Dorit Yaron is a curator, museum professional, grant writer, art historian, and now, member of the academic affairs committee and the board at IDSVA. Since 2004, she has served as the Deputy Director of the David C. Driskell Center for Study of African American Art at the University of Maryland, College Park. She received her MA in Art History and Archeology, specializing in African American art, from the University of Maryland, College Park. She also earned a BA in Architecture from the University of the Negev, Beer Shiva, Israel.
VG: Can you talk about your journey, namely coming to the United States and what it was like to start your career?
DY: I originally came to the United States from Israel with the intention of staying for two years, for my husband’s postdoc, so I was not allowed to work. In Israel, I worked as a landscape architect, so I was looking for some artistic activities to enrich my life here. I always loved fibers, so I started taking weaving classes and was especially interested in weaving large tapestries, which I did and later exhibited in museums like the Cleveland Museum of Art. It was a wonderful time, but a few years later, we moved to the DC area, and I decided to improve my drawing skills. I took a few art classes, but also art history and that is when I fell in love with art history, so I decided to pursue my master’s degree in art history. But really, the most important or influential class I took during that period was called Black Political Art of the ’60s and ’70s. In the ’60s and ’70s I was growing up in Israel and at that time it was a very socialist country, so political art and social commentary were always a part of my life. But in school, I mainly studied and was exposed to European art, American art, especially Abstract Expressionism. Yet, I knew nothing about African American art. So, this class really changed and directed my career path. I felt connected to what I saw. I found the art that I was introduced to extremely interesting and challenging. I felt that I needed to learn about history and especially American history, as well as art and artists that I have never heard about before. I really learned a lot. This was in the mid to late 1990s. There were not many African American artists mentioned in the literature and especially in academic textbooks, so this class was extremely unusual; unfortunately, it was offered only once. Soon after I started working at the University Gallery at the University of Maryland and later, I took my current position at the Driskell Center. I made a lot of specific choices and with a little bit of luck, I landed in a place that I really appreciate, love, and grew with. I grew up with the Center because I started there very soon after it was founded. I was overseeing all the moves from offices to a space that had an art gallery, art storage, library, archive, and so on. We started with 100 pieces of art and today we have more than 2,000 works. I've been with the Center for 17 years, so it's been a real journey. I don’t think that the university knew exactly how to shape the Center. I was hired at the same time as the director who was a collector of works on paper by African American artists, so it was a good combination of somebody who was passionate about collecting and somebody like me, who had art history and museum experience. We worked very well together, and later in 2012, with the hiring of Curlee R. Holton as the new director, we elevated the Center to what it has now become.
VG: What advice can you offer those who may be in a similar place now or more simply, if you could go back and tell yourself something at any point in your life, what would it be?
DY: Each person’s situation is of course very different, but I think that there are three things that, when I look back, are important. I was lucky to have used them, as I was looking at what I wanted to do with my life. One of them is really to continue learning and allow yourself to expand to areas that are less familiar to you. We always know that when we go to those areas, we get a little bit scared, because we don’t know anything, but that makes us more interesting and stronger human beings. I also think it’s really important to educate ourselves about the options that we might have in our careers and to be willing to give up on something. We may have to sacrifice financial security, free time, or anything else. To be honest, I went back to grad school at the most difficult time of my life, when I didn’t really know how I would be able to support myself. But finally, and this is the part I always tell my daughter, you need to think carefully and decide based on your gut feeling. Listen to your heart. I am a very logical person but listening to my gut really worked very well for me. Going back to school during the most difficult time of my life both professionally and personally, turned out to be one of the best decisions I have ever made. It led me to a career that has been very satisfying, stimulating, important and allowed me to survive independently. Listening to your gut feeling, taking risks, while also educating yourself at the same time, and knowing your options are the guidelines that I follow.
I also must tell you about my father, who is a Holocaust survivor, who came to Israel before Israel was founded, in 1944, at the end of World War II. He only had a high school education and always wanted to be a landscape architect. He couldn’t study it in Israel, and so he had to do everything that he could to find a scholarship and somebody to support him. He was already 36 and a father of two. He studied in France, at Versailles, because he spoke French, and every three months, returned to Israel to spend a month with us. He split his education to four semesters a year, rather than two to be able to achieve his goal and he did it in two years. It was a lot of sacrifice by my mother and my father, but he became a very successful landscape architect. What I’m trying to say is, when you follow your heart and you’re willing to make sacrifices you can reach your goals.
