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Frieze New York 2021

Collector Victoria Rogers on How Art Can Change Society

With a new role in the Black Trustee Alliance for art museums, this New Yorker is using the universal language of art to open up dialogue

BY Terence Trouillot AND Victoria Rogers in Interviews | 30 MAR 21

Terence Trouillot: When did you first become interested in the arts?

Victoria Rogers: Since fourth grade. At least. Specifically, I remember we had a ‘hero day’ where you could come to school dressed as your personal hero: I came as Pablo Picasso. Now, obviously, he’s a figure with a complicated history – but, in the fourth grade, he was my hero. 

I think it really started with being an only child whose parents were both working. I spent a lot of time entertaining myself. A pen and paper were a big part of that, and my parents encouraged it. I grew up in Chicago, so I went to the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Art Institute for classes after school and in the summer. I loved art and creative expression and I tried to explore it in as many different ways as I could.

Victoria Rogers in her home in New York. Photo: Davey Adesida
Victoria Rogers in her home in New York. Photo: Davey Adesida

TT: This was in high school?

VR: In seventh grade. I started volunteering in an afterschool program on the South Side of Chicago, and I found a lot of the students there didn’t have art in their day-to-day, so I started teaching arts within the afterschool program. I would go and get supplies and teach them how to make moulds and work with clay. I did that every week for six years, until I went to college. 

At some point in high school, I realised that I wasn’t super-talented at making art, which coincided with me having the chance to take an art history class. And so I looked towards other ways of being involved with the arts, rather than being a creator myself. Now I’m pursuing an MFA in industrial design at Parsons. Specifically, I’m focused on how objects and the built environment impact black people, and learning how to design for a more equitable future.

TT: In terms of that pivot to supporting the arts, maybe we could talk about your work at Kickstarter, and what led you to getting involved with fundraising.

VR: What touched me about art early on was that it could connect a really diverse range of people. From the world that I knew in Chicago to going to college and studying art history and getting a sense that people have been creating throughout time – that this is a human thing – all made me interested in how creativity happens outside of institutions. I learned a lot about working in public spaces when I had the chance to intern at Creative Time.

TT: Was that when Anne Pasternak was Director?

VR: Yes. I remember being an intern there and Anne whirling through the office and thinking: ‘Oh, my gosh, this woman is going to be a hero of mine – alongside Picasso!’

Anne was truly able to envision the impact that artists could have on diverse communities and that really resonated with me. I also thought her ability to draw artists out of some of the spaces we’re more used to seeing them in and bring them into spaces where the public could engage was brilliant. I knew she was someone who was changing how people experience art, even expanding how art is defined. After interning at Creative Time, I did the Whitney Independent Study Program and then I went to Kickstarter, where I focused on public art. Because Kickstarter is a platform that enables the public to fund projects, it made sense to me to support art that was going to be in public spaces. So, I spent my time there working with artists and developing relationships with institutions that were trying to do work outside of their own walls and courtyards.

TT: Is there any specific project from that time that stands out for you?

VR: That’s like choosing a child! But I enjoyed working with Hank Willis Thomas on The Truth Booth (2016) – an inflatable booth that travelled to all, 50 states during the 2016 presidential election, where people could go inside and speak their truth. In some way, it was a preamble to the work of For Freedoms, the platform the artist co-founded in 2016, and the Wide Awakes movement, launched in 2020.

Another, totally different, project was Trevor Paglen’s Orbital Reflector (2019): a huge mylar balloon that he sent into outer space. It was the first object in space that didn’t have a surveillance component to it. The idea was for it to be able to be seen from Earth at different points: as you tracked it, you could see its reflection in the sky. Sadly, it ended up getting lost when one of the 2019 government shutdowns meant tracking was suspended.

On the wall: Hank Willis Thomas, American Gothic, 2014 On the mantelpiece: Kara Walker, Untitled (Pitcher) Photo: Davey Adesida
On the wall: Hank Willis Thomas, American Gothic, 2014

On the mantelpiece: Kara Walker, Untitled (Pitcher)

Photo: Davey Adesida

TT: That’s unfortunate.

VR: I know. It’s a bummer.

TT: Can you speak a little bit about the other figures in the art world that have played a mentor role for you?

VR: There are a lot of people at Creative Time, in addition to Anne, who have been meaningful mentors. Another person is Thelma Golden, of the Studio Museum, who is, obviously, such an icon, and so important to so many people. Her vision for what a Black institution can do is inspiring to me.

TT: You’re an avid collector of art and your collection, I would say, represents extensively or primarily artists of colour. There’s been a lot of attention from the wider art world about the impact of this kind of collecting. Do you think a collecting practice can be ‘radical’ in this sense?

VR: Black people have been marginalised in the art world in the same ways that they’ve been marginalised in other parts of society here in the US. So, yes: if there’s a part that I can play in supporting the artistic voices of people of colour, I want in. But my collecting really stems from believing in the stories of the artists. I tend to collect people who are engaging with society and politics in a way that resonates with me. Sometimes, the objects I collect are ephemera from that kind of dialogue, sometimes not. I think the objects people live with have an impact on them, so it’s important for me to feel like I’m reflected in the objects that I live with and the narrative of our world they present.

TT: We’ve talked in the past about demystifying the idea of collecting in the art world as being strictly for a particular class or group of people. I wonder whether there’s something you can share as advice, particularly for younger folks who might be interested in collecting.

VR: To me, the most important thing is to collect either what you love or what excites you. That feels like the most accessible entry point: to be assured that if you’re following your heart and what speaks to you, then you know something about the object – just by having had that kind of soul-stirring happening inside of you when you see it. That’s where I lead from.

