San Jose Museum of Art curator wants people to see their own stories

The San Jose Art Museum isn’t just for “artists,” says Lauren Schell Dickens. It’s for all kinds of people, including families with young children and those who don’t normally visit museums at all.

“Everyone comes from a different place and is interested in art differently,” says the museum’s senior curator.

We recently had the chance to learn more about this San Jose native, who grew up in Sonoma County and now lives in Oakland.

Q How did you become interested in art museums?

A I’ve always loved making art, but I don’t remember being very interested in museums when I was a kid. It wasn’t until college that I realized that a museum experience is more than just looking at paintings.

I studied theatrical light design in college, and that training in thinking about lights, staging, and the experience of seeing a painting is part of how the story of an object of art is told. It’s how art can be used to tell stories that really hooked me.

Q What is it about visual art that captures your attention?

A I love all kinds of art – music, dance, theater, literature – and many of the artists featured at SJMA work in sound, movement, text, as well as visually.

Great art operates on a register that logic or reason or language cannot touch. It can draw me in beautifully and then reveal or show me something about the world, people and experiences around me that I hadn’t thought about or paid attention to before.

Q What are the most difficult aspects of your job? What are the most fun?

A The hardest part of my job is also the most fun: I work with artists!

Artists play such an important role in society – giving us new perspectives on the world and imagining possibilities to inhabit this Earth together in a better way than we do now. And they have crazy ideas that change the world. But artists dream big – as they should – and managing the logistics and expectations of the many players involved can be difficult.

It can also be difficult to get the audience to slow down. Some people want to look at a sculpture and “get it” right away, but understanding, commitment takes time.

Q What was it like working at SJMA during the pandemic?

A The pandemic was certainly difficult. We had a fantastic exhibition on art and prisons called “Barring Freedom”, which was only open to the public for nine days. It’s kind of heartbreaking, for us and the artists, when so much work is put into a project that the audience can’t experience.

But we had time to pause during the pandemic and really look at ourselves, what we did well that we wanted to do more of and what didn’t work.

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA – May 31: Lauren Schell Dickens, senior curator at the San Jose <a class=Museum of Art, poses for a portrait on May 31, 2022 in San Jose, Calif. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)” width=”5464″ data-sizes=”auto” src=”″ srcset=” 620w, 780w, 810w, 1280w, 1860w”/>
Lauren Schell Dickens, senior curator at the San Jose Museum of Art, poses for a portrait. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)

Q What is the museum’s mission — and what is your role in it?

A SJMA aims to nurture the community through contemporary art, highlight the stories of our diverse communities, and follow the example of artists by addressing socially relevant topics such as prisons, the climate crisis, immigration and identity through art.

My job is to identify artists and artworks, both locally and around the world, that resonate with the lived realities of our South Bay audiences. The hope is that someone visiting the museum sees their own story – their story or their dreams or their community or their concerns – reflected in the artworks.

We want visitors to not only feel connected to their geographic neighbors, but to build solidarity with communities around the world.

Dickens’ favorite museums in the Bay Area

Headlands Arts Centre: During public studios, people can chat with resident artists and view works in progress at this Marin Headlands art center – and the food in the mess is excellent;

Japanese American Museum of San José: A fascinating museum of artifacts and stories that focuses on the impact of Executive Order 9066 (creating Japanese American internment camps during WWII);

Legion of Honor : The San Francisco setting can’t be beat and I love the flowery intimacy of the building. They have a wonderful series of installations by contemporary artists that really challenge the history of the place.

MACL: This Chicano/Latino contemporary art center isn’t exactly a museum, but it features great art and always hosts fun events. And you can walk from SJMA!

San Jose Children’s Discovery Museum: My kids don’t want to leave this place anymore.

About Carlos V. Mitchell

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