Horace Ballard has had a connection between art and the public since the age of 17, working for a little more money on pizza, but he never planned to be a curator. It wasn’t until he worked as a gallery professor while completing his Masters at Yale that he decided to forge a career out of his talent for bringing art to life. “Engaging people of all ages to explore a work of art through their senses and add a bit of context here and there – just to deepen their gaze – that’s what a curator does,” says Ballard, who recently been selected as the new Theodore E. Stebbins Jr. Associate Curator of American Art at the Harvard Art Museums. “We tell stories about culture, ideas and people, and I thought, ‘Maybe I can do it. “
Ballard is expected to begin his post at Harvard in September – where he will oversee the Museum’s collection of pre-20th-century American paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts – and he brings a vast repertoire of experience at institutions like the Williams College Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design Museum, and the University of Virginia Fralin Museum of Art. The American art lover is particularly enthusiastic about continuing his work in university museums, which he sees as the cornerstones of multidisciplinary thought, intellect and experimentation.
“I deeply believe that university museums have the capacity to actively demonstrate the means by which beauty leads us to justice, the means by which beauty and all its disorder and its aesthetic capacity and all its sumptuous subjectivity attract our attention”, Ballard declares. “We don’t stop there at university museums. We ask why and how and where else have you seen this and what could be if an artist had made a choice. The curator believes that university museums develop empathy in more poignant ways than civic museums, because their collections are designed for students and academics – the engines that guide public attention.
Harvard has built its art collection for centuries, and during his time there Ballard aims to expand it with intention, updating diverse perspectives that are often overlooked. For example, the curator plans to foster a better understanding of how Mexican and Canadian design shapes American art, broadening our consideration of Indigenous artisans. Most importantly, Ballard hopes visitors will leave with a “fancy question” – one that can be polished through conversation and study – prompting further exploration. “I don’t really want to be the last word,” says Ballard.
This questioning art practice dates back to Ballard’s childhood, where he frequently traveled to Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina. His parents always looked for a way to make him comfortable, and museums became the answer after a “life-changing” school trip. “No matter where we went, when there was a museum, mom and dad would take me. The conversation was always, “What do you see? How do objects relate to space? Do you think of the story? ‘… This sense of attention, this sense of intention, the relationship between objects and ideas and space has been a part of me for a long time.
While the origin of Ballard’s love for art is clear, his interest in American art is often scrutinized. “The biggest challenge of my career has been cultivating a clear sense of my own voice when there are many times when I feel like I have to prove that a queer African American person can do 17th century American art. and 18th centuries, ”Ballard said. Especially at the present time of accounts, the Conservative says he endures questioning the choice of the past over the present. Knowing the answers to these questions – even on your own – can be difficult. However, when Ballard looks at an 18th century Creole portrait, he sees a friction playing out on the canvas, a feeling of becoming, the search for what it is to be American. He understands the boundaries between whiteness and darkness, male and female, and explains how it is represented. He uses his knowledge to guide activists and thinkers today to the origin of an idea and its journey into national consciousness. “Fairness and the ethics of care are always at the forefront of what I do, regardless of the period of time,” Ballard says. “I deeply believe that my role in this cultural moment is to be a truthful and authentic voice on how the past is not always set in stone.”
Deep down, Ballard believes that art brings about change. And he thinks the change should start in museums. “Museums by default are not set up for consolation, but more than half of the country has never seen itself on the gallery wall and it must stop,” says Ballard. “We have to take that fact into account and the way we do it is to invite people to sit with us in anger, in awkward silence, in restless peace, and then we start asking a few questions.”