She texts to let me know this minutes before our lunch meeting at Madcap Café, a cozy spot in Brooklyn’s chic Carroll Gardens neighborhood. Naturally, I assume it’s because she’s had a late night—the evening prior was the Saturday before Halloween, and if anyone needed to let off some steam, it was Drew. She’s only 28 years old, after all—and entering her final week as social media manager at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a position she’s held since 2016. Besides catapulting her into the mainstream, the role has ensured that she is always rushing.
“I’m not hung over,” Drew says when she arrives, scooting into our booth. She begins unzipping her black-and-red puffer jacket, then shoots me a knowing look. “Promise.”
Turns out, Drew didn’t even go out for Halloween (though she did paint her face like a zombie.) No, the reason for her delay was a glitch with an iPhone; after spending hours interviewing one of her idols, the audio file mysteriously disappeared. Technology giveth, technology taketh away. But, all things considered, Drew has managed to stay firmly planted on the right side of that balance. Her Instagram account, @museummammy, boasts nearly a quarter-million followers. On the feed, she deftly mixes her own cameos in Gap fashion ads and photos of Serena Williams with Kara Walker paintings and Kerry James Marshall quotes. Social media comes as second nature to the Orange, New Jersey, native.
But she’s hardly the typical twentysomething influencer. She sits on the board of Recess Activities, Inc., where she helped organize the Black Art Incubator. She has been written about in The New Yorker. She was the recipient of the A.I.R. Gallery’s inaugural Feminist Curator Award. During our afternoon together, she hardly touches her phone.
Curation, and, more broadly, the world of art, was a natural extension for Drew, even when she didn’t always know it. Growing up in Orange gave her access to New York City and its extensive cultural landscape. But she also credits Newark, New Jersey, the birthplace of the 1970s black arts movement, and her family, with informing her sensibilities.
“I very much remember my dad’s little objects and trinkets—every ticket was to be preserved, like to a Michael Jackson concert. It’s less an aesthetic memory, but there was a real understanding that cultural objects have extreme value and should be treated with respect,” she says. “My elementary school, Link Community School, was created after the Newark riots. Our mascot was the black panther. Then I went from this very culturally black school experience to a super conserva-tive boarding school, Saint George’s School in Rhode Island. I was the only black student in my grade. That alone caused a shock to my system. I grew up a diverse neighborhood, where there was a huge West Indian population, people from Caribbean, friends from Nigeria. Then getting to Rhode Island, it’s like, ‘Most of you are from Connecticut.’ So when I was finishing my time there, I realized that I wanted a canvas where I could be myself.”
Drew initially considered Wellesley, her aunt’s alma mater, but settled on Smith College. She was drawn to the school’s open curriculum, which allowed her to satiate intellectual curiosity through trying out different majors—pre-med (“hated it”), mathematics (“why do so many people of color think they’re bad at math?”), then engineering, which she enjoyed but proved untenable.
“My grandfather passed [during] my first year of college, and it changed my financial sit-uation. I put myself through college,” she says. “I worked at a pizza shop. It’s the only job that I’ve ever gotten fired from. I was a barista, then I had to get another job off-campus. It was so intense. I couldn’t work on the schedule of anyone else in my engineering program, and there [was] so much group work. One of my classmates was like, ‘My parents don’t want me to work.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, I’m dropping out of this.’”
All the while, Drew had been involved with Smith’s African Studies program. When she met her college advisor, he made an intriguing suggestion: a summer internship at The Studio Museum in Harlem. Drew liked the idea of doing something related to the business of art. So she went for it, and ended up assisting Thelma Golden, the institution’s prolific director and chief curator.
“I struggle less now, in adulthood, but I always struggled being really secure in my intelligence, especially having that extreme culture shock in high school,” Drew allows. “I’d been pining for this confidence in terms of academia, and I found it through art history.”
As part of the summer program, she edited a feature for Studio, the museum’s seasonal publication. It was a harbinger. The following spring, in 2011, she launched Black Contemporary Art, a Tumblr page dedicated to chronicling art by and about those of African descent. It quickly became “a scary obsession.” She updated the page constantly, obsessively, compulsively, researching the works of artists like Nick Caton and William Thomas “like my life depended on it,” she says. The blog helped launch Drew into the curatorial orbit.
“At that time I was very ignorant. I was ignorant to all the things that would tell me it didn’t make sense. It started from a very naïve space of saying, ‘Okay, I learned [about] these artists, and I want to learn more—I can’t find a repository of all this information, so I’ll make my own,’” she says. “I’m very thankful that I hadn’t been steeped in what I know the art world to be now. Because if I looked back at it, I would never have been that ambitious, to think that I could be an authority or voice in this kind of space.”
Todd Florio, formerly of the nonprofit arts organization Creative Time, where Drew worked after graduating from Smith, was an early supporter of the Tumblr page. He encouraged her to take it seriously, she says, and to understand the real, material impact of her work online.
“I can say now people used it to carry expeditions, but that wasn’t the goal. I can say now that people brought it into prisons to teach inmates, but that wasn’t the goal. People’s use of [the Tumblr page] was amazing, but that wasn’t the goal,” she admits.
In 2012 and 2013, her perspective started to shift.
