If you have spent any time exploring the Los Angeles art scene over the last five years, it is likely you have come into contact with the gregarious, passionate art lover Antoine (AJ) Girard. From giving animated tours of the Basquiat gallery at The Broad to representing The Underground Museum and supporting Black artists across LA, AJ is an omnipresent figure with contagious energy. Professionally, AJ wears many different hats. He is a curator, educator, and art historian whose journey through the art world began at Howard University and brought him to the forefront of the Black art scene in LA. An advocate for constant reading, learning, and engaging, AJ’s success is a case study in self-actualization.
Annabel Keenan: Thank you very much AJ for taking the time to speak with me and share your story. Can you talk about your journey studying at Howard and ending up in the LA art world? You often have your hand in many projects, what would you say your current role is now?
AJ: I have been a student of the arts for most of my life, having studied at a fine arts high school in Texas, then transferring to a historically black college and university. Art has always been a guiding light for me, so it was quite natural that I pursue a passion in life for work. If I had to sum up my current role, especially during a pandemic, it is art historian. More than anything I am passionate about the narrative and thoughts around black cultural expression, I love how it navigates hidden lineages.
Annabel: You have been outspoken about your ongoing work to self-educate by reading and going to galleries as much as possible. Why is this so important to you?
AJ: I could not wait. I have always been a bit ambitious as a character trait, so couple that with an overall excitement about the art world. The gallery scene in particular gave me a place to reimagine myself and my relationship to art. These spaces push me into a more cutting edge, straight from the studio experience. Artbooks reconnect me to the scholarship that came before me. I challenge myself to read an art book a day, to keep rigor and discipline in my life.
I grow from seeing their enjoyment in conversations and dialogue but also from problematizing what people who are more familiar with art have already understood as the norm.
Annabel: On the idea of reimagining yourself, you have transformed and worn so many different hats over the last few years, but you have always managed to be true to yourself. What helps you to keep moving forward and evolving while maintaining your authenticity?
AJ: Wow, thank you for that acknowledgment for one. I think I practice a product-based lived reality–I act towards the goals that I have set for myself. Whether that be to curate professionally or stay involved as a student. I demand a high level of effort for myself and that I think is what impresses and inspires my peers. They are what inspire me, it has always been a big part of my performance to show up and look like them, almost to complicate the narrative of who can appreciate and talk art. I grow from seeing their enjoyment in conversations and dialogue but also from problematizing what people who are more familiar with art have already understood as the norm.
Annabel: Exactly, you have created a space for yourself in an inherently white, elitist industry and you did it just by being you. In general, you are a big advocate for, and part of, the Black art community. Do you feel like there is anything in particular that LA is doing well to support the community, and are there areas that can be expanded?
AJ: Absolutely, I think I can safely say museums are trying to understand where they may have missed particular marks of representation and visibility. There is so much work to do, I have understood more since the beginning of the year that it cannot happen alone. I think there need to be more conversations that are intergenerational.
Annabel: On that note, can you offer any advice to a young, Black person who is interested in art, but might not feel there is a clear space for them in the art world?
AJ: Stay engaged, go to panels, openings, galleries. It is important to not only build relationships but to develop your taste to get a sense of what the landscape is. If this is a passion for you it is important to be researched and knowledgeable. Stay inspired!
Annabel: Can you tell a bit about The Underground Museum and your work curating book lists for them?
AJ: The Underground [Museum] is a black-owned art space created by artist couple Noah and Karon Davis with the intention of making a communal space for audiences that reshape the traditional museum narrative. The museum offers programs such as yoga, movie nights, and lecture series in a garden developed to enrich the lives of Arlington Heights (Los Angeles) and beyond. It’s where I was allowed to create a stronger application of my love of black art books, in particular the recent catalogs and nonfictions that helped me develop my voice in the arts. I landed on the perfect opportunity to make sure my community was in the loop, most notably through the recent Noah Davis catalog release.
Annabel: In addition to the platform to amplify Black voices provided by The Underground Museum, you’ve also done similar work for Social Studies Worldwide, an initiative to foster creative engagement and empowerment in underserved youth. I love this list you’ve made because it includes a link to purchase the books, as well as a link to find them in a library. How did you get involved with Social Studies? Are there any authors that have particularly guided your own work?
