Spotlight Interview: Kamilah Foreman, 2021 NMPS Chair
Kamilah shares her thoughts on the upcoming conference, her work-from-home set up, tips for aspiring museum publishers, and more.
On Friday, November 13, 2020, incoming NMPS Chair Kamilah Foreman and director of publications at Dia Art Foundation shared her thoughts in a quick interview. In twenty minutes, Foreman fields questions on the upcoming conference, her work-from-home set up, tips for aspiring museum publishers, and book recommendations.
Spotlight Interview with Kamilah Foreman
Interview transcript with Kamilah Foreman and Nikki Yagoda.
When did you first hear about the University of Chicago Graham School?
Probably sometime between 1997 and 2001 when I was an undergrad at what we then called UofC before the UChicago rebranding.
When did you first hear about the National Museum Publishing Seminar?
Probably around 2007 right before the conference was in Chicago in 2008. Back then I was an editor at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.
What's your top priority for NMPS 2021?
Definitely greater access and inclusion. Last year’s pivot to digital brought in so many more people, and I would love to see those people involved on the planning committee, proposing sessions, lightning rounds and for those sessions to get approved and shown at the conference. We can continue to grow who's a part of this community, and it would be really lovely to see people from smaller institutions where there's maybe a department of one or two, people from outside the continental united states, more professionals of color, and (certainly because we tend to be very dominated in the visual arts) people from historical societies or science museums. One of my favorite people to meet at the last conference was someone who works for a parks department.
What did you enjoy most about serving on the 2020 planning committee?
I most enjoyed working with other planning committee members and what I learned from them. It was a good mix of people, some of whom were new like me to the planning committee and had only attended a couple of conferences and some were people who'd gone to several NMPSes and have been on the planning committee beforehand.
What was really cool is (and this is a little bit meta), but my job as a publisher is to think about how we talk to the public about something, and my job as a member of a planning committee is to think about how we talk about the work that we do to a group of people who think about how we talk about things to the public and that actually was kind of a fascinating thing to learn.
Describe your work from home set up.
So a funny thing happened on March 13th—a funny thing happened to a lot of people—but for me this room used to be a second bedroom where my youngest sister lived. She moved out three days before lockdown on March 13th so this room is now a living room, which meant that the combined dining room/living room could be converted into a combined dining room/office.
I’m also quite lucky in that Dia gives me a laptop so I can keep all work business on a separate machine. In the mornings I come in and I open up that machine, pull out my notebooks, my pens and (because I’m an editor) my number two pencil and my eraser, and I work at my great grandmother's kitchen table. When it's time to eat, I put the office away, and when it's time to go back to work, I pull the office out. And at the end of the day I close the office down because that's where I eat again and I have to put the office away for the evening and for weekends, and that has really helped my mental health.
What's your best quarantine tip?
In the first couple months of lockdown I realized I would have these adult versions of meltdowns between 5:30 and 7:30 p.m…. and it's because it's a very short distance from the dining room/office into the living room. And after all those years of complaining about commuting, it turns out I really needed a commute to decompress! So I started taking evening bike rides, and when I’m really lazy I don't go down to Central Park or up to the Bronx or what have you. I just bike up one one-way street and come back down another one-way street and just do that for 30 minutes. It clears my head, and then I can come back and zone out to Netflix far more successfully than I would have if I just took the eight steps into this room.
When will your institution open to the public?
Well, we're partially open. An interesting thing about Dia Art Foundation is that it's actually eleven locations and sites across the United States and one in Germany, so our locations, which are the museum-like spaces, two opened in July and August along with Dia Beacon (the place in upstate New York that we're most famous for).
In 2020 Dia Chelsea was already closed for construction, and so it wasn’t supposed to be open now. Some of the artist sites, which are these major site-specific artworks both in the natural landscape and in certain urban landscapes (a couple of them are in SoHo), are open and some are not open because of the complications of these site-specific works. Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty or Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels are open, both of which are in Utah, and the Max Neuhaus in Times Square is open. Those are just open to the public at any time so Dia is actually mostly open and on our way to being fully open.
I got most of my jobs, because it's a kind of small community, through just staying in contact with people. So keep doing the hard work that you're doing and being the pleasant person that you are and just stay in contact and you'll find out where the openings are and that will be where your next opportunity will probably show up.
What online program(s) have you enjoyed recently?
