Meet the Johnnies: Terence Washington, Curatorial Liaison at the National Gallery of Art

February 13, 2020 | By Les Poling

Terence Washington (A15). Photo by Derrick Johnson.

How many people can claim to be a former Air Force linguist, a St. John’s graduate, a Williams College alum, and a curatorial liaison at the National Gallery of Art—all while writing essays for the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Clark Art Institute, moderating receptions and artist talks, working with Sherman Fleming on Black Overlay, and contributing to acclaimed photographer Zora Murff’s book, At No Point In Between? Only one: Terence Washington (A15).

The journey began when Washington enlisted in the Air Force at age 20. “I wanted to get out of South Carolina,” he says. “I ended up in Georgia, an hour away from where I grew up.” When Washington left the Air Force, he didn’t have a concrete idea of what his future held. Then he stumbled upon St. John’s.

“The way I found SJC was very...practical?” Washington recalls. “I had good friends in Maryland, so I looked at schools around there so I could be near them. Separately, I found a website that ranked colleges based on how broad their core curriculums were, and, of course, SJC ranked among the highest.” Curiosity piqued, Washington requested admissions materials from the college; from there, the decision was easy. “I read that one tan, pocket-sized booklet over and over again, intrigued by what it said about SJC’s discussion-based classes.”

Over email, Washington reflected on his St. John’s experience, his job at the National Gallery of Art, and his work on At No Point In Between; read excerpts from our correspondence below.

I read that you “discovered liberal arts and art history at St. John’s College.” What can you tell me about that process of discovery? When did your passion for art take hold?

I don’t think I hit my stride until junior year, when I started to think of what we were doing at school as a means for thinking explicitly about my life. While I had understood it academically before, it really clicked then, especially with Leibniz and Middlemarch.

I took Sarah Benson’s preceptorial on Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks because a couple of friends were into it and the description was so different from everything else. During that precept I realized that art was legible to me in a way I hadn’t previously experienced, and I took off from there. I wouldn’t say I have a “passion for art” even now, though. I think of art history at its most interesting as philosophy with pictures. What excites me is what I do with art, or what art makes me think about.

What are some of your favorite memories from St. John’s?

Junior math with Mr. Gu was particularly fun, and we did a study group on Augustine’s Confessions that I loved. I started a study group with Nick Maistrellis and Daniela Alvarez (A16) where we translated Hispanic literature. Mr. Page’s language class was outstanding. Other than that, it’s hard to choose. I do miss intramurals. I particularly loved leaving Mellon and walking out to the outdoor handball court on a sunny day. That moment when you come out from the overhang and the sun first hits your face? Priceless.

How did you end up at Williams College, and what was that experience like?

A curator at the National Gallery of Art recommended I look at Williams because they embrace applicants from outside of art history, and because they stress bringing your thinking back to the object the same way SJC wants you to check yourself against the text. They accepted me and gave me a full ride, so it was an easy decision to make. I [want to] bring up the GI Bill® (which paid for SJC) and the Williams scholarship because money and debt can really determine your choices, and it’s important to call that out. I could literally afford to make the choices I did, thankfully.

I enjoyed the Williams experience. I was a little worried that I would be totally lost, but after seeing that the epigraph to our first reading assignment was from Confessions, I relaxed considerably. Williamstown has two museums in it and another a few miles away; having major museums and all their objects and staff that close was a boon, really. We had classes in all those museums over the course of our two years. I worked at the Williams College Museum of Art both years I was in school and learned a ton there because I was given both freedom and responsibility.

You currently work as an educator at the National Gallery of Art. What can you tell me about your position?

Technically I’m now a “curatorial liaison,” an educator working with curators of modern art. We’ve never had a position like this before, so I’m still feeling it out, but right now it entails making sure information is flowing between the education division and the curators we work with on various projects and public programs. On rare occasions I help curators come up with ideas or artists for future shows. In a typical day at work I’m working with a small team trying to dream up and then facilitate public programs. As an educator, I want to try to bring the artwork and the visitor together. Sometimes I do that with gallery talks and sometimes it’s by inviting speakers to stimulate the visitors’ thinking.