AJ: Social Studies reached out to me via an artist mentor of mine, Shaniqwa Jarvis, who is a very talented photographer. Shaniqwa gave me a total free space to do what I’m passionate about, which in this case was what I’ve been reading and what challenged me. I sourced the list from community-based black and brown owned bookstores throughout LA, Chicago, and London, and included supporting titles that had a strong creative focus, such as books by Tyler Mitchell, Antwaun Sargent, and Kimberly Drew.
Annabel: Earlier this year, you helped Helen Molesworth and The Underground Museum open an exhibition of work by Noah Davis at David Zwirner Gallery in New York. Do you see yourself as LA through and through, or is there a future where AJ ends up in NYC?
AJ: I love this possibility, thank you again for allowing me to dream high here. I am always at a loss for words at how fast-paced the New York art scene is. I find it thrilling and would totally, with more grooming, want to end up there or as the next step in my career. I have been able to look back at my time helping to open up the show at David Zwirner as a magical moment in self-actualization. I, the family, the gallery, and everyone involved did a magical thing that night uplifting a great artistic legacy. It left me inspired to always believe in more.
I only sat on my first panel this year, after going to so many, always dreaming of being up there and concerned that only higher titled positions in the art world are asked their thoughts. So breaking that wall down for myself, and having a platform like MoMA was a great memory.
Annabel: That show opened in January. Since then, you have definitely done more. Most notably, you recently spoke on a panel at MoMA with Miranda July and Evan Rachel Wood about July’s new film “Kajillionaire.” How did you end up involved with this panel?
AJ: That actually came about from having the respect of mutual friends, who suggested that I join the panel. I fiercely did my research to make sure I felt confident sitting next to such amazing minds. But I will be honest, my biggest takeaway away was not just the thrilling dialogue, but also the space I created for myself to actualize my feelings of wanting to be in this world for so long. I only sat on my first panel this year, after going to so many, always dreaming of being up there and concerned that only higher titled positions in the art world are asked their thoughts. So breaking that wall down for myself, and having a platform like MoMA was a great memory.
Annabel: What do you think drew your friend to recommend you to July?
AJ: I would say years of consistency. I can’t say the journey has not had its bumps–it has, and I am sure more will come after even this moment of success, but I think from the relationship I have built with Miranda July thus far she believes wholeheartedly in heart. I have a lot of heart, and being asked to be on a MoMA panel felt like a moment of imposter syndrome, but proved to be otherwise.
Annabel: I can only imagine how exciting and validating that felt. One final question, what’s next for you? Do you have any specific projects you can share or paths that relate to your journey exploring Black cultural expression?
AJ: Yes! Would love to take this time to announce my upcoming curatorial debut with Jeffrey Deitch Gallery in LA. Very excited to share that the show is all artists of color, both emerging and well into their careers. These choices are so important to me as I’ve always found it a pleasure to experience works that–either through their creator or the creation [process]–speak to my inclusiveness. I’m very, very excited to share this and take some space up in the art world…I have learned how to engage with fresh artists, learn who they are, and make a conversation for wider audiences to enjoy. I am crafting my work alongside a legacy of brilliant thinkers. I think I reflect a lot of the ambitions they had in this world, so I can only hope for the best, and continue the good work. Thanks for having me.
Annabel: Thank you AJ. We look forward to your next projects.
You can follow his work, including daily gallery and studio visits, on Instagram: @_ajgirard
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Writer, Cultbytes Annabel Keenan is a New York-based art advisor and freelance writer. While her art career began in the museum world, she has shifted to fine art sales, first as an assistant at Gagosian, and then as an associate at the legendary printmaking studio Gemini G.E.L.. As an advisor, Annabel specializes in prints and multiples, and aims to make the process of collecting art more accessible. She has held positions at the Broad Museum, the Morgan Library and Museum, the American Academy in Rome, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. She holds a B.A. in Art and Architectural History from Emory University and an M.A. in Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture from the Bard Graduate Center.