world, thinking about capital accessibility, thinking about diversity, thinking about inclusion, thinking about equity, I think that in some ways it was easier to see those things and actualize those things from my position at the Met because institutions follow other institutions. So if we’re doing this sort of program on our social media, and I write a paper or present through social media channels what I’m doing, I can teach other people to do it. Then it becomes standard practice. That’s just what happens when you work at an institution like the Met, which for better or worse is actually a good thing because sometimes you need to see like the most resource places do some things, sometimes before smaller spaces can get experimental. And I worked at both. I worked at, you know, on a staff of 20. I’ve worked on a staff of 2,000. Like I’ve run the gamut. I’ve worked in the private sector as well. So in some ways, there’s more work to be done without that tied to me. But separately, I can make all of my own decisions in this phase. And there’s nothing like that agency, much more than power, but I think of myself in this stage because of the work that I’ve done as a powerful person. And I know that when I pick artists, or when I pick shows, I know that there’s a certain power that I wield. And I’m holding that. I’m harnessing it. And I think in many ways there were different phases of my career where I felt like I had to quiet myself to exist in institutions. And that is unfair, and just a prevalent reality for especially women of color. We have to sit down and shut up often, or we’re sassy, and this, and you’re running this risk or that risk. And I’m in a moment where I think I can exercise a lot more risk. And that to me is powerful. 


[17:19] Sinéad Burke: And I think that notion of risk is so important because exactly as you said, there is less risk for an institution like the Met stepping forward and building something like a very tangible, resilient, accessibility policy than it is by a small institution. But I want to kind of move back a bit in terms of this conversation about power. You first came to my kind of social media timelines, or my cognizance of you, through Tumblr and and blogging. And, you know, I started a blog, gosh, ten years ago. And it was born out of a frustration with both a lack of visibility, a lack of access. What made you set up a Tumblr account? 


[17:56] Kimberly Drew: So what made me start Tumblr, period, is my friend Grace Miceli, who is one of coolest people that I know. She is an artist, and we did radio together in college. And Grace is just — she was always just like my idea of cool when I was in school. And I was in her apartment on campus and her computer was open or something. I looked over and she had a Tumblr account. And I was like, what is that? And so being the follower that I am, I went home and made my own account. And had my own account and liked that. It was really at that time — this is like 2009 or something — really a space for creative people, like as their kind of mission says. So I was like, super game, whatever. And then I had my sophomore year of college, got an internship at the Studio Museum in Harlem. And when I was there, I went from basically zero knowledge of black artists, or being able to really differentiate between one artist or another, I should say. And I got real clarity on who the artists that I liked were, or began to build a vocabulary of the artists that I like. And when I got back to college, when I got back to Smith College where I graduated from, I dropped the major I was taking and immediately enrolled in art history classes, just kind of like knew what I needed to be doing. At that same time, I started a Tumblr called Black Contemporary Art because I wanted to make sure that I was retaining the information that I had learned at Studio Museum. And also because I went looking for a blog that could help me continue to learn, and it just didn’t exist. I went around and around and being 20 at the time, I thought if it wasn’t on social media, it didn’t exist. You know, I was like on campus with multiple libraries and thought, oh my god, it’s not a social media so it doesn’t exist. 


[19:33] Sinéad Burke: There’s not a book on this. 


[19:34] Kimberly Drew: There’s not a book. There couldn’t be. Who is Sharon Patton? Like, you know, this amazing woman who did this encyclopedia of African-American artists. It’s like, why would I do that? 


[19:42] Sinéad Burke: There’s not a section. 


[19:43] Kimberly Drew: Yeah. I mean, there’s not. So there was not a section on my campus, but there might be now. But I went to Tumblr because I knew that it worked as a space where, unlike a blogger or like a more static site, you could take things from other people’s pages and there’s a dashboard. So there’s space for discovery. And you could have multiple collaborators. And that was always really important to me, too, because one thing I knew very confidently at 20 is that I didn’t know anything. Whenever I tell the story of the beginning of my career especially, I want people to understand like I did not know everything, but I knew what I wanted to see. I knew what I needed to see. And that was motivating enough for me to start something.