I feel best when I either help someone have a meaningful experience with works of art or when I’m working on a project with real strategic significance for the Gallery. I like both the personal touch and the bird’s-eye view. It’s hard for me to be patient with the pace of change in museums, which even at their most progressive are still, because they’re museums, necessarily conservative. Getting things done can take a long time. I understand that. I just don’t always like it.

What can you tell me about your work on Zora Murff’s At No Point In Between?

My friend Kate Kelley helps to run Silver Eye Photo Center in Pittsburgh, and she flew Zora and me in to do a public talk with a photographer who was showing work at Silver Eye. Two hours before the talk, we found out the guy unfortunately couldn’t come. As disappointed as we were not to get to talk to him, Zora and I decided to go ahead with the event anyway, just us two, and we really hit it off. We had similar questions about the direction of our work—his photos and my writing. The next day, Zora and I talked again, and he asked me to write for his book.

At No Point in Between collects some of the photographs Zora has been making over the last few years. While it gets into history and policing and gentrification and blackness and whiteness and all the topics I try to write about, what excited me about the book was Zora’s attention to form. He’s mindful of the things a book does for the display of photographs that a gallery show can’t do. I’m interested in how different artworks or ideas might best be explored using different forms of writing. Zora’s book was a great chance for both of us to try new things in pursuit of those ideas.

In an interview with Aperture, Murff specifically cites your line: “The most radical thing is to choose time and its distention.”

My contribution to the book was writing the text for a pamphlet that is sewn into each copy. The pamphlet is modeled on one Zora found in Nebraska about how to get permits to demolish buildings; it’s called “What do I need to wreck a structure?” He kept the cover and let me write the inside text. I stretched the question to include societal structures, time, identities, and writing. The text in the pamphlet I wrote is really disjointed—sentences break off and fragments are all over the place, and what I’m referring to isn’t always clear...I’m hoping that having all those fragments together entices people into trying to make some sense out of the whole thing. In that line about choosing “time and its distention,” I was thinking about Augustine’s idea that time both stretches and disintegrates us, and wondering: “If I could have chosen to be dismantled that way, would I have? Is there agency to be found in crumbling? Is there a way to choose that now?”

From an outside perspective, it seems like a lot of your work has to do with studying art as an active role-player in history and current events—you’ve written on lynching photography, for example.

I think so. I don’t want to separate history and current events, though. Everything I can reach and relate to myself is in some way contemporary with me. And it’s important to me that the project also be personal. I came out on the other side of that lynching photography paper with a different understanding of how I relate to the world around me—I live and think differently because I wrote it.

That approach seems related to the study of Great Books in the St. John’s Program; the idea that we can study art, books, music, etc. as a way to understand and even bring about change in our world.

I think you’re totally right. That very idea is why I want to work in museums in particular. If art can really help people to see the world and themselves in new ways, it makes sense to me to try and democratize that potential as much as possible.

How has your time at St. John’s informed your work in the art world?

I think I really got started with interpretation in Mr. Page’s sophomore language class. We read Antigone and Shakespeare, and I felt free to be bold. I did a paper on Antigone that went a little too far with an image about Oedipus’s umbilical cord, which is almost funny now, but Mr. Page didn’t shut me down. It was probably that class where I realized how much I enjoyed playing with and teasing apart images. I use those skills with art all the time. Besides that, I think the ability and willingness to ask an earnest question goes a long way. When people see that there isn’t an answer you’re shooting for or that a question isn’t just rhetorical, they really open up and you can get somewhere together.

What advice do you have for Johnnies interested in working in the art world?

Figure out the reason you’re interested in working in the arts and then chase that thing. And talk about what you’re into at a high level. People hear “Oh, I love art” a million times a day. It’s not interesting. There are plenty of people who love art and have never had to justify its place in their lives and are still looking for jobs because they can’t talk about why they want to do what they do.

And finally, what museum do you think Johnnies in Annapolis need to visit before graduating?

The Smithsonian American Art Museum has worked hard to expand its definition of “American art” beyond the classics. They’re worth a look for sure. They have an outstanding courtyard—it’s a great place to spend time, even if you don’t go into any of the galleries. Don’t be afraid to just go kick it in a museum. We have Wi-Fi and coffee!