James Bartlett has a lot on his plate but you wouldn't know it. His calm coolness suggest he's often the laid back dude among the late night revelers, observing the chaos without being overrun by it. As the Executive Director of MoCADA, The Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, James is constantly visioning and implementing, along with his tight staff, to showcase new and innovative work within the African Diaspora and create a space that values community outreach and interaction.
In addition to his work with MoCADA, James is the co-founder of MVMT, "a collective of artists, entrepreneurs, and organizers whose missions align to promote the arts, social entrepreneurship, and collective empowerment." We spoke about the paradox of the New York grind, his epiphany on his last trip to Ghana, and why the process and the present is all we have.
You’re from the South right?
Well, I’m from Louisville, Kentucky, born and raised. My father is, and was, a musician and singer but it just felt like it was a regular job to me. So in hindsight I had a lot of exposure to the arts but it didn’t feel like it growing up. It was just my dad’s job, he played piano and he sang.
Do you play any instruments?
I don’t. I just recently started dabbling on the piano. Growing up my dad didn’t discourage us from getting into music but he didn’t push us. I think secretly or subconsciously he didn’t want us to go into music because it’s a tough life. I like music but I wasn’t drawn to playing. I was drawn to basketball and played in high school and college. I came to NYU for grad school and got my masters in magazine publishing and I was bit with the entrepreneurial bug. I liked the magazine world but it was just one potential form of artistic and entrepreneurial expression and I was more interested in the arts in general, so I started exploring the business of the arts.
I stared a company with Terence Nance and Rolando Brown called MVMT. We had our own internal artistic projects and offered consulting services to arts organizations. On our own artistic projects, we settled into music and film. I worked and managed Blitz the Ambassador for about five or six years. I executive produced his first album and worked with him over the course of the next several years. On the film side, I worked with Terrance on his first feature film, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty.
I did the MVMT thing for about six or seven years but we started working with MoCADA as a client about four years ago. I fell more and more in love with the mission of the museum and even developed some projects from scratch like the MoCADA journeys program, a travel program I conceived and produced. Our first trip was to Ghana was in 2012 for about 35 people and I produced a concert featuring Blitz the Ambassador and Les Nubians; about 2000 people came out to the concert. The people that came on the trip from the states loved it. We’re actually planning a trip to Kenya next year.
MoCADA is kind of the intersection of the majority of my personal passions and interests. It combines so many things - from visual arts to performing arts etc. I also realized that in the six or seven years of doing MVMT, I‘ve always been the person who supported others artistic vision. I found that a skill I have is getting peoples artistic visions out but also being the museum director gives me the opportunity to create my own end vision as well. At the end of the day I set the tone, direction and the programming so for me it’s the perfect balance of facilitating the creation of art by others but also having a vision of my own that is very specific.
Can you talk a bit about the work MoCADA does with marginalized groups of folks in New York City? You're one of the only museums I know taking such a hands-on approach to working with residents of lower socio-economic neighborhoods. Museums typically have a really high-brow/elite type of aesthetic. Why is it important for you to change that ideology?
MoCADA really tries to reach people where they live, rather than insisting that they come to us. For that reason we put art programming in public schools, parks, small business, and public housing. We believe that art has the ability to transform lives and communities, and that it shouldn't be confined to a box, or reserved for the elite. The fact that we are even called a "museum," for me personally, is just to give funders a general box to put us in for grant purposes. We are much more than that. A museum is a very Western concept. It is the idea that art and culture needs to be housed in a building. I like to look at art and culture from a more African context. In Africa art is about community, connections, interaction, creativity, preservation of historical traditions, etc.
Obviously you work with many artists, do you ever feel like there's an artist in you that wants to be expressed?
I’ve always been very content with helping other people get out their vision. I’ve always felt like I was an artist in the sense that everyone is an artist. I always feel creative. I guess when I think of artists, I think of someone with a very specific vision that if changed, is compromised. I always think of my vision as very malleable and flexible and that my vision is bigger than anything I would have the capacity to create. I inherently have to enlist the support of others in creating their visions that are part of my overall vision. My personal artistic creativity is more just being a whole human being in the sense that art and creation is just a part of being human.
You have so much on your plate. How do you stay in the process, especially in a city like New York, which is constantly moving and going?
When I first came to New York I was super focused and driven and singularly focused on ‘making it’ and being successful - whatever that means. I worked constantly - to the point that even when I wasn’t working, my mind was working and I had zero down time. I went through years of that. It wasn’t a bad thing - it got me a lot of places. I think it was a period I had to go though. But I had this epiphany in Ghana. I realized being in Ghana that I had largely, on my own, produced this trip for 35 people and these 35 people would not be in Ghana had it not been for a random conversation I had had 18 months prior. Combined with that was the fact that for me, it was one of the most fulfilling things I had ever participated in in my life. The people were so amazing, and it was Blitz’s first concert in Ghana ever – his family was there.
It was a very rewarding experience and the epiphany was that in the process of doing the planning for that trip, for me, in the ranking of priorities that year, I don’t even think it cracked the top ten. I was doing it on the side of the million things I felt I had to do. And so in the process of it, I was not at all present. I was just used to working constantly and doing a lot of things and this was just another thing. Then I look up and I’m in Ghana and I was like ‘wow – this is one of the most rewarding and fulfilling things I have ever done.’ As I was planning it, I did not value it on that level at all. It was just, ‘let me get it done because I have to do it.’ It really made me rethink my priorities and how I prioritize things and think about what I want to be doing, what I need to be doing, how I spend my time and how I want to spend my life. It made me much more selective with the projects I take on and more present to the process.
It sounds like you started choosing quality over quantity. What do you think was driving you to take so much on?
I had to be really honest with myself. I think a large part of that period of my life was fear - fear of failing, fear of not accomplishing and when you’re afraid of that you kind of just throw everything at the wall like ‘ok I’m not going to sleep, I’m just gonna work. Who cares about relationships. I’m gonna make it.’ But you only do that if you’re afraid there’s a chance you’re not going to make it.
Now I’m more confident and secure in myself, my abilities, the direction I’m going in. I can further enjoy the process and it’s not all about the end goal or the end result. The process is all you have. If you’re always striving for goals, you’re never going to be satisfied. For the majority of my life I lived in the future, I defined myself not by where I was or what I was doing but where I was going and where I wanted to be. I think that is a coping strategy for being a young struggling artist or entrepreneur. You kinda have to justify the struggle like ‘I’m doing this for this because next year I’m going to be here.’ But all we have is right now. So, if you don’t fully embrace the now then who cares about the future.
Right, and then when we get what you want, we don’t fully enjoy it because we’re on to the next thing.
Right. Even though you accomplished that future you envisioned a year ago, you’re now in a new future.
And then it’s never enough.
Right, it’s never enough.
Do you have any tools you use to stay present and in the process?
I would still very much consider myself a novice but I’ve started meditating more and pursuing more practices that aren’t geared towards a specific end goal. Like, I’ve started dabbling on the piano or I started learning French. Not for a specific goal just to explore different ways of expression, different ways to use my brain. Again, I think it’s just about being more comfortable with myself and where I am. You’re less concerned about getting to the future when you feel that momentum carrying you there. It reminds me of a rather interesting quote I heard, ‘fall in love with the process and the results will come.’
Interview by Jahan Mantin
Born and raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Jahan is an OG of pre-gentrified New York. She is a traveler, book nerd, creative coach, music lover, editor and the Co-Founder of Project Inkblot.