“I realized that I really wanted to serve a particular public—young and emerging people of color who are interested in working in arts,” Drew says. “Black Contemporary Art, for all intents and purposes, is like an institution. It’s very much about the way we evangelize on behalf of recognition. So, as an individual now, it’s like, ‘Okay, what can I do to tack his pipeline problem in the arts field, to make sure more people have the tools to get involved and immersed and empowered?’ I chose a persona route.”
That persona, Museum Mammy, arrived in the webspace at a critical moment—for fine art, for youth activism, and for social media. The timing was also fortuitous when Drew was introduced to the Met’s social and online community producer, who vacating the position. “I was like, ‘Do you think I could ever get this job?,’” Drew remembers asking. “And she was like ‘Yeah, of course. Apply!’”
She hopes this dispels a misunderstanding, as many followers assume that she was approached by the museum. In truth, she applied, like hundreds of other candidates.
“They made me an offer—well, first they gave me a lot of shit about what I wanted salary wise, and then they gave me an offer,” she says. “It was interesting, because the chair-woman of education, Sandra Jackson-Dumont, is an amazing curator, mentor figure for a lot of young women of color in the arts. She gave a tour right before I was starting the interview process, and was talking about how [working at] the Met was never her goal. She found herself there, and was able to inform her experience as culture worker, but that wasn’t her goal. Hearing her say that qualified me, too, because the Met was never my goal either. My goal was to work at Studio Museum, and I did that when I was 23. That was as big as my horizon was, doing social media for the Studio Museum in Harlem.”
Drew characterizes her first year at the Met as “surreal.” This was 2016, a transitionary period when social media was largely centered on Facebook; she didn’t have the best tools or resources at her disposal, and it was early in her career. She doesn’t mince words: “I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing.”
Still, she refused to let herself be intimidated by the institution or those in its employ.
“It’s weird, I love this part actually: The Met is full of experts. ‘Oh, you got a Pulitzer? Cool.’ I feel that part for me in terms of maintaining grit and rigor, because it’s like all the accomplishments are just one of many. We engaged and we do our best to serve the mission. If we get awards along the way, that’s fucking awesome, but that’s not the point,” she says. “And so I feel very fortunate to have been in an environment like that, because if I were at a smaller institution, there would have been way more like pressure to be like an avatar of myself.”
She summarizes her experience working at the Met thusly: “There are a lot of coworkers who are quite literally changing the future of museums on a daily basis. But there is also a lot of disparity, I think. Socioeconomic differences, and there are so many able-bodied people at the Met. It’s absurd. Just not representative of the community that we serve. … But we now have all-gender restrooms, which is exciting. We have in the Egyptian wing, one of my favorite things, it’s a sarcophagus that blind or partially blind visitors can touch and engage with. Our Golden Kings expedition that we had a year ago was revolutionary in terms of looking at that genre of art and history. It’s such a cool place to work, especially because I was a generalist within a institution that had many specialties. I got to see a lot of the ways they’re innovating. Like we got our first design department not too long ago, people thinking critically about the design of the museum, as opposed to just the logo. The new website, the admission exchange policy—that was like a seismic shift in an institution that really didn’t change that much for 147 years.”
And while she reflects on her time there fondly—“I miss the Met already,” she allows—Drew knew this day would come. She always planned on staying only three years, she tells me, because there’s a “shelf-life on the work.” But there are other reasons, too. Work-life balance, self-care, other projects. She loves fashion, she wants to travel, write art reviews. Plus she’s working on a book, The Black Futures Project (with New York Times writer Jenna Wortham), set to be released in 2019. Mostly, she wants to be out in the world, doing her thing, instead of being wedded to one place physically—even if that place is arguably the most renowned museum in the world.
“There’s a lot of potential, especially for many, many young people. Art is not a perfect discourse, or perfect world. But I want, to the best of my ability, to encourage and inspire as many people as I can do it their own way,” she says. “Because that’s what I had the gift of doing. Not to say my way is the right way, but I had a lot of bandwidth [at the Met] to figure out whatever the project would be, a lot of great mentors saying, ‘Yeah, you know you want to do more interviews, go for it. You wanna do this.’ I always had someone, especially women, who I talk to and ask questions about how to maneuver a particular way, whether it be PR or working between art and fashion. There’s always been someone I could go to. So I’ve been trying to make myself into that person as much as possible.”
Drew admits she still isn’t entirely comfortable being the center of attention. But her personal star has risen along with the museum’s social presence—so much so that @museummammy is now a vehicle to not just speak about art, but also activist causes, like the National Bail Out movement and Black Lives Matter. “I was never liked; I got bullied. I was never set up to be this person. It’s odd to now be a ‘cool person’ in this moment where activism and social responsibility are accounted for,” she says. Now, as Drew’s time with the Met comes to a close, she plans on spending more time on that responsibility. She mentions a recent memo from the Trump administration about gender assignment, the midterm elections, the separation of immigrant families. A few weeks after we meet, she’ll head off to El Paso with CultureStrike to bring art and culture advocates to the Texas/Mexico border. She’s excited to put boots on the ground, to ask questions, to learn. It’s the same appetite for knowledge and context and understanding that she chased at Smith College, Studio Museum, the Met, and that has kept her so busy for these past three years.
“I have free time now, so I don’t have to run to El Paso, and then back to New York and be at my desk on Monday,” she says. “That’s the most brilliant illustration of this next phase of my life: I’m not trying to rush anywhere.”