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A curator carefully chooses the works for and arranges the display of a collection.

A curator thoughtfully organizes or presents the materials in the collection.

A curator also interprets the collection to inform, educate and inspire the public – and may even conduct public service activities to promote the institution’s collection. 

Evanston’s Fran Joy does it all, and she makes art as well.

In 2019, Joy was presented with the Evanston Mayors’ Artist of the Year Award at a reception at the Block Museum on Northwestern University’s campus.

Fran Joy Credit: Meleika Gardner

She won it not just for her artwork but also for her social justice work and advocating for women’s rights, topics her art often deals with.

In her trademark hats and head coverings, Joy is a well-known figure in Evanston. Her daughter, Meleika Gardner, is the founder of EvanstonLive TV. 

Through a connection at the Second Baptist Church, Joy became acquainted with Garrett Seminary in Evanston on Northwestern’s campus, as well as the Church of the Black Experience.

She became Garrett’s unofficial artist-in-residence for four years. There, she had a large studio overlooking Lake Michigan. She curated exhibits for Garrett, had an exhibition of her own there and did a five-panel piece for them that is part of their permanent collection. 

Much of Joy’s art has a message – for example, strong statements on the killings of young Black men. She does portraits of notable people of color whom she admires. Some of her work is spiritual, often featuring the figure of a woman, sometimes a landscape.

Joy is in demand for her knowledge of and contacts with artists of color and her expertise in arranging exhibits and events. The choice of which artists and which art to show is crucial to the overall exhibit, to its public reception and to its influence. The placement of the art, the spotlighting of one piece over another, could be an act of political import at least as important as artistic import.

Joy brings attention to artists who may have been marginalized in the past, left out of local, regional and national exhibitions, much in the way the women’s movement and certain writers and artists brought attention to the marginalization of women artists in New York City at the turn of the last century.

Emmett Till (oil on canvas) by Fran Joy Credit: Supplied

Born in southern Illinois, Joy has lived in Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles and Evanston. In Evanston, she worked for Michael Phillips, owner of Special Things, a gallery specializing in African art on Greenleaf Street in what is now, and has been for some 45 years, an “arty” neighborhood.

There, she said, she first learned the history of African art, learned to see African culture and history as valuable.

“It was an important time for Black artists, a period of great awakening,” she said.

It was at Special Things where she met her husband-to-be, Al Joy, a friend of the owner and his classmate from ETHS and the football team. They lived for 10 years in Los Angeles, where they collected African art and together built a successful life-coaching business. It was there that Joy had the time and opportunity to work on her own art.

Their return to Chicago was dictated by Al Joy’s deteriorating health and a desire to be closer to the couples’ elderly mothers. Al’s second son, Ra Joy, lived in Bronzeville at the time, in a three-story house filled with art. Fran Joy curated and installed three shows there for events at Ra’s home. Ra Joy is now chief of staff at the National Endowment for the Arts, appointed by President Joe Biden.

While living in Hyde Park, Fran Joy wrote a column for an online liberal paper, PoliticusUSA, about President Barack Obama when he was running against Mitt Romney.

Fran Joy came to political awareness much earlier, in the 1960s, an era of protests and violence, much like now. She moved back to Evanston when her husband died.

Joy’s Black Angel is an oil on canvas. Credit: Supplied

From 2015 to 2021 Joy served on the Evanston Arts Council, where she was appointed by then-Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl. In 2016, she curated and produced Justice for Peace, an exhibit and event at the Noyes Cultural Center that included spoken word, spiritual vocalists and voter activists.

When her six years’ term limit on the Arts Council was up she remained on the Public Art Committee, now called a “working group.”

Joy’s artwork appeared in the traveling Chicago/Evanston exhibit Faces Not Forgotten to shed light on young victims of gun violence. Women Speak, Joy’s exhibition and inspirational event celebrating women at the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center in 2018, drew more than 100 attendees. Her portrait of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy lynched in 1955, was first displayed at that event. 

Joy has coordinated various art installations throughout the greater metropolitan area, including co-curating SOULWORKS with Rose Cannon at the Evanston Art Center, a collection of art by both renowned and emerging artists of color in 2020.

She also curated the show, What Is Racial Justice, at the Noyes Cultural Art Center in 2021 and co-curated the powerful exhibit Visible/Invisible with Indira Johnson and Lisa Degliantoni at the Noyes Cultural Art Center in 2022. She served on the community advisory committee for the current exhibit, which is open until July 10, A Site of Struggle at Northwestern’s Block Museum.

A member of the exhibits committee at the Evanston Art Center, Joy recently suggested an unused corner in their first floor gallery exclusively for the work of artists who are Black, indigenous or people of color, also called BIPOC. She now curates the exhibit.

Opening this month will be an unusual Evanston Made exhibit, an annual event at the Evanston Art Center, curated this year by Joy and running through June 30. This year’s exhibit features BIPOC member artists, and all proceeds will go to the artists rather than shared with the Art Center. 

Further, there is a full month of events relating to the exhibit, lectures, tours and a participatory workshop.

Although it may not be common practice for curators to exhibit in a show they curated, Joy has three paintings at the Art Center.

“All three works have something to say about reality right now,” she said.

Gay Riseborough

Gay Riseborough is an artist, has served the City of Evanston for 11 years on arts committees, and is now an arts writer at the Evanston RoundTable.

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