I think what I’ve most enjoyed have been things that are not necessarily from big institutions. So I was not a book club person until lockdown happened and now I have joined two book clubs and a book study. Things that you one could do in your pajamas at any time I just get to do a little bit more openly in my pajamas
What is your clearest memory of the in-person NMPS conferences?
I have actually two really good NMPS memories. The first one which is probably the one that will get people a little bit more excited is from when I got to go in 2014. The conference was in Boston and through a mutual friend connected with a few other women who were there. We were all in our 30s and 20s and would go to lunch together and whatnot, and there was one night we went to dinner and we did a toast and we said “to the future of publishing!” In the six years since then some of us—all of us—have continued in the industry. Some of us have actually moved on to some pretty fancy titles, and it turned out it was true: we were the future of publishing!
The other fun story is that I actually got to present at the 2008 conference on members magazines when I was at the MCA and my presentation was on the Saturday morning 9 a.m. slot and I had a big freak out at like 2 o'clock in the morning and rewrote my index cards. This was as I was in the midst of packing up my apartment because I moved! I left Chicago after 11 years in the city the day after NMPS ended that year so I gave my presentation, went to the next session, and then went to Susan Rossen’s closing! But I had to leave in the middle because I literally had to go meet my dad who had the U-Haul outside my apartment because I was packing up to physically leave Chicago for New York in less than 24 hours.
What tips do you have for aspiring museum publishers?
I got most of my jobs, because it's a kind of small community, through just staying in contact with people. So keep doing the hard work that you're doing and being the pleasant person that you are and just stay in contact and you'll find out where the openings are and that will be where your next opportunity will probably show up. The other thing I would say is one thing that really helped me to prepare to become the director of publications at Dia is that I love all sorts of publications so I read art magazines, I read artists books, I read lots of weird little things online. And those things are just sort of buried into my subconscious but there comes these moments when I’m in meetings or fantasizing about what a future publication can be and all that stuff comes out. I remember that cool thing I saw in that magazine once and we won't do the cool thing necessarily but we'll figure out a way to just sort of extract what was so interesting about it to me and maybe apply it to something we're doing in the future. Ao just keep in contact with people and kind of keep up to date about cool things other people do
What would you tell freelancers in the industry right now?
We love you. For those of us whose budgets are a little bit tighter right now: we miss you. Every institution I’ve worked at has heavily relied on freelance labor, and it's no secret. When I made less money in this industry, I freelanced on the side too, and that's how my personal computer got paid for and vacations and things like that so I think it's pretty openly acknowledged that our industry runs on freelance labor, and if we haven't talked to you in a while we will be back because you're so key to what we do.
How many books do you have in your apartment?
I feel like no matter what I say I’m going to be judged! (laughs) I’m probably just under 300. I feel like that's tiny, but I also feel like it's big for New York City. I want to say in my defense when I lived in Chicago there came a period where I needed to buy another bookshelf, and I said I wouldn't because I needed to control the book addiction and so I refused. And then for like 10 years I became a dedicated library user and not only was it great for my budget but also I got a different sense of my neighborhood and Chicago being a really a city of neighborhoods. It was a great way to check in with everyone else in my community, and that's sort of informed how I got really acculturated to Harlem and New York. The libraries are closer to the workplaces that I’ve worked, and being a library person is the reason why I only have about 300 books.
Which trade book is your favorite and why?
I’m glad you brought up diplomacy. I don't have favorites; that's the problem. I read too many! They're all so wonderful, actually not always also wonderful, but I get something interesting out of them each time. In terms of favorites there's no way to answer that. I just have to say what I’m reading right now, so I’m gonna do a little show and tell.
Leanne Simpson’s This Accident of Being Lost will rock blow your mind. I don't know why it took me so long but I finally have gotten to my first Jacqueline Woodson and why did it take me so long? I got into a fun conversation with the editorial assistant recently where I made a crack about “what is to be done,” and we started talking about Lenin’s “What Is To Be Done.” And i still have this from a SOSC class so I started rereading the Lenin anthology—don't ask, I went to UChicago. (laughs)
For work, I’m working on a Michele Wallace book because hopefully I’ll get to do something with her soon. I like poetry so Natalie Diaz. Well she's a Macarthur genius—come on, of course, she's amazing and also another one of those like, “What took me so long?” I finally picked up The New Jim Crow. And 2020 might have been the year to finally pick up the 10th anniversary edition. I’m bad with mirrors though; I’m not gonna get the sticker just right. It’s 10 years old, and I’m finally reading it and thank god I’m reading it. So that's what 1/5—I’m bad at math of the 300 or something, yes, 1/50.