Makers Series: Interview with Professor/Multi-Media Artist/Gallery Owner Kimberly Camp
Meet Kimberly Camp: Museum-Founder. Painter. Sculptor. Doll-maker. Art Professor. Rule-breaker. Owner of Galerie Marie, located at 709 Haddon Avenue in Collingwood, NJ.
Galerie Marie has paintings, sculpture, dolls, prints, drawings, photography, jewelry and other crafts by artists from around the world. The gallery also features paintings and dolls by Kimberly Camp, whose work has appeared in over 100 exhibitions around the world.
Miss Camp is also the former CEO of the Barnes Foundation, one of my all-time favorite museums, so it was such an honor for me to snag a few hours of Ms. Camp's time for this sit-down, face-to-face interview. She is a very busy woman and rightfully so. Kimberly is the proprietor of the only Black-owned art gallery in Collingswood, a gorgeous space that carries the work of artisans from allover the world that she discovers in her travels and by attending trade shows. But before opening her gallery, she's been a life-long artist and that journey has taken her throughout the art world working for prestigious museums---not a very inclusive environment for women of color.
Our interview was long (almost 2 hours) and as luscious as I expected it to be, so I recorded it. There were shoppers and Christmas carolers
and other visitors during my time with her. I've done my best to edit it for brevity but leave in all of the jewels. Here goes...
PS: I have highlighted really important business lessons that professional creatives will find very helpful.
Me: It is my assumption that you were an art major in college.
KC: No. No.
Me: Really? What did you study in college?
KC: Before I went to college, I'd already had a career as an artist. I started painted when I was 11 and had my first show when I was 12. It sold out.
Me: Whaaaaaaat?!! Oh my God. Where was your show?
KC: It was in Woodbury at 112 Hunter St.
Me: Was this a gallery?
KC: It was actually my art teacher's house. She had a big Dutch Colonial and had a sidewalk sale. It was actually a clothesline exhibition. And I sold everything I had painted. She kicked me out that year. Out of the art class. She told my mom that there was nothing else she could teach me. She was mad at me for a lonnnnnng time.
KC: My mom then found me an painting teacher named Alexandria Limer in Merchantville (NJ) and I would go to Mrs. Limer's house to learn how to paint. She would look at my work, charcoal sketches and paintings, and say, "You're gonna be the best animal artist of all time." I did primarily animals at that point.
Me: And you're still in junior high?
KC: Yes, 8th grade. People would buy stuff right off of my easel before it was completed. And in art shows at the mall, I would get a free space to paint because I was amusing. I was just this little black girl...painting. So when I went to college, I left at 16. I graduated a year early. I was a religion studies major. I wanted to be a GHOSTBUSTER. I went to American University my first year and didn't like it and transferred to the University of Pittsburg. When I got there, (I changed my major to art) they did a portfolio review in the art department and gave me so much credit for my art studio work because it was so advanced, that I basically had to fill up the time with other courses because I had finished all of my art requirements by sophomore year. So I started taking art history courses with a woman named Kathy Lindoff. I took her classes because she was the only one not talking about dead, white men. Her focus was the art of Japan and China. I had taken so many of her courses that I decided to double major in Studio Art & Art History with a concentration in the Art of Japan in China.
All of my family are artists. This is what we do.
Me: Did you ever have a non-art job?
KC: Yes, in college. I put myself through school working at Nabisco. After college I went on to work in technical illustration doing isometric engineering drawings. I quit when I realized that I was supervising everyone else's work but they were getting paid more than me. I went on to work for Hourback Publishing in Pennsauken, NJ and I remember doing product announcement sheets for a new company called Apple.
Me: WOW!!!! Amazing.
KC: This was a magical time. I was involved with the National Conference of Artists in Philadelphia and doing art shows of my own. One day I was in Philly at Utrecht Art Supplies, and saw a sign up that Camden (where I'm from) was having its first art exhibit and I snatched the poster down and marched into City Hall demanding to know how it was that I lived right down the street and never knew about this. So I started working with the city of Camden on their art program.
