Valerie Cassel Oliver: What Does Art Say About Us?

Valerie Cassel Oliver: What Does Art Say About Us?

Valerie Cassel Oliver, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art.
Photos by Travis Fullerton. Courtesy of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

“The world is waiting to hear your voice and
see your art.”

Valerie Cassel Oliver’s profession as an art curator was not something she consciously knew she would end up doing. Through her interest in learning and growing, she found herself working in the high art world, a place not often associated with people of color. Now, as the Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA), Valerie finds herself in a position that allows her to bring a more inclusive and diverse perspective to the art world.

She was born and raised in Houston, Texas. After completing her communications degree at the University of Texas at Austin, Valeria moved to Washington, D.C., to complete an arts administrative fellowship at the National Endowment for the Arts. She was later hired by the agency as a program specialist.  While employed, she pursued a graduate degree in art history at Howard University, where she would later teach. After a seven-year stint in Washington, D.C., she moved to Chicago, where she directed the Visiting Artists Program for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  Given her groundbreaking programs at SAIC, she was invited to be one of six curators that organized the 2000 Biennial for the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.  In 2000, she returned to Houston to work her way up to senior curator for the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Texas (CAMH). She lived there for 17 years before she relocated to Richmond to start her current position at the VMFA.

Kehinde Wiley & Valerie Cassel Oliver

Valerie likens her role as curator to one of an educator. “The museum is my classroom and my subject is history,” she explains. “Art, especially contemporary art, draws upon our present moment and our immediate past,” she continues, “as well as the cultural, social and, at times, political events that serve to inform what artists do and how they respond. Art can shake our consciousness and make us more aware of possibilities. As a curator, I am engaged in writing history as it is happening in our world.”

As a curator, Valerie seeks to represent and embrace the “art and artists that enable [her] to share the many histories of the world and with it, the issues that occupy our collective consciousness.” She believes art has the ability to evoke “radical empathy.” Her job is to share these beautiful works of art with as many people as possible, so they have a richer understanding of our shared experiences in our global community.

Currently, she is wrapping up the exhibit, Cosmologies from the Tree of Life: Art of the African American South (running until November 17). “The exhibit celebrates the recent acquisition of 34 stunning works of art from the Soul Grown Deep Foundation in Atlanta,” she says. The foundation is a nonprofit that documents, preserves, and promotes prominent African-American artists from the Southeast.

Rumors of War by Kehinde Wiley

Art admirers will recognize sculptures by Thornton Dial, Lonnie Holley, and Purvis Young. The exhibit will also feature quilts from Gee’s Bend quilters Mary Bendoph, Louisiana Bendolph, Ruth Kennedy, Rita Mae Pettway, Jennie Pettway, Louella Pettway, Irene Williams, and many more.

Valerie says the exhibit works as a prelude for The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture and the Sonic Impulse exhibit. “The exhibit looks at how music, folk art, and contemporary art have engaged in an exchange with one another over a hundred year period,” she explains. The Dirty South exhibit will open in 2021.

Kehinde Wiley unveils his sculpture, Rumors of War.

Kehinde Wiley, one of the decade’s most acclaimed and brilliant visual artists, will make his return to the VMFA with the installation of his latest piece, Rumors of War (2019). It will be installed on the VMFA’s grounds on December 10. “My hope is that the acquisition and installation of this work will enable the city to move towards a different gravitational center. More specifically, I hope Rumors will help to pull the conversation about Monument Avenue away from the controversy of keeping or removing statues,” she says. “Artists are all about breaking the binaries and approaching contested issues in inventive and substantive ways. The idea is to provide new strategies that may prove more effective in the long run. We will see!”

For updates on Valerie’s curated exhibits, go to or follow the VMFA on Facebook @myVMFA, Instagram @vmfamuseum, and Twitter @vmfa.