D.C.’s art scene is full of eccentric characters, fine artists, photographers, and performers all known for what and how they create. We find ourselves in awe of their expression yet we seldom understand the inner workings of how it came to be. For there is another side to the scene, full of unsung heroes that play a significant role in moving society’s perspective of the arts forward. These are the gallerists, studio assistants, curators and many others that remain a mystery to the masses.
Deirdre Darden is one of those people, an independent curator and one of the brilliant minds behind the artwork found in Eaton Hotel.
Curator, a word typically reserved for traditional museum settings and academia, found its way into the minds and mouths of the mainstream a few years back and spread like wildfire. So much so, that when discussed in general terms, it seems the meaning has become a bit distorted.
“I feel like the word has had an excessive overuse and devalues the original meaning,” Deirdre explained. “The way I see it used a lot is a synonym for selection or grouping. … I can understand how it’s become a phenomenon — a new idea people attach to — and it’s spreading knowledge of what a curator is but I think there are other ways to express what that means.
“Curating really comes from creating the context and purpose of what you’re grouping together, and it’s a meaningful presentation of something that’s been researched and is a wholly developed idea. As opposed to these things look good together, that’s more of an aesthetic thing,” Dierdre said.
Deirdre is something of a purist. Her love of the practice comes from a lifetime of being immersed in the arts. The daughter of a journalist and a civil rights activist, she grew up surrounded by creative theory. She knew early on that being surrounded by art was a must for her professional life. Painting, drawing and jewelry making were the initial stages of her artistic exploration though she soon realized they wouldn’t be enough.
“It’s one of those things where your ideas and skills are at different stages as you’re building. I kept thinking there were ways to express all of these themes, moments in time and things I wanted to explore in art that I wasn’t able to fully achieve. That’s when I started finding exhibition design
and anthropology, I got more into studying, being around objects and explaining their history and through classes in college I found curating,” she continued.
Curation is her art. A perfect combination of researching, writing and exhibiting that allows her to build context around the aesthetic.
“I was seeing the exhibition as a medium and being able to express myself through the exhibition using the works of other people … they are supportive points, tools in a sense to help me carry out my theme. … I realized this was my path, I can be surrounded by art when I am working, have a passion for what I do and know I’ve spent my studies and life working in this direction and it all makes sense.”
Making her way through D.C.’s scene wasn’t the easiest of tasks. When Deirdre returned to the city from college, she had very few connections. Through volunteering at different artist studios, working at galleries, and joining the Black Artists of D. C., she began to cultivate her network. Ultimately landing the job of curating the annual show for black artists at the D.C. Arts Center.
It was her second year working in this capacity that she really found her stride.
“I had written this poem about pressure points, it was a political poem. And, it was a show I really wanted to do. To this day I am really proud of it because it was fully my creation. These points on the body, you apply pressure, there is a surge of energy to that point, and then it dissipates. I thought that was a really good analogy for anxiety and being a black woman and all of the things that come with it.”
Her next major accomplishment was landing a curatorial grant from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities to produce “We Got Next,” a survey of D.C. artists under 30. The experience dovetailed with her role at Eaton. Both experiences are adding perspective to her identity as a curator.
“I got the grant and started Eaton in the same week. So, they were running a little parallel for a while. The process was very different, Eaton has a team and with “We Got Next” I was by myself. I think I’ve have evolved to Eaton Deirdre through the resources they have and the support of the team.
“It was amazing to sit down with Sheldon Scott and Kat Lo (owner of Eaton Hotel). She sat us down like here are my inspirations, and these are the artists I love, this is my wish list, and our job was to make that a reality. It was great because I got to again rely on the hustling that I’d been doing.”
A strong network is something Deirdre attributes much of her success to. It’s those like her, who continue to feed the beast, refuse to leave the city and believe wholeheartedly that D.C. can be a thriving center for the art world that continues to keep hope alive.
“I think there is a good community that is supportive and hopefully honest of each other. I think that’s pretty unique. There is no greater city to be a black artist than in D.C. because there is a true
reference for a lot of the work that has to do with black life.”
It’s exciting to see what’s in store for Deirdre Darden in the coming years, but there is no question she’ll continue to be a force on the scene.
“I see myself as an older lady with awesome glasses and a red lip, displaying all of my contemporaries on the wall and being able to show future generations this is D.C.”