Me: Is this how you began doing the murals around Camden?
KC: Sorta, yeah. I quit my job at Hourback Publishing randomly because it would have depressed me to be there for 5 years. I resigned at 11 am. The same day at 2pm I received a call from the City of Camden to head the mural program. I was unemployed for all of 3 hours.
Me: (laughter) That's how talent works.
KC: I started doing this in '83. They gave me an old rowhouse that didn't even have a toilet to operate the program out of and I did it for 3.5 years.
Me: Beautifying the city of Camden! Now, in the early '80s were there still industrial jobs here or had they already left ?
KC: Been gone. Most of the city burned down in the race riots of the 60s. A lot of the city was boarded up. They gave me 20 kids from the city from Dan Quayles' signature summer job program. I had artists submit sketches and I would go around to the businesses and ask if they wanted a mural but showing them the portfolio and they would pick out a piece. The deal was that they had to provide water, bathrooms and lunch. We didn't have a lot of money but we were able to offer the artist media coverage and we got a lot of media coverage, and they were able to build their reputations and portfolios. I always say these were the magic years for me. Hanging art shows in Camden. Running the mural program. And wondering what's next. I thought I'd go into law because I figured that if I was a lawyer, I could work part-time but still make enough money to do my work (as an artist). So I took my LSATs.
Me: Wait. You went back to school for law???
KC: No. My uncle (a furniture maker) told me to talk to his attorney and I did. The attorney asked me what kind of law I wanted to practice and I said, "intellectual property involving computers." If I'd done so, I'd likely be a billionaire right now because no one even knew that was even a THING back then. But he talked me out of it. He said that if I was even half as talented as my uncle you should just go do your (art) work. That's what they do. Discourage you. So I did that. I looked for an art job that would pay well but still give me freedom. I interviewed at Drexel University and got a graduate assistantship. Which meant my tuition was paid for. This was the same time I started making my dolls.
Me: Ahhhhhh...how did you get into dollmaking?
KC: I used to make dolls for all of my friends who had kids. I'd make weird stuff like martians and aliens and what not and I always made my own clothes. So I had stacks and stacks of fabric left over. I started the dolls to make money for Christmas. My best friend and I started making the dolls for a Kwaanza Bazaar in Philly and we sold them all. People wanted to place orders. There was then a show at an university that January for the College Art Association. I submitted a printed and but they heard about my dolls and wanted them instead. Faith Ringgold (the famous quilter and author) was there and she said "I love your dolls and I wanna buy some!" I sold her a few few $10 each. She called me a few months later and I'm still enamored that Faith Ringed bought my dolls. And she said, "There's a writer doing an article in Essence on black dolls and I told her she needs to include you. Here's her name and number. If she doesn't call you, you call her." Well she called and I sent the big ones. I know you would have done the same thing. I sent a pair dressed alike, too because I knew they would show both of them! They would put ours in the center and put everyone else's small dolls around them. In the course of 1 year, I started doing international mail orders.
Me: So you created a catalog?
KC: I created a catalog, illustrated it and included 36 different dolls and a little map of Africa with a highlight on the country that each dress was from. I was doing craft shows and going to Drexel and running my doll business.
There is a 25 minute vivid conversation that ensues with a long-time customer about Miss Camp's travels. Fascinating conversation that I'm so happy to have on tape.
We pick up the interview here...
Me: It seems to me that your career evolved on its own. I think my generation, myself included, are under the belief that you have to have your career figured out. You better have this life plan with incremental goals so that you can achieve the type of FREEDOM and SUCCESS that you've achieved. But you have allowed things to unfold in a very organic way, it seems.
KC: Yes. Absolutely. It never made any sense to me to plan because you can't control the future.
Me: But did you have a direction? Did you know you wanted to be a professor, a curator?