I think social media platforms like Instagram do a lot to demystify the art world. It’s a medium of extreme sharing. I like to follow people’s stories over time, to see their work but also what they care about. A lot of times, I find out about artists through Instagram and contact them on Instagram, which makes it feel less scary: you can craft your note and talk about why their art is meaningful to you, and then share it and see what kind of response you get back. I think acquiring an artwork is a really intimate engagement – at least, it is for me. I tend to follow an artist in depth before collecting their work.

TT: What was the last work that you acquired? Or the last thing you saw that really drew you in, that you formed a strong connection to?

VR: Hugh Hayden is somebody that I’ve admired for a long time. I first learned about his work in 2012, when I was at Creative Time. One of the other interns knew him and was going to visit his studio after work one day, and she invited me along. I’ve been following his work ever since and, recently, I had the chance to purchase one of a series of works in which he seasons found pans or skillets and combines them with wooden moulds referencing traditional West African masks.

TT: You’re one of the youngest board members at both Creative Time and the Brooklyn Museum and, most recently, you became a part of the Black Trustee Alliance (BTA), an organisation of and for Black trustees currently serving on the boards of art museums across North America. Can you tell me about BTA and the goals it has set out for itself?

Victoria Rogers in her home. On the wall: Jennifer Packer, Mario II, 2012 Neon in the background: EJ Hill, A Commemoration, 2018 Photo: Davey Adesida
Victoria Rogers in her home. On the wall: Jennifer Packer, Mario II, 2012. In the background: EJ Hill, A Commemoration, 2018. Photo: Davey Adesida

VR: We were founded in response to the murder of George Floyd last year and the subsequent demands that cultural institutions confront their own issues of inequity.

My own involvement and excitement around the BTA stems from what I believe to be the value of Black trustees of art museums being in dialogue with one another. There’s so much that I can learn – especially, as you said, as a younger trustee – from those who have been doing this work for much longer than I have. Even for those who have been doing it a long time, trading notes on what’s worked and what hasn’t and sharing strategies across institutions is valuable. That’s the reason we initially came together and why we keep meeting. Now, we have a strategic plan that outlines what we hope to accomplish as a collective.

Our first priority is around convening – asking how we actually set a rhythm and tone for these kinds of conversations that were already happening organically, to ensure that Black trustees continue to get to know each other and are able compare notes. We also have a data component – not just about the impact of Black trustees and how our group is growing over time, but also data on the impact of having a show by a Black artist or having diverse staff at an institution. So, it’s an ambitious goal and we’re excited because we’ve set these next three years as our target to really make some changes happen.

TT: It seems politics and community work have been a constant through-line in both your professional life – from the Chicago art club to Kickstarter to the BTA – and the way you engage with art.

VR: I’ve always been active politically. The reason I found myself doing after-school art projects on the South Side of Chicago is because I recognised I was given many opportunities as a young person, and I wanted to use my time and resources to be supportive in a community that didn’t have that same level of access. So, art and politics have been married for a long time for me.  Being a Black person in the world is inherently political, in some ways: even just how you occupy space and move through it.

But I do a lot of straightforward political activism, too. I lived in Philadelphia for a month before the 2020 presidential election because it was an important electoral battleground. Since I was studying remotely at Parsons due to the pandemic, I would do my classes in the mornings, then knock on doors afterwards and over the weekends. Unrelated to the art world, I think we have to engage with our political system directly.

At the same time, I do believe that art can change society. Art can be a universal language, and a means of opening up dialogue. It can be a space for the exploration of new ideas or imagined futures of what the world could be. But I think we can’t ignore the political system. Knocking on doors and canvassing the public is necessary, too.

TT: COVID-19 has re-shaped the world in many ways. What have you learned during this period?

VR: I feel lucky that my family and friends, for the most part, have been healthy. Though, of course, the emotional toll and the way in which our world has shifted so quickly is obviously shocking. At school, having a remote learning environment has been beneficial: it allowed me to engage in our democracy in an active way. If I had been here in class every day in New York, I wouldn’t have been able to do voter outreach work in Philadelphia. So, I’m grateful for the room that gave me to engage in a deeper way with politics. This was the first time I moved to Philadelphia but, actually, for the past four elections, I’ve volunteered phone banking and canvassing. 

On the wall: Émile Bernard, Ferme à Pont-Aven, 1887, oil on canvas, 33×43cm
On the wall: Émile Bernard, Ferme à Pont-Aven, 1887, oil on canvas, 33×43cm

Photo: Davey Adesida

What I’ve learned in my studies in this time is a confirmation or deepening of  my belief that design can have a real impact on people’s lives. That’s why I went back to school: I want to be a part of the creative process that generates products and services which take into account the diversity of the US. In my last semester, for instance, I created a series of inflatables designed as protective devices for a person of colour. The inflatables were protective for many instances, like, if you were in water, or if you were going to be physically harmed in some way; if you needed buoyancy to run, jump, or dance. I’ve been thinking about what kinds of tools or services people of colour need to survive in a world that wasn’t set up for us.

TT: I love the sound of that project! Are you familiar with that design journal Deem that launched last year?

VR: Yes, I met Nu Goteh, the magazine’s co-founder, in Los Angeles recently. He’s awesome. I was obsessed with the first issue and now you can order the second issue, which features the artist Lauren Halsey on the cover. Another hero! Perhaps someday soon kids will be going to school for their hero days as Lauren.

Main image: Detail of Yinka Shonibare, Pop Immigrants, 2014; Lauren Halsey, High-Voltage Funkateer Pyramid, 2017; Brandan Odums, Angela Davis, painted spray can, 2016. Photo: Davey Adesida

Terence Trouillot is senior editor of frieze. He lives in New York, USA.

Victoria Rogers is a collector, patron and MFA candidate in Industrial Design at Parsons School of Design, based in New York, USA.