[20:22] Sinéad Burke: For you, why was art the domain in which you so wanted to access and narrate? 


[20:28] Kimberly Drew: Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, honestly, it’s always been a part of my life. I mean, I just never had a time when art and creativity weren’t a part of what I was doing. You know, I — my family, we were very big on sports and very big on art. It wasn’t like delay activity to make an art project. It was like the activity that we were doing, you know. And in my opinion, I was probably like the worst athlete and the worst artist in the family. And so I just took it so seriously because I’m the youngest child. And the youngest child of parents who are youngest children. So, OK, coming at it with this, like, I have to be great. And I have to know, you know — so my aesthetic was probably built from that pressure of just like trying to compete with the big kids. And so, yeah, I’ve always been, like from a very young age, obsessed with visuals and aesthetics and textures and all the things. There’s just never been a version of myself that wasn’t that way. It’s all over my birth chart.


[21:20] Sinéad Burke: We’re gonna get to the star signs because I wanted to be a focus. But I’m conscious — you know, you said at 20 that the one thing that you were cognizant of was the fact that you did not know everything, or you did not know anything. But yet setting up a Tumblr to literally be the only and unique space — yes, through collaborative efforts, but that would narrate and exemplify black artists. Did you feel a sense of responsibility at 20? Did you have any understanding that, oh, well, it needs to be intersectional, or it needs to be — like, were there any expectations on yourself? 


[21:54] Kimberly Drew: Yeah. There wasn’t. There really wasn’t. And I think that that was the very dumb luck thing in the beginning. Because there wasn’t a mission. There wasn’t like a really thought-out goal beyond just like I want to see it, which meant that there wasn’t even room for doubt. You know, like I didn’t have high expectations, so I didn’t doubt I could do it or not. And I’m very, very self-critical, as you know as my friend, and carry a lot of my own insecurities to everything that I do. And so in that moment, the stakes were so low that I was just like, you know, here’s some of the artists that I know. And then I just kept learning. And I think a lot about within a black feminist context, how serving black women allows us to intersect with so many other identities, focusing on marginalized people and trying to expand my understanding and language around marginalization on a global scale. How can I speak to the core of that so that people can just feel seen? Because we’re in an industry that doesn’t take the time to see or interpret or understand or take time with the nuances of identity. 


[22:54] Sinéad Burke: You are my favorite Leo of all. And you have taught me so much about being free and open to being vulnerable in a space in which was not designed or considered for you. And what I admire most about you is that you use the influence, the power, and the spaces in which you occupy, to bring so many others forward in a non-intimidating, in a curious and kind way. It has been an extraordinary privilege to sit opposite you this afternoon. Thank you so much. 


[23:31] Kimberly Drew: Thank you.


[23:34] Sinéad Burke: Every time I get to spend minutes or more with Kimberly, my mind is altered and the lens through which I view the world is entirely tilted. Her powerful words, and the way in which she sees the various different ecosystems that we all permeate through and in, shapes her vision for the world. Kimberly has a new book coming out which you can preorder immediately, but she also designed a pair of sneakers with Reebok, which I currently own. They’re going to be displayed in my house as art. 


[24:04] Sinéad Burke: This week’s person you should know is the extraordinary actor and activist Chella Man. Chella describes themselves as deaf and trans and is coming to our screens very soon in ways in which we have never, ever seen before. Their advocacy is challenging and educational, and so often the topics in which they speak on have not been part of broader conversations wherein advocacy, human rights and who gets to participate in conversations. You can follow Chella Man on Instagram @ChellaMan. 


[24:34] Sinéad Burke: As Me with Sinéad is a Lemonada Media original, and is executive produced by Jessica Cordova Kramer. Assistant produced by Claire Jones and edited by Ivan Kuraev. Music is by Jerome Rankin. Our ad sales and distribution partner is Westwood One. If you’ve liked what you’ve heard, don’t be shy. Tell your friends or listen and subscribe on Apple, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you like to listen. And rate and review as well. To continue the conversation, find me on Instagram and Twitter @thesineadburke, and find Lemonada Media on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook @LemonadaMedia.

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