San Jose Museum of Art curator wants people to see their own stories

The San Jose Museum of Art is not just for “art” people, says Lauren Schell Dickens. It’s for all kinds of people, including families with small kids and those who don’t normally visit museums at all.

“Everyone comes from a different place and engages with art differently,” the museum’s senior curator says.

We recently had the chance to learn more about this San Jose native, who grew up in Sonoma County and now calls Oakland home.

Q How did you get interested in art museums?

A I always liked making art but don’t recall being very interested in museums as a kid. It wasn’t until college, when I realized that a museum experience is more than just looking at paintings.

I studied theatrical light design in college, and that training in thinking about lights, staging and the experience of seeing a painting are all part of how the story of an art object is told. It’s how art can be used to tell stories that really hooked me.

Q What is it about visual art that captivates your attention?

A I love all kinds of art — music, dance, theater, literature — and many of the artists presented at SJMA work in sound, movement, text, as well as visually.

Great art operates on a register that logic or reason or language cannot touch. It can pull me in with beauty and then reveal or show me something about the world, about people and experiences around me that I hadn’t thought of or paid attention to before.

Q What are the most challenging aspects of your job? What are the most fun?

A The most challenging aspect of my job is also the most fun — I get to work with artists!

Artists play such an important role in society — giving us new perspectives on the world and imagining possibilities for how we can inhabit this Earth together in ways that are better than what we’re doing now. And they have wild, world-changing ideas. But artists dream big — as they should — and managing logistics and expectations of the many players involved can be challenging.

It can also be challenging to get audiences to slow down. Some people want to look at a sculpture and “get it” right away, but understanding, engaging takes time.

Q What was it like working at SJMA during the pandemic?

A The pandemic was certainly challenging. We had a fantastic exhibition on view that looked at art and prisons called “Barring Freedom,” which was only open to the public for nine days. It’s sort of heartbreaking, for us and the artists, when so much work goes into a project that the public doesn’t get to experience.

But we had time to pause during the pandemic and really look at ourselves, what we’d been doing well that we wanted to do more of and what wasn’t working.

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA - May 31: Lauren Schell Dickens, Senior Curator at San Jose Museum of Art, poses for a portrait on May 31, 2022, in San Jose, Calif. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)
Lauren Schell Dickens, Senior Curator at San Jose Museum of Art, poses for a portrait. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

Q What is the museum’s mission — and what is your role in that?

A SJMA is about nurturing community through contemporary art, highlighting stories of our various communities and following artists’ lead in engaging socially relevant topics like prisons, climate crisis, immigration and identity through art.

My job is to identify artists and artworks, both locally and from around the world, that resonate with the lived realities of our South Bay audiences. The hope is that someone visiting the museum sees their own story — their history or dreams or community or concerns — reflected in the artworks.

We want visitors to not only feel connected to their geographic neighbors, but build solidarities with communities around the world.


Dickens’ favorite Bay Area museums

Headlands Center for the Arts: During public open studios, people can chat with residing artists and see works in progress at this Marin Headlands art hub — and the food in the mess is great; www.headlands.org.

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