VG: Let’s talk about another influential figure in your life, Dr. David C. Driskell. He was a pioneer and undoubtedly an enormous influence on you. How did he specifically impact your life?
DY: I was a graduate student hired to work on a David C. Driskell exhibition, at the University Gallery in 1998. The exhibition was called Narratives and included 100 works from his collection. It was a really good fit considering the classes that I took before and because it was an introduction to almost 100 words by African American artists. I was also hired to work on a symposium that was held in conjunction with the exhibition. I cannot tell you just how lucky I am that I knew and worked with David. He was such a unique individual who I wish I had known earlier in my life. He was not only a scholar and an artist, but he was a generous, honorable, and an extremely humble human being. Not only did he impact my knowledge of the field, history, and the artists he worked with, but he also impacted art history with his interest in telling the full narrative of American art, including the contribution of African American artists. But more than anything, I watched how he treated students and emerging artists with such support and respect which they fully deserved. His influence on me as a mentor has been huge. To some degree, I would say that I adopted his approach in my own career. David was a teacher and mentor at his core. I don’t know if many people know that. He arrived at Howard University in early 1950, to become a history teacher. He took a few art classes and his professor told him, “You belong in the art department, not in the history department.” So, he changed his career.
At the Driskell Center, we employ about 12 to 15 students each semester. I work very closely with two to four students, who I train as art registrars or library interns. I teach them skills, which later help them find careers in the arts. This aspect of my career is very important to me and is very much influenced by David’s approach. I try to channel his calmness and respect. He was just an open person. He opened himself to everybody. I try to adopt those qualities in my own work.
We recently curated a show of work by students, from Fisk University, Howard University, and the University of Maryland. We did a few panel discussions with the students and all of them mentioned without exception the values that he instilled in them as people: humility, openness, listening, and guidance. They didn’t talk much about learning how to draw beautiful lines, mixing material, and so on. At the end of the day, after we get our degrees, what really stays with us is that humility. It carries us throughout the rest of our lives.
VG: So back to you, what brings you to IDSVA?
DY: That started very early. I met George [Smith] and Amy [Curtis] in 2007. It was only a year after the school was founded. I really didn’t know much about them or about the school at the time, but they had already met David [Driskell] in Maine. They came to see a show, it was our first show in our new location. It was on five decades of printmaking by David C. Driskell. It was very exciting to get to know both of them and to learn about the school and program which was so different from traditional academia, or at least what I was familiar with. I was intrigued because I was always interested in getting a Ph.D., which I have not done, unfortunately, but it was an attractive concept. I was not extremely excited about the way that art history programs are run but the principle of IDSVA is so different. It offers a more unique and progressive option in the arts. My daughter, Keren Moscovitch, who is an artist and scholar, was exploring Ph.D. programs, so I encouraged her to talk to George. Now I am so thrilled because she received her Ph.D. from IDSVA in 2020 at the commencement ceremony in Mexico City. I’m so proud and happy for her. Now she has an upcoming book, Radical Intimacy in Contemporary Art (forthcoming by Bloomsbury, 2024). I was extremely touched and honored when George approached me and asked me to participate, to be a board member. I told him that I was honored and that my hope is to make a difference. I hope that as a board member, I can assist the board, the faculty, the students in any way I can. The school has done an excellent job with diversity, which is very important to me. They do a great job in selecting the student body. I hope to help by contributing and increasing diversity in all aspects of the school. I’m very honored and excited to be a member and the board is amazing.
VG: What does the artist-philosopher mean to you?
