Makeda Best began her journey to Harvard as an aspiring lawyer. This would not be surprising, but as the new curator of photography at the Harvard Art Museums, she has taken paths that have led her far from her original plan. In an interview with The Harvard Crimson, Best shared the details of a path that took her to many places but ultimately led her to Harvard.
Best said that she never even thought about attending art school until she was in college. Before then, she had taken portraits of family and friends for fun, but never considered it to be more than a hobby. “I thought that the photography wasn’t really enough,” she said. “I wanted to do something bigger with it. I didn’t want to pursue it for awhile. I wanted to be a lawyer, to do something meaningful for the world.”
When she enrolled in college at Barnard, her pre-law plans were leading her towards a degree in history. She took some art history classes, and then decided to take on photography as an independent study class. She cites Benjamin Buchloh, with whom she studied at Barnard and who now teaches in the department of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard, as an inspiration. “Professor Benjamin Buchloh was the one who really introduced me to art school and the idea of pursuing art as more than just a hobby,” Best said. “At first, I was like, what is art school? Where would I go?”
After researching different art schools, she eventually decided to get a B.F.A from the California School of the Arts, where she also later received her M.F.A. At the time, however, she really didn’t have much of an idea. “One thing that I think is especially important for young people to know is that I had absolutely no plan as to what I was going to do. And I just went along with it,” she said.
At CalArts, Best said that she discovered that she wasn’t the best photographer. “I wasn’t into self-promotion, and getting my name out there for photography,” Best said. “I decided not to be an artist. And I actually haven’t made art since then, since graduating from CalArts.”
After graduating from art school, she worked for various magazines and art museums before coming to Harvard for her Ph.D. in art history. Here, she specialized in the history of photography and graduated in 2010. Even though she never became a lawyer, she said that it will always be part of her interest. “The reason that I … wanted to be a lawyer in the first pace was that I wanted to serve society,” Best said. “I was very passionate about civil rights, social justice, and I wanted to be involved intellectually in it.”
As for her new role at the Harvard Art Museums, Best says that she wants to use her degree to tell the most enriching and accurate possible history of photography. She has a personal interest in war and conflict and said that she would like to add more photography relating to these issues to the collections.
Her favorite photographs, however, are not always so dramatic. One, for example, is J.N. Chamberlain’s photographs of a water spout. She explained that the image was photographed on a whim, but had a large impact in the scientific and meteorological fields because of how accurately and completely it captured a water spout. “It’s not really a famous piece of art,” she said. “But it teaches us to be curious all the time, and that everything is here for a reason.”
She also picks objects out for the collection that would suit teaching. As a teaching fellow for classes during graduate school at Harvard, she loved engaging with her students about the art pieces at she encouraged her students to engage with works of art at the Museums. “That’s when I realized that I really wanted to do this. How would I get a job with that?” she said. “But this is exactly it. It’s like a dream come true.”
—Staff writer Lucy Wang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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