MacArthur Genius Nicole Fleetwood & the Art of Curation

On this day in 2020, Nicole Fleetwood published her novel Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration. The book, which represents a decade of Nicole’s work, was met with instant praise from both readers and critics, winning the 2020 National Book Critics Award in Criticism, as well as the Charles Rufus Morey Book Award in art history and the Frank Jewett Mather Award in art criticism. Nicole’s novel is both an exploration of the culture of mass incarceration within the United States and a showcase of art made by individuals incarcerated in the prison system. However, Marking Time is not confined within the front and back cover of the novel. After her book’s publication, Nicole went on to curate an exhibit based on it.

The exhibit Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration first appeared at Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art in September 2020. It stayed at MoMA for over seven months before going on the road to be exhibited at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2021. It was a compelling choice on Fleetwood’s part to send her exhibit to Alabama, a state in which 46,000 people are currently incarcerated, and whose governor only just announced her intention to spend $100 million of the education budget towards constructing more prisons. It speaks to her motivation in curating these exhibits—to make sure they are viewed not only by audiences in NYC, but by the entirety of a nation impacted by mass incarceration.

In 2013, Nicole became the first Black woman to become director of the Institute for Research on Women at Rutgers University.

Even outside of the publication of Marking Time, Nicole has had an incredibly impressive career. She was born in Hamilton, Ohio in 1973. In 1994, she received her Bachelor’s of Philosophy degree from Miami University in Ohio. Nicole then went on to obtain both her master’s degree and doctorate from Stanford University in 1998 and 2001. Also in 2001, she became the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Vassar College. In the years following, she worked on the faculty of both University of California Davis and Rutgers University. Then in 2013, Nicole was named the first Black woman to become director of the Institute for Research on Women at Rutgers.

In 2011, she published her first book, Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness. The book, which won the American Studies Association’s Lara Romero First Book Publication Prize, explores examples in visual media of America’s simultaneous fixation on blackness and persistence in labeling black culture a “problem”. Similarly, in 2015, Nicole published her second book, On Racial Icons: Blackness and the Public Imagination, which deals with the dual iconization and demonization of black figures in American photography. 

Beyond Making Time, Nicole has also curated other exhibits which focus on the intersections of art and mass incarceration. In 2014, she co-organized Marking Time: Prison Art and Activism, both a conference and exhibition focused on visual portrayal of mass incarceration, at Rutgers University. In 2017, she co-curated State Goods: Art in the Era of Mass Incarceration. The exhibit put on at the Andrew Freedman Home in the Bronx also showcased art made by incarcerated individuals.

In 2021, Nicole joined the list of MacArthur Fellows.

In 2021, Nicole was named one of the year’s MacArthur Fellows, a stunning achievement which awarded her $625,000 and unparalleled acclaim. Nicole is currently the James Weldon Johnson Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University. At the moment, she is working on her memoir, Between the River and Railroad Tracks, which will be published by Little, Brown. 

Though Nicole Fleetwood’s accomplishments are already monumental, she has an exciting future in store for those that follow her work. The books she writes as well as the exhibits she curates transcend the limits of art as it is usually viewed in a museum. Though all art is life, what Nicole showcases are shockingly real examples of life in all its brutality, unfairness, and hope.

© Reese Alexander (4/28/23) FF2 Media


Read Anna Nappi’s FF2 article on Nicole Fleetwood here.

Learn more about the Marking Time exhibition.

Visit Nicole’s Wikipedia page.


Featured photo: © John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, used with permission.

Snip from the homepage of the Marking Time website by FF2 EIC Jan Lisa Huttner. (4/28/23)

Tags: and Blackness, black author, MacArthur Fellows, Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, MOMA, nicole fleetwood, On Racial Icons: Blackness and the Public Imagination, State Goods: Art in the Era of Mass Incarceration, Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, woman author, women authors

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Reese Alexander is currently a student at Barnard College, where she studies English literature, creative writing, and French. Reese enjoys writing both fiction and nonfiction, and her work has been published in multiple campus publications, including Quarto, Echoes, The Barnard Bulletin, and The Columbia Federalist. Reese is most passionate about medieval literature, as she believes it illustrates the contributions of women artists throughout the centuries.
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