One year ago, if you had asked Sean Beauford whether he considered himself a curator, he would have said no. It didn’t matter that the then 27-year-old had already put together two shows and a music event. In his mind, curating just didn’t encompass what he did and he didn’t fit the mold. Fast forward to today and Beauford is embracing the title of curator.
“I’m not one of those people that think that curating is just for museums,” he said. “Some people hate that you can use the word curator to mean picking out playlists or curating a dinner or curating a store window, a display window. That’s all curating to me.”
For Beauford, a good night on the town involves visiting an art gallery and spending time with friends while appreciating the art. But while he attended many art openings, something was usually missing at these shows. “The crowds weren’t necessarily crowds that I would hang out with naturally—they were cool people, but it just wasn’t my friends,” he said. “I would leave my friends behind to go to the art shows.”
Beauford wanted to change that. When he walked into Wood Street Galleries two years ago, he thought that it would be an excellent space for an event. A few email exchanges later and he had secured the venue. Within a month he had put together a pop up show called “Art of the City.” A stop on the monthly gallery crawl Downtown, the show attracted a medley of people and incorporated elements like music and spoken word. “I wanted to do something that all my people could enjoy: people that drank, people that liked to turn up to loud music and people that liked art.”
After the success of his show, Beauford realized that his work had helped fill a void in the Pittsburgh arts community. And also that he wanted to keep doing just that.
I’m not one of those people that think that curating is just for museums.
Eleven artists contributed work ranging from illustrations and paintings to sculptures. There’s work that touches on current topics such as the Cosby scandal, race relations and the prevalence of the internet and technology in our lives. Beauford was less interested in pop culture as defined by mainstream media and more interested in pop culture as it relates to minorities.
Each piece in the show takes a fresh perspective on today’s pop culture using more current aesthetics. “I didn’t want to recreate anything the legends did,” Beauford. “I want us to have our own take on art that documents our times…I don’t want to have Rihanna in four different colored paintings.”
In a nod to an important influencer of pop culture, Beauford also featured a large scale mural by Cey Adams, the founding creative director of Def Jam Recordings who recognized the value of integrating visual arts and design into hip-hop. “He’s seen art from the streets influence pop culture and he’s been on the other side of that and not necessarily getting recognized for it, but definitely having that influence,” said Beauford.
As with all of the shows he curates, most of the work shown was created specially for “The Other Side of Pop.” This is another distinction that sets Beauford apart from traditional curators. Rather than organizing shows around established pieces, he comes up with his own concepts and finds artists whose work would fit his idea. Most of these artists then create original pieces for his shows.
“The artists that I work with always enjoy creating, I think, as much as I do. They want to bring their best to the show and when it’s a new idea, they usually want to make something new to represent this idea because they didn’t have it before,” said Beauford.
Though Beauford doesn’t have the background of many traditional art curators and didn’t go to school for it, he’s knowledgeable about many different artists and styles. He casually drops Warhol and Lichtenstein into conversation and his favorite curator is Henry Geldzahler, but these artists aren’t his biggest influences. He’s inspired by musicians like Diddy, Kanye and Drake or basketball players like Lebron James who are always breaking new ground and new records. “I can’t play basketball, I can’t rap, but I can aspire to do what I do as good as [they do] what they do.”
My goal is to get as many people as possible to understand what it’s like to be a young, Black man in America.
From a young age, expression has been his driving force. He remembers making, wearing and selling t-shirts in high school that depicted culture such as iconic movie scenes or moments in Black culture. For example, one t-shirt captured Halle Berry and Denzel Washington making Oscar history, another was a scene from “Boyz N The Hood.” “It wasn’t something that most people cared about, most people my age were trying to wear Diplomats or something on their shirts, but I always took it as a chance to show what’s important to me.” he said.
From trying to launch a magazine to working with a rapper/producer friend, Beauford has had his hand in many different projects, each one advancing his goal of highlighting subjects and people whose work he finds important. Since moving to Pittsburgh in 2010, he has come to be firmly settled into the role of curator and has used his skills to present others’ works uniquely.
This past December, Beauford worked with an eclectic mix of artists to put together “Poison,” a show that highlighted the nuances of drug use in the urban community.
In addition to churning out shows, Beauford is working at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, his first full-time job. Attending the theater’s dance performances has introduced him to a whole other side of art, one that may someday find a place in one of his shows.
Another perk of working at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater is being a part of advancing its mission. “I’m happy to be a part of such a progressive, arts driven organization,” said Beauford. “I really think that that the theater and the Alloy Dance Studio are important, necessary representations of diversity in a neighborhood that is suffering rampant gentrification.”
Beauford is juggling a lot of balls at once, but that doesn’t stop him from planning ahead. He’s planning for another show in New York and thinking about how he can give back to his Pittsburgh community. One project he hopes to jumpstart is programming at the August Wilson Center that will get Black teens off the streets and working on projects they can claim as their own.
In the meantime, he’ll do his part through art. “I know that the way that I see things and the way that my people see things is different than the way that the rest of the world sees things,” he said. “So my goal is to get as many people as possible to understand me, what it’s like to be a young, Black man in America and get people to not judge us.”