Jennelyn Tumalad - Arts and Cultural Program Manager and Independent Curator
Jennelyn Tumalad is an Arts and Cultural Program Manager and Independent Curator. Born in Manila and raised in the Pacific Northwest, Jennelyn is a 1.5 generation Fil Am who studied Art History and Studio Arts while in college (something she worked hard in convincing her immigrant parents was what she wanted) and moved to New York to work in elite institutions/renowned art museums. While she found success in her career, working at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, Jennelyn began to look at her work differently. As a woman of color and as a Filipina American, what was she teaching, promoting, and assigning value to? A shift in focus came after the 2016 election. She was working at the Getty Museum in LA and decided to use her skill set and resources to “amplify the voices of my community and other communities not in the mainstream.” Jennelyn produced the most successful College Night at the Getty, and her current work aims to provide communities with impactful artistic experiences and ideas. Her current exhibition, Trabaj/ho, is on view at the Carnegie Art Museum’s Cornerstones Studio Gallery in Oxnard, CA. The exhibit looks at “the shared history of struggles between the Latinx and Filipinx community specific to Spanish colonization and the United Farm Workers Movement” and has recently been extended until January 4, 2020 and gallery hours are Saturdays (11-4PM) and Sundays (11-3PM) and by appointment.
How did you create your career path?
My career path has been one where I have followed my instincts of what felt right, without ever really knowing what the end goal was or feeling like I could truly “make it.” Jobs in the arts are not things that are highly promoted or given access to most people, and especially coming from a Filipino background, where not only are we not represented in larger media in general, but the likelihood of seeing a Filipino represented in arts collections or on staff at a major museum was and still is quite slim. As a child of immigrants, I felt pressure to go in different directions as a career choice. I came to the US when I was a baby. My whole family works as either nurses or within the military, a common story for many Filipino Americans. When I first went to college, I majored in bioengineering to go into a path to be a pharmacist because there was no viable career path in the arts to my parents, and by viable I mean no obvious end goal. I think about my life now as an arts and cultural worker, and I don’t blame my parents, or any parent who doesn’t come from a background that isn’t in the larger canon of art history, highly privileged in their network and monetary resources, feeling hesitant to allowing their children to pursue this path.
I attended the University of Washington in Seattle, WA which has such a strong DIY culture. My involvement in the DIY art and music scene and honestly, my ambitious idealism, led me to convince my parents to allow me to try to make a job in the arts work. I quit my pre-pharmacy program and switched to Art History and Studio Arts as my field of study and really threw myself into all the jobs I could think of related to the arts. It became really clear that’s where I excelled most, as well as where I found my happiness, was in arts organizing. Before I left Seattle for New York, I remember a mentor of mine calling me the great “connector” when she talked about my abilities to bring communities together and connect people with art and creative ideas.
How did art play a role in what you’re doing now?
My ideas of success were very Eurocentric. So ok, how do you be successful in the arts in a white lens? Go to New York, work at the Met or MoMA. So when I moved to New York, I was really pursuing museums and all the sort of the obvious ideas of success in the arts, like working at a big museum like the Museum of Modern Art, where people outside of the art world could hear something like that name and “ooh and ahh” at what a successful artsy person I was for getting a job at an institution like that. I became really focused on institutional approval because really, that’s what you’re trained to feel in the arts as well as when you’re really trying to prove something to your immigrant parents who are questioning what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. So much of my career trajectory, whether I was totally aware of it or not, was anchored by this need to prove to myself and my parents that my decision to not go into the health field, was worth it.
Art has played a changing role throughout my entire career’s journey. First I was dedicated to studying it and making what was taught to me in the history books accessible to communities of all backgrounds. That is most museum’s missions: the preservation, education, and exhibition of art and culture as a way to stimulate an engaged society. All the art I thought of was very tangible and visual, and it wasn’t until I was studying socially engaged art, did I really start to understand the full capabilities of art. I began to understand how it could make a difference in my own understanding of myself and career, as well as how it could help empower others and create real social change.
In my last year of New York and during my transition to Los Angeles for a position in public programs at the J. Paul Getty Museum, I really began to unpack what it meant to be a person of color doing this work: learning, exhibiting, preserving, and teaching arts and culture in these major institutions. What collections was I teaching? What ideas was I promoting and giving spotlight and value, and even more importantly what ideas and culture was I not talking about?
Never in my time did I ever teach or learn art and culture by Filipino people. So what did it mean, as a Filipino person, to never use my resources and skills to be telling stories and bringing light and value to my own arts and culture?
This realization was a catalyst for how art has played a role in my current work which is art’s ability to be a tool for unlearning what you’ve been socialized to believe and develop empathy for those coming from different walks of life from you. It was interesting because the art history, even in the European canon we are taught in school, that I was most drawn to was still rooted in art as social practice and understanding generational trauma such as post-world war II German art like Gerhard Richter or art as social activism like the Guerrilla Girls, but never did I really think about those approaches with my own identity and people.
The realization of my very colonized view and career trajectory of success in the arts, all happened around the time as Trump’s election when I was working at the Getty Museum which has a very white collection. So at the same time that the US essentially told me and other immigrant communities that I’m not valued here as an immigrant, I was also struggling with a deep sense of alienation and loss of purpose in the white institutions I was working for. All the microaggressions I had experienced growing up and buried, came and hit me like a bus. All of these things came up in my life all at once, and I really pushed myself even further to think of “Why am I at these institutions?” “Why am I using my skill set for communities that aren’t my own?”