DY: This is really a tough question and I’m not sure that I can answer it in a very academic way. I was a weaver and exhibiting, but I don’t see myself as an artist. I think I’m a creative human being, I hope, but I’m not an artist. I’m also not a philosopher in the traditional way, however, my understanding of it, or maybe I should say my interpretation of it, is that an artist-philosopher is one who takes consideration in approach and operates across all forms of art and humanities, including literature, poetry, history, and theories which are informed by current events in our society. It is important to be rooted in what’s happening today. In my opinion, David C. Driskell was a great example of an artist-philosopher. He educated himself about art, history, ancient history, philosophy, African art, music, and so on. He paid attention to those before him, which I think is very important, including Greek philosophers and artists such as Cézanne, by whom he was very much influenced. You can see the influence in some of the Driskell landscape work. Interestingly enough, Cézanne was also my father’s favorite. David is really an example of an artist that is also a philosopher through extending his wings to all the fields of the humanities, he was a poet, he played piano, even though he wasn’t necessarily a great musician, but in the end, he talked a lot about truth and about the role of the artist in the world. That makes him an example of an artist-philosopher. In traditional academia, artists are learning how to talk about their work through an artist statement, but often they don’t expand the knowledge beyond their specific fields (for example, I’m a painter so I look at painters). But David was really a great example of somebody who took a lot in, in order to explain to himself and to others what an artist is. I have great examples from his writing and will share a few quotes from his lectures in the ’80s, especially about truth and its connection to philosophy.
VG: At the time of this interview, restrictions are loosening in New York City and life is slowly returning in person. As we seem to be emerging on the other side of these unusual past two years, is there anything surprisingly enriching that has come out of this experience for you?
DY: I think this is a wonderful question because it has impacted everybody’s life. Immediately I thought about the negative, but I had to step back and think about your question and how it has surprisingly enriched my life. I’m so glad that our lives are getting back to some normality and the number of people that lost their lives or are losing their lives has been decreasing, even though we’re still losing close to 1,500 people a day, and the loss of David [Driskell] is so tragic. He was one of the first to pass away from the pandemic; he died on April 1, 2020. He was really among the first tens of thousands of people who lost their lives. I think that the pandemic introduced us to a new way of living both good and bad. Many aspects of life will never be back to what they used to be. The positive impact is yet to be determined, but I do think that people have discovered the importance of our environment, namely the outdoors. People have spent more time outdoors reconnecting to the vegetation around us, the smell of flowers, trees, fields of grass under our toes and fingers. You couldn’t go to the gym to exercise, you couldn’t go see people, you couldn’t go to coffee places, so if you wanted to see people, you had to be outdoors. I think this is a positive thing. It’s hard to believe that, for example, eating outdoors in a restaurant was not common just a few years ago. Now, most restaurants have found creative solutions to have spaces outdoors in order to survive. I am worried about visual art and the performing arts right now, however. Especially in relation to bringing the audience back. I have been seeing that at the Center. Some groups of individuals are not yet ready to come back. There is huge participation in online programs, but not in person. Younger people are more used to online participation, but older people are less comfortable with it. Some people are learning and of course, there is some level of comfort and convenience to sit at home and listen to everything. But this experience cannot really replace what it is like to really go to exhibitions and to performance spaces. Like listening to live music, experiencing theater, you know, art in person. I hope that people will become more comfortable and start going out more. Studying art history was heavily dependent on slides, rather than going out to see art, but it’s very important to experience art in person. It doesn’t even matter what, just go and see something. See the texture, the color, and how different it is from pictures. I remember when, as an art history student, I learned about Guernica by Pablo Picasso. I remember when I finally saw it in real life, I was lost in it, in its magnitude, so I am excited about the return. I also hope people value their relationships with colleagues, family, and friends. I hope that we can take the good that we have learned and incorporate that into our lives.
When I walked outside, I have been really touched by not only seeing walkers but also seeing families. Parents go to school to pick up their kids by walking, not waiting in their cars. It’s such a wonderful experience for all of us and I hope that some of it will stay with us. It also feels European because I grew up in a country where we didn’t have cars, so we walked, rode bicycles, or if we took a vehicle, it was the public bus. I haven’t been in New York City yet since the pandemic, but I have seen the pictures of restaurants. Watching people picnic in the park, and I know that it has always been a part of New York, the city is unique in that way, but Washington DC, for example, is much more conservative, and yet, we have seen it there too. I think that there is a shift all over the country, I cannot speak to every place, but there is a positive shift toward those kinds of activities.
VG: In your opinion, what is the role of a curator?
