This week’s guest speaker was Saisha Grayson, the curator of time-based media at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM). Similar to Holly Shen, a focal point of our meeting explored the impact of digital technology on the arts. However, rather than examining this theme through the creation of digital exhibitions and catalogs to showcase an artist’s work, Grayson looks at digital technology as the art medium itself. 

Prior to this class, I never heard the term “time-based media” or knew that it could be an autonomous museum department. In her slideshow, Grayson introduces time-based media as a new capital of space for artists who aren’t making things that are static. This can include film, video, slideshows, sound software, web-based projects, and even performance. 

For a majority of the interview, she discusses her educational and professional background as well as SAAM’s time-based collection highlights, such as Nam June Paik’s 1995 Electric Superhighway and Simone Leigh and Chitra Ganesh’s 2011 video, My Dreams, My Works Must Wait Till After Hell.  

“I could be an art historian and a scholar and a curator in a way that was activist and actually helped change history”

However, the topic that I found most interesting is Grayson’s dedication to having the time-based media collections reflective of SAAM’s mission statement. While time-based media began in the 20th century, it gained momentum around the time of the Civil Rights Movement and women’s liberation. As a result, women and artists of color became the forefront of time-based media from the beginning. However, when Grayson initially inherited her role as the SAAM’s time-based media collection, she felt that it was not reflective of America nor the museum’s mission statement. 

Applying her experience from the Brooklyn Museum of Art, NGO, fundraising development position, and time at a communication strategies company for art museums as well as her interest in film studies, feminist theory, and political science, Grayson was able to bring a different perspective to the media art collection and program. 

A critical step Grayson took towards diversifying the time-based media collection was focusing not only on artists who are “geeky” about media, but also artists who work in painting, sculpture, and video and help connect with SAAM’s audiences. As Grayson emphasizes, artists who don’t always come from the dominant position tend to have strong and engaging stories they want to tell.

What makes Grayson’s journey an inspiring one is her unique blend of social justice, SAAM’s institutional mission, and her own research interests. Her interests are reflected in the newly widen breadth of SAAM’s time-based media collection which, in turn, creates a department whose digital artwork is meaningful and resonates with its audiences (in a pre-existing media landscape) while simultaneously creating a new and exciting entry point to contemporary art at large.