Alumni Spotlight|Dr. Joey Orr

By Kia Lisby

Joey Orr

Laney Graduate School alumnus (2014) Dr. Joey Orr has been navigating contemporary art for over 20 years. He studied literature and poetry before becoming involved in artist residency programs, ultimately leading him down the contemporary art path. 

Orr got his first taste of curation in Atlanta as an independent curator. He accepted his first curatorial post at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia after receiving his Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Georgia in 1994. Despite his early success, Orr did not have a graduate degree and realized that if he wanted to take his career further, he would need to return to school. 

So, Orr went on to earn his Master of Art in Visual and Critical Studies from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2008 and PhD from Emory University’s Laney Graduate School’s Institute of Liberal Arts (ILA) program.  

"It's the only program I applied to. It was a perfect fit. There was an incredible sense of community there and lots of deep, serious, interdisciplinary conversations," said Orr when describing why he chose Laney's ILA program. "The ILA was a really special place that deeply influenced my professional practice." 

During his time at Laney, Orr focused on social practice in contemporary art, specifically reperformance and historical reenactment. To earn his interdisciplinary degree, Orr had to show proficiency in three different areas: memory studies, public scholarship/social practice, and psychoanalytic theories of affect exchange. 

"I was interested in better understanding the logistics and formal qualities of social practice, and that's why I got into studying affect," he said. 

In 2011, Orr received the Community Impact Award from the Emory Center for Creativity and Art for his instrumental role in helping establish the Visual Scholarship Initiative (VSI). While working on his doctorate, Orr co-created this support group with other graduate students inside and outside of the ILA program. The group recognized that doctoral students worked in hybrid ways and wanted to create a mechanism for people across various disciplines to evaluate their work. It offered reading groups and a series of critiques where people could share their work. Additionally, Orr received the Manuel Montoya Graduate Service Award for helping new students entering the ILA program navigate their scholarly paths and the academic system. 

Orr credits some of his success to Laney professors Angelika Bammer and Anna Grimshaw for their guidance and Elizabeth Wilson, who taught him almost all his psychoanalytic theory and continues to engage him. 

"They [Bammer and Grimshaw] were creating the space where we could begin to critique things taken for granted in more discrete disciplines." 

He also credits former ILA professor, the late Ivan Karp, with impacting his thinking when learning to work with institutions while accomplishing good, publicly engaged work. 

After obtaining his PhD, Orr accepted a role at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA) in 2015 as a post-doctoral curatorial fellow, funded by the Mellon Foundation. Following this opportunity, he transitioned into his current position, Curator for Research and Director of Arts Research Integration (ARI) at the Spencer Museum of Art, which the Mellon Foundation funded from its founding in 2016 until this year. Orr was instrumental in establishing an endowment to ensure the future of this work. 

In addition to curating several exhibitions, the fellowship at the MCA provided Orr the opportunity to do collection-based research on social practice, what counts as the object of art in social relations, and how such things enter public collections. Following several iterations and publications, the final publication of Orr's book, A Sourcebook of Performance Labor, came out last year. He hopes his book brings strong interdisciplinary perspectives on what counts as artistic practice through many of the fields he explored during his studies at Emory. 

Of all his accomplishments, Orr remarks that it has been most rewarding to go from "being someone who is trying to establish my own personal individual reputation to becoming someone who can build more robust public institutions." 

After more than seven years at the Spencer, during which he launched the Arts Research Integration, Orr is returning to the MCA this August as Deputy Director and Chief of Curatorial Affairs.