DY: I’m not a teacher and I never wanted to be a teacher, but I have done a lot of gallery talks for classes, students, and other groups. When I talk with students I ask them, “So you came to see an exhibition, but what do you think the curator’s role is?” A lot of people don’t really know that one of the main roles of the curator, at least traditionally, used to be the custodian of the collection. I think in the contemporary art world, curatorial roles have changed to more art management, registrar, and collection management. However, curators are still, in many institutions, the custodians of the collections, but it may be in a more advisory role. These days it may be more about what to add to the collection rather than day-to-day management of the collection. I do both the interpretation and organization of exhibitions as well as acting as the custodian of a collection. I love both of those aspects of the work. I must be extremely knowledgeable in my field of African American art and still learn every day because I am by no means the expert, but I make an effort to always learn more. When I am curating a show as well as when I participate in acquisitions, it is really important to think about the art, to be thoughtful to the artists, and to also think about the community that the institution serves. It’s important to look at all the artists, especially those that were not well documented or acknowledged, and to finally include them. I also look at emerging and local artists, and especially those who are responding to current issues that are essential to our daily lives. For example, again talking about the class that I took about political and social art that changed my life or artists responding to social movements such as Me Too or Black Lives Matter. That kind of thoughtfulness and attention to what’s going on is extremely important to tell the real story and to connect to your community. At the end of the day, museums are small centers, like the Driskell Center, with work always available for study, so it’s really important to cater to the needs of the community. We are an educational institution after all and that’s true for all libraries, museums, and so on. If you are living in a bubble and don’t listen to what the needs of your community are, then I don’t think you are doing your job as a curator.
I’m really excited about the latest exhibition that I curated, which was really a milestone. It was the first exhibition that the Driskell center had, which not only included African American artists, but also other American artists. About a third of the works were done by other artists who are not African American. The show was about American Landscapes, starting with the Hudson River School works of the 1820s, ’30s, and ’40s. We wanted to tell a different narrative of landscape art. We showed African American artists side by side with white American artists and when you’re looking at the work, you don’t know who is who. That was really the purpose of this exercise, to show the artists who were not recognized in textbooks, but still participated in the development of landscape art in America. One quick example is Edward Mitchell Bannister. He submitted a work of landscape art to a national competition in Philadelphia and he won the first prize. He was the first African American artist to win a major prize in 1876. When he came to the exhibition space to receive his award, he was not allowed into the space because he was African American. They acknowledge his art, gave him first prize, but yet as a human being, as a person of color, he was not allowed to actually receive the award in person. I think this is a good example of the equality that can happen when we just look at the quality of the art. This is a good example of how artists of color have been excluded from the narrative. That’s really what we do at the David C. Driskell Center, we include and document for future generations the contributions that have been omitted and what should have been included.
VG: What is next for you?
DY: I am also a grant writer and I’ve been the grant writer for the Driskell Center. I just got a grant for $790,000 which is a very large sum for a small Center. We are able to have an impact nationally and even internationally. The grant also includes the design of the monument in honor of David C. Driskell and will be erected in front of the Driskell Center. But one thing that I try to address in all the grants that I’ve brought in over the years is diversity. I am concerned about the lack of diversity in the art world and especially in the curatorial area and the library field. When we, for example, got a grant and we were looking ideally for a person of color, a student of color from the graduate school who would be working for us in the library or archive, we couldn’t find anyone. There are so few, and for whatever reason, they did not apply. Even the deans of several schools and programs admitted that the number of people of color in those areas of art history and library studies is very small. It’s lack of access to resources that also influenced where people with diverse backgrounds are going to get their degrees and it’s also affected by which institution is hiring more. It has been changing, however, especially in the last few years with BLM. There is a higher level of attention paid to who we are hiring in different institutions and the process is more thoughtful. I look forward to learning about more hiring of people with diverse backgrounds to our traditional institution. I think it will benefit everybody. The stories that we are telling will be more complete. As human beings we will be exposed to more unique and diverse experiences. We are moving in the right direction, but I think we still have a long way to go, and again, credit to IDSVA, the student body has been so impressive in its diversity. I feel that IDSVA is contributing to this change. I’m very proud of IDSVA and what it has been doing so far.
I’m speaking to you from my new apartment where we just moved. There is a lot of light here, which I love. I haven’t even had time to put art on the walls. I’m somewhat at a crossroads at this time, which I might just leave at that. I am making some career changes and my tentative plans include involvement in some important work related to David C. Driskell and the Driskell Center. I hope to continue to make a difference in my field and institutions that are very close to my heart. I will also continue to be involved with IDSVA. So more to come.