Kellie Jones, an associate professor in the department of art history and archaeology and the Institute for Research in African-American Studies, was awarded the prestigious MacArthur "genius" grant this week in recognition of her curation and scholarship on African-American artists.
The MacArthur Fellowship is a $625,000 grant awarded annually to 20 to 25 leaders in various fields by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The grant aims to "inspire the creative potential" of recipients, according to the foundation's website.
Alumna Claudia Rankine, MFA '93 and a professor of poetry at Yale University, was also awarded the MacArthur Fellowship for her collections of poetry. These winners will put the number of "genius" grant recipients associated with Columbia, including faculty and alumni, at a total of 16 in the past decade.
Jones was recognized for her work as a curator and art historian in documenting and bringing to light the art of the African diaspora. Through exhibitions such as Energy/Experimentation: Black Artists and Abstraction, 1964–1980 in 2006 and Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties in 2014, she brought to the fore previously unknown black artists and placed their work in the wider context of modern American art.
"My focus is primarily on African-American and African diaspora artists with the goal of understanding what constitutes modern and contemporary art history," Jones said. "I want to make art history more reflective of the world we inhabit by recognizing global and gendered creators of art objects."
Jones emphasized the importance of recognizing the role of African-American artists in fighting for justice, referencing her exhibitions on the '60s.
"There are a lot of ways that artists participate in social movements it's not always visible in the image, and I think that's the important part," Jones said. "You have abstract art in the '50s and 60s. What happens in the '60s—the civil rights movement, the black power movement. So you have these abstract objects, but it doesn't mean the artists weren't participating in change."
Having grown up in New York City, Jones returned to work at Columbia in 2006 after being a faculty member for seven years at Yale, where she earned her Ph.D. While teaching at Columbia, Jones said that she encourages her students to use their unique location to extend their learning beyond the classroom.
"Teaching art history in New York is a dream," Jones said. "That's one of the first things I say to my students—you are taking art history in New York, you must go to the museums, your ID gets you in free. It's a great cheap date, if nothing else."
Rankine was recognized for five poetry collections, published over the past two decades, that bring to life the realities of living in modern America. Her collection "Citizen", recent essays, and a short film titled "Situations" have focused her current work on the African-American experience.
Although Jones is currently undecided on her plans for the grant, she said that it will give her the flexibility to pursue her creative passions without specific goals or deadlines.
"What [the grant is] energizing me to do is to think more broadly, take more risks, think bigger," Jones said. "I'm thinking about collaboration with younger scholars. Just really moving to the next stage and thinking about what that is."