Visual Vernacular: Dr. Kheli Willetts
Born into a creative household, Dr. Kheli R. Willetts has always been surrounded by the arts. Resonating throughout her days, in her culture and her community, Dr. Willetts truly had a clear path that would allow her to cultivate and curate her love and passion into full time involvement in the arts. The result of a five-month nationwide search taken on by Art League Houston after previous Executive Director Michael Peranteu’s announcement in January that he would be stepping down in May 2024, Dr. Willetts was selected to lead a program that is steeped in the experience of arts education, invigorating programming, and intensive community building here in Houston.
During a time when the arts are be to championed and protected, Art League Houston is fortunate to have Dr. Willetts as someone who can continue this electric connection the organization has to its surrounding community. Through her previous work as the the Executive Director of Community Folk Art Center (CFAC) and Professor of Practice of African American Art History and Film in the Department of African American Studies at Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York, Dr. Willetts has tirelessly worked with a number of arts organizations including Real Art Ways, the Studio Museum of Harlem, the Wadsworth Athenaeum, the Connecticut Historical Society and the Connecticut Commission on the Arts.
She has also aided in helping the arts flourish as a board member of such organizations as the New York Consortium of Museums and Art Centers (NYMACC). Currently, Dr. Willetts sits on the board of the Association of African American Museums (AAAM), and is a grants panelist for the Institution of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). Her knowledge paired with her charisma and kindness is something our entire arts culture can rally behind, and Dr. Willetts spoke to Free Press Houston about her previous experiences that led her to Houston.
Free Press Houston: What were some experiences or interactions that lead you into arts leadership?
Dr. Kheli Willetts: I have always gone to museums and galleries, and even when I was little, I found myself looking for reflection of my culture and communities in the artists and exhibitions. However, it was during my first African American Art History class in college when I learned about the history and contributions by people of African descent, I began to explore why this aspect of American art history had been rendered virtually invisible. Although I understood that race and culture were critical elements of this virtual erasure, I had also discovered creative spaces where Black artists were nurtured and celebrated.
What I realized was that what made this possible was because of the people in positions of leadership. When I begin my training in Museum Studies, I learned about the “who” and “how” of the arts. More specifically, by studying the role of arts administrators, gallery owners, art historians and cultural critics, I began to understand their impact. That is when I decided to pursue a career in arts administration because of the opportunity to make a difference and ultimately create an artistic environment, opportunity or experience where people could see themselves and the artistic contributions of their culture and communities.
FPH: You have served as a board member, guided as an arts consultant, and also lead as an instructor. How have each of these roles shaped your eye and your mission?
Willetts: Actually, for me it was my mission that shaped how I serve as a board member, consult in the arts and engage as an arts educator and administrator.
FPH: What attracted you to Art League Houston?
Willetts: Art League Houston’s mission statement “to connect the community through diverse, dynamic, and creative experiences that bring people together to see, make, and talk about contemporary visual art,” is what initially attracted me. Additionally, when I learned more about the institution and how their core values of inclusivity, creativity, learning, service and evolution were literally reflected in their exhibition and education programming, I was hooked. What they do reflects my personal values and belief systems for the arts.
FPH: What are some aspects of Houston’s arts scene that you admire?
Willetts: I admire the creativity, ingenuity and diversity of the artists, institutions and programming. There is always something creative to do or see here.
FPH: How does Art League Houston fit into the future of serving artists and the community here moving forward?
Willetts: I believe Art League Houston represents the future. We are the first W.A.G.E certified arts institution in the state, actively seek to create exhibitions that address issues that impact society and practice arts engagement in the diverse communities. I believe these elements are not just a representation of ALH, but the cross section of Houston’s community who include us a part of their creative lives.
FPH: Any dream projects/exhibitions for this organization?
Willetts: Yes, but I’ve only just begun to dream, so I’m not prepared to share just yet.
Currently on view at Art League Houston includes Suspended Memory by Shane Allbritton & Peter Bernick-Allbritton in the main gallery and Speak of the Devil by Edward Kelley in the front gallery is also on view. Thingness by Benjamin Terry is featured in the Hallway space. All three shows run through July 22, 2024 at Art League Houston (1953 Montrose).