High Museum awards $25,000 Driskell Prize to Spelman graduate

The High Museum’s 13th annual Driskell Prize, a $25,000 award given for contributions to the field of African-American art history, will go this year to Los Angeles curator and Spelman graduate Naima J. Keith.

“To be nominated was a huge honor, but to win, I’m still in shock actually,” says Keith, who is currently first deputy director of exhibitions and programs at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles.

The High’s Driskell Prize is named for the renowned African-American artist and art scholar, David Driskell. Driskell was born in Eatonton in 1931 and is currently an emeritus professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is the author of several seminal works on African-American art history, and in 2000 he was honored with the National Humanities Medal by President Bill Clinton.

Founded in 2005, the High’s Driskell Prize is the first national award to celebrate an early- or midcareer scholar or artist whose work makes an original and important contribution to the field of African-American art or art history and related diaspora studies. Keith will be honored at the Driskell Prize Dinner at the High on April 28. Tickets to the event are sold out.

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“I’ve been immensely indebted to David Driskell’s legacy and his work,” Keith says. “I hope to live up to what he’s done. To get a prize in his name is a validation for me. It’s a sign that I’m doing good work, that I’m contributing to African-American art and art history in a way that the jurors felt aligned with the objective of the prize.”

Keith grew up in Los Angeles, where she says that both of her parents, her mother in particular, valued and collected art. “She dragged me kicking and screaming as a kid to various museums,” she says. “From my mom, I really got to know the value of getting to know artists, supporting artists, really developing a lifelong relationship with them. … As a kid, I had the good fortune of being around a lot of artists.”

But it wasn’t until she took a required art history course at Atlanta’s Spelman College, where she’d arrived determined to major in economics, that she began to seriously consider art as a possible career.

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“I absolutely loved my time at Spelman,” she says. “It really does foster an environment where there’s the opportunity to explore, to take risks, to ask questions. … Spelman remains such a special place to me. It’s a place where I discovered my love of art history, and I really do credit it as a place that set me on the path that I’m on now.”

Keith received her master’s degree from UCLA. Since then, she’s served as a curatorial fellow at the Hammer Museum and as an associate curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem. In 2016, she was appointed as the first deputy director of exhibitions and programs at the California African American Museum.

Keith’s exhibitions throughout her curatorial career have often sought to explore the intersections of race, class, gender and socioeconomic policy, focusing on artists who have been underrepresented in the museum field. In her time at the Studio Museum, Keith curated the traveling exhibition “Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974-1989,” the first museum survey devoted to the early works of the L.A.-based abstractionist. The show received a nomination for “Best Monographic Museum Show in New York” by the International Association of Art Critics.

In her published articles, Keith has examined the work of prominent artists Firelei Baez, David Hammons, Sheila Pree Bright and Henry Taylor, among others.

“The level of passion and dedication Naima has applied to providing a platform for contemporary African-American artists is extraordinary,” says Rand Suffolk, director of the High. “We are proud to welcome her among the impressive group of past Driskell Prize recipients and to support her work, which has introduced audiences to important artists of our time and will continue to make a significant impact in years to come.”

Keith says that one of her ongoing goals at the California African American Museum is to engage audiences by moving the institution in a new direction toward exhibiting and collecting more contemporary work.

“What I love about art is that there’s no right answer,” she says of her work. “You and I could look at the same painting and walk away with completely different interpretations. It’s constant discovery.”

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