Art curator Jova Lynne returns to MOCAD with a renewed focus on fostering connections with Detroit’s artist community
By Patrick Dunn
Photography by Darrel Ellis
Last March, Jova Lynne quit her job as the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit’s Susanne Feld Hilberry Senior Curator, joining 38 other former MOCAD employees who alleged a toxic work environment and called for then-executive director Elysia Borowy-Reeder’s resignation in July.
Now she’s back, this time with a mission: to bring MOCAD back “to what it was always meant to be” by making it more reflective of, and responsive to, its community.
The 31-year-old Highland Park resident, who returned to the museum last September, is working on implementing a vision for MOCAD that emphasizes Detroit artists much more heavily than in recent years. Last month Lynne debuted her first shows since her return: “Dual Vision,” which runs through August 8 and features 20 different collaborative works created by 40 Detroit artists, and “Motor City Underground,” which marks the first American-museum solo exhibition for local legend Leni Sinclair, who’s known for her photos of the Detroit counterculture as well as co-founding the White Panther Party with her husband, John Sinclair. (Two other shows highlighting local talent, “Black Art Library” and “Detroit Narrative Agency: Radical Remedies,” also premiered in February.) All exhibits will be open to the public while adhering to state orders for Covid-19 safety.
The reception has been positive: “In presenting these exhibitions, I had no expectations, just a hope that the community would receive our season as medicine in extremely uncertain times,” says Lynne. “So far that hope has been realized.”
Lynne’s commitment to Detroit’s arts community goes back to her early days here. Born and raised in New York City, she was working in San Francisco when she first visited Detroit in 2010 for the United States Social Forum, a gathering of social-justice activists. She was particularly struck by a conversation she had with activist Rich Feldman while he was giving her a tour of the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center. “He was like, ‘Come to Detroit, but know that Detroit is not a blank slate. Know that Detroit already is thriving. Come to Detroit, but be a part of Detroit,’” recalls Lynne.
She kept that in mind when she moved to Michigan in 2015 to pursue her MFA at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, and when she initially joined MOCAD. One of the first exhibitions she curated for the museum featured the work of Heidelberg Project creator Tyree Guyton. Gisela McDaniel, one of the artists featured in “Dual Vision,” says she appreciates Lynne’s focus on the Detroit art scene. “A lot of times in museums…you see people just wanting to…give opportunities to [artists] who are going to make the museum look good,” she says. “I really see her paying attention to the community and being friends with people and knowing what people are up to.”
Indeed, Lynne’s curatorial approach involves a close, collaborative relationship with artists. MOCAD board chair Elyse Foltyn notes Lynne’s interactions with New Red Order, an Indigenous artists’ collective who opened an exhibition at MOCAD last year. The group requested that MOCAD develop practices for acknowledging the Indigenous heritage of the land it’s located on and support the formation of an Indigenous community arts council. “Somebody else might have thought, ‘Can’t we just install the exhibition? Why do we have to have all these conversations?’” says Foltyn. “But Jova never stopped listening. She wanted to really deliver on their requests with great integrity.”
It’s worth noting that Lynne remains an active interdisciplinary artist herself, grappling with themes of cultural, racial and gender identity through media ranging from video to performance to sculpture. Her work was most recently spotlighted in an exhibition at Simone DeSousa Gallery in Detroit.
While Lynne has already had a significant impact on MOCAD, she emphasizes that some of the changes she wants to implement will take time. She notes that expanding MOCAD’s accessibility through online programming and creating ways to introduce the public to the museum’s work are of particular importance to her, especially in light of the pandemic. But she says that will involve a longer-term process of working with artists and cultural organizers to facilitate new connections between the museum and its community.
And it appears that Lynne will be around for the long run to see that vision through. “Bringing [Lynne] back to the museum felt like bringing her back home,” says Foltyn. Lynne echoes that sentiment. “Detroit has given me so much and I just love being here,” she says. “I plan on being here for a while.”