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Meet Nadiah Rivera Fellah

The new associate curator of contemporary art has local roots and a global perspective
Gregory M. Donley, Magazine Staff
December 23, 2019

Nadiah Rivera Fellah joined the museum in November as associate curator of contemporary art, after four years at the Newark Museum in New Jersey. A native of Bowling Green, Ohio, and a graduate of Oberlin College, she is no stranger to the Cleveland Museum of Art. When she was a student at Oberlin, she visited the CMA to partake in exhibitions and programs, but that was before the museum closed for renovations. “I hadn’t seen the museum in its newly expanded form until recently,” Fellah says, “and I was blown away.”

Her path to contemporary art began in a more distant place. She studied medieval Italian art history at Oberlin and wrote an undergraduate thesis on 14th-century Florence’s architecture and urbanism. But once she left Oberlin, she recalls, “that didn’t feel so relevant to my experience, my identity, and my interests.”

After a hiatus she began working at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where she was first exposed to contemporary art. “My four years as a curatorial assistant in the painting and sculpture department was eye-opening,” she remembers. “That’s when I decided to enroll in graduate school to study contemporary art with a focus on Latin American art.”

While working toward a PhD at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, she curated exhibitions, including, most recently, Wendy Red Star: A Scratch on the Earth at the Newark Museum. Red Star creates work that explores her Crow Indian identity, often with a humorous edge. Fellah helped organize a panel that included the artist, a comedian, and a cultural writer to investigate the importance of com-edy in womanhood and feminism, which led to an insightful conversation about how important humor is culturally and personally. “Humor can often be what grabs someone and pulls them into an artwork,” she notes. “For people who say, ‘Contemporary art isn’t my thing,’ humor can change their expectations coming into a contemporary exhibition and encountering, for example, a Native American artist, if they are unfamiliar with that field. It’s an entry point.”

Being a contemporary art curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art presents a world of possibilities. “I’m excited to be working at an encyclopedic art museum,” Fellah says. “I plan to organize exhibitions that play off the historically grounded global collection to draw out new narratives and create new conversations surrounding contemporary experiences, encounters, politics, nature, and music—all the wonderful elements that art can touch on.”

Cleveland Art, January/February 2020