KC: No, no. Never. Everything was "I'm a painter. I'm a doll-maker." I had this degree in art administration and so with that I would work with this organization or that organization and I liked that being both an administrator and a practitioner, I had a particular view of what was happening and I could work with artists in a particular way. As a museum President & CEO, the same thing applied because I knew what artists when through which made me very unique. I was very clear on what I wanted to DO. I wanted to make art. I wanted to wanted to make dolls.
Me: So you based your career around your strengths?
KC: I based my career around being incredibly self-indulgent.
Me: I love it. Hell yeah.
KC: When I was ready to leave a place, I'd start calling around. I came to the National Endowment of the Arts on a fellowship. And while there, a man approaches me in Swedish leather britches. Well, he worked for National Geographic. He said he really liked my dolls for National Geographic Kids Magazine.
Me: Now was your best friend still helping with the doll business?
KC: No! We don't talk to this day. Never go into business with your best friend! It was horrible. Too much resentment. One person will always have strengths the other does not have.
Anyway, a friend at the Art Museum in Philly had friend at The Smithsonian (where I had done a few lectures at) putting together something called the Experimental Gallery that I would be perfect for. But I didn't want to want for a museum. I applied to this 30 page application simply not to disappoint my friend. I went to the interview in a fuschia silk blouse with a jewel neck and my hair in Senegalese coils with a hot pink herringbone pencil skirt with a split up the back. I had on fuschia tights with red suede high heels pumps with a purple scarf. I said if they want me, they're gonna know who I am! I was offered the job while being warned that everyone was going to sabotage me. But I accepted the job and showed up to The Smithsonian in pearls and in the most expensive dress I've ever bought. Very conservative. Showing my range from "Belle to Beulah."
I had never worked in a museum before. I was the only artist and youngest person there. People were mean and horrible to me. I was 33 when I started there. It never stopped. They tried to undermine me every single day that I was there.
Me: People were treating your poorly and setting you up to fail. How did you find the inner fortitude to fight that on a daily basis?
KC: My friend's grandma told me, "when you see a fool, pass them by." My thing was, "go for it but please be creative so I can at least marvel in your creativity." I was gonna have fun with this because you ain't taking ME down. When the gallery first opened, I was on the front page of the style section of The Washington Post. And the article stated that the Experimental Gallery was a waste of money and time. She ended the article stating that I didn't want my own work hanging in museum (because I created paintings to best suit the size of walls in a house, not a gallery). I was mortified. I went to work the next day and the phone is ringing off the hook! People are congratulating me! I realized then that any press is GOOD press. People read the headline and one or two sentences then they're done! So if you're in the papers that's all that matters.
We had the first exhibition about AIDS. We had an interactive exhibition about how children experience racism. We did a segment on The Today Show.
Me: So when did you find yourself back in Philly at The Barnes? Well, let's see...it just opened about 5 years ago, right?
KC: I started at the old Barnes. I was the first Professional Director in the history of The Barnes. The museum I founded opened in Detroit in 1997. It was the biggest Black museum in the world. I left The Smithsonian to go build a museum in Detroit first. I built it from the ground up.
Me: What was it called?
KC: It was the Charles Wright Museum/The Museum of African American History. It was the largest museum of its kind in the world. We had Micheal Jackson come in. Jesses Jackson was there. Dick Gregory. I spent a day with Al Gore. Emit Till's mama. Susan Taylor from Essence Magazine. Jasmine Guy. Everyone was coming through there. LL Cool J. I got married while in Detroit because I was bored.
KC: But I was being attacked left and right in Detroit because I was a Black woman perceived to not have any protection. The attack from the Black Nationalist Community was unrelenting. They even staged protests because they believe I hired white people to work in a Black museum. I was the oger. I got a call from a headhunter for The Barnes. They offered to increase my salary by 50%. I had another job offer elsewhere so I called my uncle Donald again asking where should I go. He said go where I can be of the most service so I went to The Barnes.
