Jamillah James loves horror movies, detests Claire Danes and fist-pumps to Metallica in her car on the way to work. The pop culture–savvy James, 36, is the friend you see Get Out with at ArcLight Hollywood on a Sunday night and the ride-or-die bestie who is always down for an evening of drinking wine and binging true-crime TV on the couch.
Because she is so much fun to hang out with, it is easy to forget that James is also a knowledgeable, innovative and increasingly important museum curator. Her recent appointment as curator of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (ICA LA), scheduled to open downtown in September, means that some of your favorite museum shows, in years to come will likely be the product of her hyperactive, imaginative brain.
Before she became a curator, James was a curious, meandering 20-something who didn't know what she wanted to be when she grew up.
The daughter of a teacher in New Jersey, James played violin and tuba, contributed to the school newspaper and started a zine in high school. Initially she called her zine Claire Is an Eyesore (because she “hated My So Called Life and was just like, ugh, Claire Danes is the worst”). Eventually she chose the title A Wasted Style (because she was “a little indie-rocker teenager nerd” who lifted the phrase from a Pavement lyric).
After high school it took James seven years, nearly as many majors, two colleges and a cross-country move from Boston to Chicago before she ultimately graduated from Columbia College with an interdisciplinary degree in cultural studies and art history. Along the way she hosted a Sunday night radio show called Calculated Beats for the Soul Impaired, played drums in a band, put on DIY shows in her loft and studied creative writing, film, sound engineering and studio art. “I definitely failed drawing in college,” she laughs. “Partly because of lack of ability and also because I went on tour with my band for three weeks and was just like, 'byyyyeeeeee.'”
After college James moved to New York, where she paid her dues at a dull copywriting job until, on a whim, she moved to Baltimore. It was there that, for fun, she organized a massive, well-received art show called “Agenda: Queering Popular Media.”
At that point James realized her calling. There was a common thread running throughout all her interests. Regardless of the format (zine, radio show, DIY house show), she had always loved the process of researching and engaging with art, organizing it thoughtfully and presenting it to an audience. Even before she decided on it as a career, James was a curator.
Following fellowships at the Queens Museum and the Studio Museum in Harlem, James came to Los Angeles in 2014 to work as an assistant curator at the Hammer Museum. “I love L.A.,” she says. “I was a very quick convert. I'm just like a little Benedict Arnold from the East Coast.”
With her new position at ICA LA (formerly the Santa Monica Museum of Art), James has her first sustained opportunity to steer the direction of a museum's programming. She's excited to further establish her voice as a curator and build on the institution's history as she works to shape its future.
In a 2012 lecture at MoMA PS1 in New York, James gave the following advice: “Be accessible, and if you can't be accessible, at least be engaging. If all else fails, be weird.” Luckily for L.A., James is all of those things, and we get to see what her smart, weird, hamster wheel of a brain comes up with next.