THE MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART CHICAGO announced new leadership appointments to its curatorial team today. Jamillah James was named Manilow Senior Curator.

MCA Chicago described her new role as leading the visual arts department and serving as a “driving force” in curatorial programming. She joins the museum from the Institute of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (ICA LA) where she is senior curator.

A curator-to-watch, James co-organized the “2021 Triennial: Soft Water Hard Stone” at the New Museum in New York. On view through Jan. 23, the triennial features an international slate of emerging artists. In September, she was one of three inaugural winners of the Noah Davis Prize for curators.

James’s appointment at MCA Chicago was announced in conjunction with the arrival of René Morales, who has been named James W. Alsdorf Chief Curator. Previously, he served as director of curatorial affairs and chief curator at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM). His is organizing “Gary Simmons: Public Enemy,” the artist’s first career survey, which will open PAMM and travel to MCA Chicago in 2023. Both Morales and James officially start in January.

“We are building a curatorial team for the MCA’s next chapter, one that is committed to telling an inclusive art history, engaging with our community, and expanding the breadth and diversity of experience on the team. Both René and Jamillah are passionate about investing in Chicago’s community of artists, cultural stakeholders, and audiences, and their collaborative practice and open and authentic approach will be transformative for the MCA,” MCA Pritzker Director Madeleine Grynsztejn said in a statement.

“We are building a curatorial team for the MCA’s next chapter, one that is committed to telling an inclusive art history, engaging with our community, and expanding the breadth and diversity of experience on the team.” — MCA Pritzker Director Madeleine Grynsztejn

James works with a broad range of emerging and under-recognized artists, presenting insightful and deeply researched exhibitions. Serving as a curator at ICA LA since 2016, she played a critical role in the museum’s re-emergence. Formerly the Santa Monica Museum of Art, ICA LA reopened with a new name, mission, and building in 2017.

At ICA LA, her forthcoming exhibitions of artists Sara Cwynar and Rebecca Morris open in 2022. James is also planning the first major museum survey of Los Angeles-based performance artist Barbara T. Smith for 2023. The project was recognized with a 2021 Ellsworth Kelly Award from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts.

Her recent exhibitions at ICA LA include “Harold Mendez: Let us gather in a flourishing way” (2020-21), “No Wrong Holes: Thirty Years of Nayland Blake” (2019-20), and “This Has No Name,” the first U.S. museum survey of B. Wurtz (2018). James also organized the Los Angeles presentation of the traveling exhibition “Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush” (2018), the artist’s first solo museum show.

Previously, James was assistant curator at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, where her tenure included organizing exhibitions in collaboration with Mark Bradford’s Art + Practice. Her experience also includes curatorial fellowships at the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Queens Museum. In 2005, James earned a BA from Columbia College Chicago, where she was a member of the inaugural class of art history graduates.

At MCA Chicago, James is stepping into the position previously held by Naomi Beckwith, who now serves as deputy director and chief curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. She joins budding talents at MCA Chicago, including assistant curator Jadine Collingwood and Tara Aisha Willis, associate curator of performance.

“The MCA is an institution that I have long admired and where, as a student in Chicago, I had many formative experiences with contemporary art and artists. Visiting the MCA helped me realize the possibilities of curating and of museums. The city of Chicago is home to an incredible community of artists, and I am humbled by the opportunity to be an advocate for them as part of the MCA’s team,” James said in a statement.

A leader in the field, the MCA is a true 21st century institution that is engaged with the most important discussions of the day, willing to reflect on its position and on what museums can do, and work towards what they should be—and I’m excited to be a part of its history.” CT


IMAGE: MCA Chicago Senior Curator Jamillah James. | Photo by Jasmine Clarke


Jamillah James co-edited “Soft Water Hard Stone: 2021 New Museum Triennial” and authored “Donna Huanca: Obsidian Ladder.” The exhibition catalog “Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush” features an interview James conducted with the artist. James also contributed to “Young, Gifted and Black: A New Generation of Artists: The Lumpkin-Boccuzzi Family Collection of Contemporary Art”; “Lucas Blalock: Oar Or Ore”; “Witch Hunt,” which “focuses on a selection of mid-career international artists whose oeuvres are informed by the legacies of feminist thought”; “Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974-1989”; and the forthcoming volume “Jamal Cyrus: The End of My Beginning.”


Do you enjoy and value Culture Type? Please consider supporting its ongoing production by making a donation. Culture Type is an independent editorial project that requires countless hours and expense to research, report, write, and produce. To help sustain it, make a one-time donation or sign up for a recurring monthly contribution. It only takes a minute. Many Thanks for Your Support.