“That And More” The Emerging Curatorial Legacy of Faron Manuel

“That And More”

The Emerging Curatorial Legacy of Faron Manuel

by D. Amari Jackson

If you happen to be out and about searching for something to do in the Atlanta area, and you make the sound decision to stop by Black Art In America Gallery & Sculpture Gardens in East Point, you’ll likely be greeted by a 31-year-old brother with a poise and wisdom well beyond his years. As he takes you on a tour of the vibrant two-year-old gallery in the heart of the Black community, relaying the story of each mounted piece and the artist behind it with his professorial yet wholly engaging demeanor, you can’t help but feel his dedication to the craft, his contagious passion for his chosen field.  

“What I love most about it is interacting with the guests who come in,” acknowledges Faron Manuel, chief curator at Black Art In America (BAIA) and director of the Black Art in America Foundation. “Because even though they’re in a gallery, a lot of them are still experiencing aspects of a museum and a community-based experience,” says Manuel, noting “they also have access to acquire works of art. So we’re giving people a great experience where they can learn about art and also acquire works by artists they connect with.”

This month at BAIA, there are many artists to connect with as its Small Works: Big Gems show adorns the gallery’s walls with small-scale, 16 x 20-inch works pruned from over 300 submissions from around the country. The exhibit, which runs through February 24, is the result of an open call issued four months ago and features more than 20 Georgia-based artists in the gallery with contributions from an additional dozen online. While some of these artists “don’t typically work that small,” reveals Manuel, this “current exhibit has provided new collectors access to art along with seasoned collectors who come in and say, ‘I don't know where I’m gonna put some more art.’ Now they have something small enough where they can bring it into their collections and it won’t take up as much space.”

Though these works may be small, Manuel boasts how big things are on deck for BAIA given upcoming exhibits at the Coca-Cola company and the Emma Darnell Aviation Museum & Conference Center. The former is a private showing in February at Coca-Cola headquarters featuring works by seven artists including Tracy Mims, Akinola Taoheed Olaitan, Alfred Conteh, Dr. Samella Lewis, and BAIA founder, Najee Dorsey. The latter, a public exhibit set for summer of 2024, is a “showing of works at the Aviation Center, an art space funded by Fulton County Arts, a major arts organization here in Atlanta,” reports Manuel. “We’re very excited about the showing” as it is “a showcasing of artists that we really believe in,” says the curator, adding his intention to have a local artist co-curate.

Given his passion for presenting such diverse, talent-laden and culturally relevant events, Manuel feels privileged to be in his current position. “I get to work with artists at varying stations in their creative journey, and having the chance to elevate the work of artists in the community ultimately serves the community.”

That acknowledged, Manuel first had to get to BAIA. To do so, he took the high road—literally. Upon graduating from Clark Atlanta University, where he’d already forged a relationship with BAIA the online organization, the Atlanta native worked briefly with BAIA and as a curatorial assistant at his alma mater’s museum before landing at the High Museum of Art in 2016. At the High, Manuel oversaw two Mellon Foundation-funded curatorial fellowship grants for seven years while managing grant reporting and accounting, funded projects, and developing curriculum. He also split time as an independent curator and art writer with several collections and institutions. In 2019, Manuel received the Hammonds House Honors Award for Curatorial Excellence and, in 2022, served as a resource specialist for the Aspen Institute’s Fall Workshop Series on grant program development. 

In the summer of 2023, Manuel finally made the jump to BAIA fulltime. “It was an easy decision,” he says, as he was concluding his grant project at the High and “it just made sense. I wanted to be in a space where I could curate shows and also work with artists on a more active basis.” 

Still, he acknowledges what he took away from his time at the High. “Structurally, museums are providing an educational experience, but they generate income on a membership basis so they’re selling access to a great art collection, most times, for a fraction of what it would cost to purchase all of those works of art at that caliber,” explains Manuel, noting it is “also being able to teach outside of a typical classroom setting, as that is something I really enjoy. Teaching curatorial skill sets and getting insight into working on grants for art-focused programs has been really helpful in in other projects too.”

Manuel was further prepared by his relevant and local background. “I started making art as a kid and I remember one Christmas, I was probably like seven, and my mom asked, ‘What do you want for your gift?’ And I was like, ‘I want a pack of paper so I can draw, but I need this particular kind,” says Manuel, recalling that his “early fascination for art and the material that’s used to make art” made it “a natural thing for me to be involved in.”

Supportive parents helped as well as “they’ve always encouraged me to draw, to pursue whatever direction I wanted to pursue in life,” reflects Manuel, maintaining that “they’re not really strict about encouraging a particular career path, they just want you to do what you do well and to be able to make a living for yourself.” After starting off as a photography major in college, Manuel switched to history. Not too long after, he wanted to switch again to art history but, this time, “my folks weren’t feeling me changing majors two times so I had to make the history degree work in my favor,” he laughs. “But I would say that, for working with historical, modern and contemporary African-American art, having that historical context has really been beneficial” to understanding the “references that legacy artists were making. And there are other ways to learn and make other connections to aesthetic movements and, if you’re interested, you’ll come across that through the reading.” 

“I first met Faron Manuel when he was a freshman at Clark Atlanta University and was immediately impressed by his composure, particularly for a teenager,” says prominent painter and sculptor Tina Dunkley, former director of the Clark Atlanta University Art Museum. Dunkley remembers the emerging art scholar as “very calm, focused, and curious—all traits that blossomed Faron into an astute, intellectual, cerebral being. He would also ascend in popularity among his classmates, becoming president of his class.” By the time he was a senior, she notes, Manuel had worked closely with Clark’s historic collection of African American art and curated exhibitions. “To observe Manual’s continuous development as a curator in Atlanta’s art community is heart-warming,” says Dunkley, adding that “we can only expect to hear more good news.”   

Aside from curating, teaching, and writing about art, Manuel has other skills as well. In early December, a crew of BAIA team members took the show on the road to participate in Art Basel / Miami Art Week where the company is an official cultural partner of SCOPE Art Fair. There, the crew served as Art Week media, facilitated programming, and presented as a gallery. On the closing Sunday of the event, Manuel participated in a panel entitled “Navigating the Art Ecosystem” featuring Atlanta-based artists Fabian Williams, BAIA-represented artist Traci Mims, and artist and collector Nickolas Bedford. The panel was moderated by another Atlanta-based artist, Jamaal Barber, the host of Studio Noize Podcast. But well before the well-received panel, Team BAIA experienced yet another one of Manuel’s skills. 

“When we were in Miami for Art Basel, I cooked dinner for the team,” reveals Manuel, noting that the menu included “some smothered chicken and red potatoes, some biscuits and mixed vegetables and, if I remember, some asparagus.” Referring to BAIA founder Najee Dorsey, who was also a featured artist at SCOPE, Manuel laughs about how Dorsey posted his dishes on social media with a unique challenge. “He was like, ‘We need to have a curator cook off!” 

“Our relationship goes back longer than a decade,” says Dorsey, who started the company as an online entity 14 years ago. The BAIA CEO has witnessed how Manuel has “grown as a man, as a thinker, and as an arts administrator. I just feel like there could have been no better choice than to bring him on in his current capacity with BAIA.” 

Dorsey touts how Manuel’s value goes well beyond his dual role as curator and head of the BAIA Foundation given its ultimate implications to the future of the institution itself. “Bringing him on is also about a legacy piece for me, as I see him as someone who could easily take BAIA through our next 14 years in terms of leadership,” he says, confidently. 

“Faron is a gem,” continues Dorsey. “And I am excited that everything that I hoped he would be, he is that and more.”

 


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