Me: And you'd be back home (Philly/Camden).
KC: That really wasn't a factor. I grew up in this area but when I came back to work for The Barnes, I never heard from one friend. The psychological distance between The Barnes and the community in which I grew up in was so profound. I never heard from one person ever. I would call people, my best friends growing up, and they wouldn't return my calls. They wouldn't have anything to do with me.
Me: Yeah, because you were "fancy pants."
When I got to Detroit. I didn't know anybody. NO BODY. All those people I got to know, I picked up the phone and said, "Hello, my name is Kimberly Camp and I would like to talk to you." And then I networked so I could get those relationships where I wanted them to go. I don't have anyone opening doors for me there. And when I got to The Barnes, I ain't know nobody. I called people and introduced myself!
Me: And that's a big lesson right there! I think there's a lot of resentment that people feel that they have to build their own relationships and find their own way, create their own bridges. They want introductions. They want an easier way. They don't want to pick up the phone. Or even send and email and invite someone to lunch and get to know them the old fashioned way. That's still the way business gets done.
KC: Right. I tell these gen-xers that we Baby Boomers are still out number you and we're the ones with the money. You have to learn that we don't do Facebook, Twitter...we don't do none of that and when we do it, we ain't looking to do no business on it. So if you want to talk to me, pick up the phone, don't send me an email.
KC: I discovered that The Barnes didn't have any money. And there was a lot of corruption. I had sold my house and quit my job to come here. So I reached out to people to help The Barnes. No one liked me for that and I didn't hear from one childhood friend the entire time. No one called me and offered to take me to grab a cup of coffee. I heard from no one. So understand that I made in-roads for myself and I had no support from my community. But others outside of the community would call anytime they saw me on the news. Nobody Black did that for me. No one in the 7 years I was there...
I always encourage people to go into the museum field. The museum field is so fun. They pay well. The work is great, you're around things that are beautiful and fun and exciting.
Me: I got my Masters thinking I would go into the museum field or teach on the college level but that opportunity hasn't come to pass for me yet. It's only been 2 years since graduation but...
KC: Pick the institution that you want to work for and VOLUNTEER.
KC: Volunteer to do something administrative. You don't want to be the party host. But you'll happily help them with their mass mailing or their meeting planning or with whatever your strengths are so that you are there during administrative hours. That's the best way to get your foot in the door. If they love you, they will create a job for you. I've written job descriptions for people to keep them around.
KC: My thing was, as a director, if I hired talented people and kept them happy, they would make me look good but not all have that perspective. But it is fabulous work!
Paging through one of her sketchbooks and talking to customers:
KC: I can open to any sketch I did during a board meeting and tell you exactly what the meeting was about...each sketch takes me right back into time.
Me: Hmmmm...I remember that you've also done a children's book.
KC: Yup, around the time of my mother's death. I'll get it published eventually.
Me: What advice would you give a mentee who wants to be like you and travel the world doing work that matters, using their gifts, without being afraid of times without steady income.
KC: The idea that an artist can make a living in their studio doing work is a contemporary idea and it is STUPID. Throughout history, nobody did that. Artists were always involved in multi-tiered level of society and commerce. That's how artists make a living! You don't just make a living by doing one thing. That's not what artists do! Leonardo Davinci ran a school and an atelier. There are artists who paint portraits but also work in science and make crafts.
Me: I'm so glad that you say this because I've always been made to feel like a crazy lady juggling so many things...
KC: No, that's what artists do. The other thing is a myth. It's bullshit.
Me: And know your craft. A lot of young artists don't want to study their craft.