That unpacking happened in 2016 and it’s almost 4 years later and since then I have been actively using the resources and skills I have to amplify the voices of my community and other communities not in the mainstream. I think really critically about my journey and how I can mentor others, pass-on my experiences and exemplify the power of vulnerable leadership in the arts. I only hope that my story can help other women of color and children of immigrants in the arts not feel so alone, and that the work I do can help pave the way for future talent coming from similar walks of life as me, will have it easier to enter, and even more importantly, stay in these spaces.
What are some of your favorite art programs you’ve worked on?
My favorite art program I’ve worked on was during my first year working at the J. Paul Getty Museum overseeing their annual College Night. When accepting my role at the Getty, I negotiated for complete oversight over one program or series, and what they gave me was College Night. Since my first year at the Getty I was a Graduate Intern, and not an actual permanent employee, I could use that year as a testing ground and be really fearless about changing program structures and content. I wish I could always feel that way in my work– so fearless, experimental, and empowered!
I am happiest when I work with college students. There is something really special about that point in life where I feel those communities are doing something really explicit to change their life. They’re in a place where they’re really unpacking and dissecting their place in this world. There’s no other time like that, where you have the time and resources to be so conscious about that than when you’re in college. Although I feel complex about the accessibility of college and how that affects the diversity of college audiences, I still find the unique moment of college on a person’s life to be such a fun and engaged type of audience to work with.
So the combination of being able to mentor such an engaged audience and be in such a liberated moment of my career, that program has really stuck out to me as my favorite moment in my career so far. The joy and passion I felt for that program really came through, as it was arguably the most successful College Night at the Getty since its inception. The event garnered such an increase in attendance and community impact, that it resulted in getting corporate funded.
How important is representation in the work that you do?
Representation is extremely important and it needs to be representation that’s more than performative. Working in arts and culture, I’m not blind to the impact we have as creators and gatekeepers of what culture and histories will be preserved and taught in the future. The art world is in a crisis right now. There’s a huge call for accountability for art institutions and diversity. That accountability can’t be done overnight, and the effort to respond to this call for diversity in a way that is disingenuous and reactive creates situations where institutions show representation in a way that’s performative. (i.e having promotional photos of brown kids making art, but not actually having POC in leadership roles). Authentic representation takes systemic change meaning that all lower, middle, and upper level staff need to be working on this fight collectively. We need to make more pipelines and also question the current value systems we have that we currently measure potential candidates by. By bringing and keeping diverse people in arts and cultural organizations, we’ll be able to advocate and honor the stories and cultures that are not usually within history’s canon, and create such a big impact on how diverse people see themselves and their place in society.
As a 1.5 generation immigrant from the Philippines, I can’t even imagine what it would have been like to read history of my own people. It wasn’t until I was a young adult was I exposed to stories of my own culture, and I know I’m not the only one with this type of experience. More diverse representation in arts and cultural work is crucial for both the creation of accurate and holistic histories, as well as the collective psychological well being of people coming from diasporic backgrounds.
What are you most passionate about?
I am passionate about vulnerability, connection, and empowerment. If I’ve learned anything through my journey pursuing the career and life I’ve built, it’s that there is so much strength in collective vulnerability and resistance. You can’t do any of this work alone. In one of my leadership programs I was working on restructuring, there was a whole unit on leading with “optimism” and how leaders are always optimistic. In my redevelopment of the curriculum I completely changed that unit because I actually believe that in leadership, although optimism is important, it is more crucial to acknowledge anger, sadness, and injustice. It’s important that diverse communities connect in the struggles they’re experiencing and use that shared struggle as a driver to fight for those who are further disenfranchised and are intentional about taking care of themselves and each other.
There is something really radical about vulnerability during a moment in life where people curate their personas and the ideas of success we’ve been socialized to believe all of our lives are based off of privileges not afforded to us and are within systems not built for us as people of color. My passion for acknowledging injustices, being vulnerable, and collective support, is one that I take in all aspects of my life, whether it is in my career or personal life.
Do you have anything else coming up ?
Speaking of collective healing and care– I am really excited to currently have an exhibition called Trabaj/ho currently on view through the holidays at the Carnegie Art Museum’s Cornerstones Studio Gallery in Oxnard, CA. The exhibition explores the shared history of struggles between the Latinx and Filipinx community specific to Spanish colonization and the United Farm Workers Movement. All 12 artists are of Latinx and Filipino descent, and more than half of the works exhibited are new artworks created for the exhibition.
I am excited to have the space to explore the ideas of shared struggle between the two communities and how these histories can be used to understand how to support each other today. The artworks in this show act as a medium for this shared exploration. During the run of the exhibition we are planning to have a catalogue release party and a closing party where we’ll be actually consuming some of the artwork (one of the art installations has growing sweet potatoes as a part of it).
In addition to this exhibition, I’m already starting to scheme up some community engagement activities for Asian American Pacific Islander month, but it’s a little premature to share publicly what will be happening, but you can be sure it’ll be anchored in advancing the stories of the Filipino American community and the power of vulnerability and shared healing.