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Chantal Drake: The Art of Being BMA’s Multi-Talented Deputy Director

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Chantal Drake, Deputy Director, Birmingham Museum of Art

By Nicole S. Daniel

The Birmingham Times

One of Chantal Drake’s earliest portraits still stands out. She created a sketch of her uncle, an Alabama State Trooper, who was killed while in the line of duty in 1996.

“There were so many people that had all of these stories about how he saved their lives, and we (the family) never knew about it,” said Drake, who was 12 at the time.

She created a portrait of her uncle in his uniform and gave it to her mother. “I don’t think it was good, but it was a way for me to express myself with everything that was going on. It was an opportunity for me to be still, be quiet, and just work on that.”

The young sketch artist didn’t believe she was very good at the time, “which is why I didn’t go into art studio or something like that in college,” she said. “I never would have made it as an artist, I also don’t have the patience. If something is not going well for me in terms of the process, I’ll get frustrated.”

While she may not consider herself an artist, she does have a touch for the art world. In January, Drake was named deputy director of the Birmingham Museum of Art and now is preparing for the museum’s signature event – Art on the Rocks (AOTR) which returns Friday, August 4 from 7 to 11 p.m.

“[AOTR] is an event where the visual arts come together with performance dance and live music,” said Drake, who will experience her first AOTR, and hopes to greet attendees at one or more of the entrances.

This year’s AOTR will feature an electric mix of art, music, and performances throughout the BMA’s galleries, sculpture garden, and outdoor terraces.

There will be a live performance from musical guest, Durand Bernarr, a singer-songwriter and producer who is known for providing background vocals for neo-soul artist Erykah Badu and featured vocals for other artists such as Anderson .Paak, Kaytranada, and The Internet.

Drake wants all of those in attendance to leave wanting to come back and attend other programs and events, invite others, and become members.

She added, “this is going to be an event where everybody is together and just having a good time. I’m just excited to be a part of the experience.”

This year’s AOTR holds particular significance for Drake since it’s her first. “I think people see my face and kind of understand that I’m new around town. But having the opportunity to just say hello to people is going to be really good.”

Country Girl at Heart

Drake grew up in a rural area right outside of Huntsville in Harvest, Alabama with two sisters — one older and the other younger.

“I grew up on what was my grandfather’s farmland. It was my aunt, my grandfather, my parents’ house, another aunt, and then a great grandmother. We all lived in a row,” she said.

Drake describes herself “as a country girl at heart. I really made mud pies and caught lightning bugs in jars. So when I think about growing up in Huntsville, I think more so about Harvest and just kind of being with my family … it set the foundation for family, faith and for a lot of what’s important to me now.”

She attended Sparkman High School in Harvest, where she was on a competitive dance team. “We danced at football games during halftime, basketball games during halftime, but we also competed at the state and national level. Jazz, kick and pom usually were the three categories.”

Prior to high school, she had never been on dance team.

“My mom and dad both went to Sparkman High School so that’s where they met. My mom was on the dance team, but it was completely different. It was more so like a prance around [team],” Drake laughed.

Even in high school, Drake had an interest in the arts and been part of the art club which allowed her and classmates to “be introduced to artists and use techniques and things that you’re just not getting during school.”

“I had always been interested in dance and always been interested in visual arts, music, all those things.”

After graduating from Sparkman in 2002, she attended the University of Alabama at Birmingham [UAB] and knew she wanted to be in a creative field. However, one area that never crossed her mind was working in a museum. “I didn’t even know that was a thing you could do,” she said.

At UAB, she enrolled into an art history course “that made sense to me,” she said. “…this particular [course] was talking about Black visual culture or African Americans in art. I had not thought about it that way before.”

As a junior and senior she visited the Birmingham Museum of Art frequently and “there was a Kerry James Marshall [an artist and professor, known for his paintings of Black figures] exhibition that was on view.  I saw his work for the first time, took that class and it all just kind of like clicked. For me it was a very big click and I had a very distinct ‘aha’ moment, sitting in that class I knew … that I was going to go to grad school for history after that.”

After she graduated, she married and had her son Peyton.

In 2006, Drake obtained a bachelor’s degree in art history from UAB and afterwards she and her family moved to New Orleans where she managed a commercial art gallery for about nine months before she decided to attend graduate school.

She applied to the University of Memphis, got accepted and moved to Memphis Tennessee.

“I knew that I wanted a career in a museum or in an academic setting where I could learn and be close to the works of art,” she said. “I just didn’t feel like the opportunities were going to be as available if I didn’t have a master’s degree.”

Graduate school was tough with a new baby, being in a new city, studying and working an internship but, overall she said it was “a fantastic experience … I took some really good classes and made some really good friends.”

Her thesis was centered on three African American male artists and African American female — Archibald Motley, Eldzier Cortor, Dox Thrash — who brought a Black cultural narrative into a European classic style using Black nude figures.

In 2010, she obtained her master’s degree in art history and a graduate certification in museum studies.

During an internship at Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis, she learned about a communications associate position and over the next 12 years worked her way up to Director of Development Communications where she was responsible for marketing, fundraising, event planning, membership and corporate sponsorship program and also diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion initiatives.

Besides working in the arts community, Drake loves to travel with her son, who is now 16, or friends as well as attend concerts. So far one of her favorite places to travel is Bali.

“I went with a group of people, most of them I had never met before. We did a lot of cool things” including surfing lessons and visiting a market where she cooked traditional Indonesian and Balinese dishes. “It was culturally enriching because it made us understand the people that lives there and their culture.”

In the future, Drake wants to visit an abundance of places with Barcelona and the cherry blossoms in Japan at the top of her bucket list.

Back to Birmingham

Towards the end of last summer, Drake was scrolling on LinkedIn when she came across a deputy director position open at Birmingham Museum of Art. “I thought to myself, I love that museum. It is a great museum for a lot of different reasons.”

“I had been keeping up with all of the things that were happening there through Executive Director Graham C. Boettcher’s leadership and the programming of exhibitions … I knew I would be walking into a great opportunity.”

After moving from Memphis, her first day at BMA was January 17.

All of her days are different, she said, but her ultimate goal is for the executive director’s vision to be as clear as possible and help everyone be on the same page and implement that vision.

She added, “I know that the museum has done great work in terms of getting the community more engaged in everything we have going on here, which is a big part of what Graham has been able to accomplish, and wants to see more of, but also to expand our reach and our brand regionally.

Updated at 8:28 a.m. on 8/1/2023 with edits.

Art on the Rocks will be Friday, August 4 from 7 to 11 p.m. with music and performances throughout the museum’s galleries, sculpture garden, and outdoor terraces. For more visit here