KC: Engage in the things that fulfill your curiosity. Don't take yourself too seriously. Art is a form of communication. If you're not saying anything, no one is listening to it. Self-referrential art is crazy. If you have a message, deliver it. Network, network, network, network. Volunteer for a national art conference and work the registration booth. Get all the cards of the big wigs, give them your card. Follow up with a call and a post card and when in town call to dropping to "say hello" for 10 mins. And follow-up. You should have one mentor that's an older white male because they still run the show and when you need a recommendation (for a job or fellowship) you write the letter for them and have them sign it.
Always make sure you match what you say you want to do with what you're doing. They say, "I want to be wealthy" but they aren't doing anything. You want to run with people with a lot of money, just know that you don't get to do "your own thing." These people are used to being coddled and have no idea what work is. Clueless. If you have be willing to fawn over them so they write you a check. That's how that's done. There are sacrifices.
You have to be able to need to look the part...buy the clothes to go the party so that you look like you belong there. And speak the right language spoken once you get there. And be confident that you belong there. And particularly for African-Americans, we narrow our focus too small. We think the Black museum is our (only) museum. We go into white spaces and feel unwelcomed. Why do you need to feel WELCOMED? Your tax dollars are paying for it all. You show up knowing you belong. We narrow our world way too small. It's all ours. Every inch of this earth. It's already paid for.
Me: Unshackle yourself.
KC: Want everyone to see your work? Put it on a street pole. Want to make a living as an artist? That's a different thing. Be clear about what you really want.
When I was running my doll business, I did almost 2,000 dolls a year. I had a seamstress. I had salespeople. JC Penny's bought my dolls.
Me: If you're not visible then opportunities can't arise. Many opportunities have come not due to me pitching myself but simply from being visible. Showing up is 90% of it.
KC: History proves that it you do something you enjoy, you'll be successful because you'll do it all the time and become proficient and become an expert. It's a combination of all of the above. I can't just stay in my studio. In the museum field, I got plenty of stimulation...I'm gonna make stuff regardless....the largest collector of my work once bought an entire exhibit of my work. She bought an entire show of my work and has bought more work from me since. She has organized showings of my work and lent pieces out to exhibits. She has someone my most important work. I've been painting 49 years. Most of the stuff in this gallery are less than 5 years old.
Me: At what point did you decide to open a gallery?
KC: That was never the plan. I felt really dejected after I left The Barnes after 7 years. I was able to get them grant funding from allover the country and show a trajectory of them becoming 100% self-sufficient within 5 years. One of 3 museums in the entire country that are self-sufficient. Because I'm a badass! I did all the work and wrote the entire case presented in court. Then they decided that it would be a board-run organization and said goodbye. I had 37 job offers after I left there because people were flying me in to know what happened but then no one would interview me. I was the scapegoat for all of the problem The Barnes had so I decided to hire myself. I had enough money saved to live off us frugally and I had a 4,000 square foot home that I loved in alone. I had kicked the rat-bastard husband out by then. I came to the opening of the new Barnes. And I looked for property. I bought this building because I wanted a studio space separate from my living space. This one was available with these great windows. I would have my studio down here (where the gallery is) and open once a month with wine and cheese. And renovate upstairs and live there. But as I was buying the building, I was told by the zoning board that it was required that this floor needed to be open access retail so...I managed the entire construction job and ripped everything to the studs to create what I wanted.
A friend told me to do a press release about the opening and I didn't want to but at the last minute I sent out a press release: 'Former Barnes Director Opens Gallery in Collingswood' and it was on the front page of the Inquirer, Courier Post, Burlington Times. There was a radio interview. It was impressive enough to catch everyone's attention but this place was practically bare. I made a few thousand dollars in the 1st weekend. Then no one showed the next weekend. But I still hadn't decided what to do. The gallery developed into what it is today over time and I went on to be an art professor at Lincoln University (a HBCU in PA).
The rest of Kimberly Camp's history is still being written but best believe that she is the author!
Visit Galerie Marie online at: http://galeriemarie.net
In person: 706 Haddon Avenue, Collingwood, NJ
You can also shop Jypsea Leathergoods there!