At its annual benefit luncheon and awards ceremony, ArtTable, the national organization devoted to professional women in the visual arts, honored Lowery Stokes Sims and Lauren Cornell. Sims received the 2017 award for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts, and Cornell won the New Leadership Award. We have chosen here to excerpt parts of Sims’s acceptance speech as it stands out as unusually charming, forthright, and personal. —Barbara A. MacAdam
What I decided to share with you today are some memories of my parents, whose love of culture in New York City shaped the person I am today. There is no doubt that my professional life has been determined by the fact that my parents took my sister, brother, and me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art when we were young. My favorite galleries were the Egyptian ones, and I early aspired to be an archaeologist. However, my mother suggested that my race and lack of requisite financial inheritance would be an obstacle to that goal, and so I found the extremely lucrative career of art history instead.
My father grew up on a farm in Humboldt, Tennessee, where he had taught school and done construction work with his father during the off seasons of farming. After serving in WWII, he studied architecture at Howard University on the G.I. Bill and worked as an architect in various firms in New York City before settling down on the staff of the Port Authority, from which he retired in the late ’70s. He was involved in the planning and construction of the World Trade Center so it was with a sense of pride that I served on the jury of the World Trade Center Memorial in 2003/4.
Although my mother’s parents divorced when she was five, she and her older brother led cultured and active lives that belied their economic condition. My mother always said she grew up in genteel poverty, raised by her mother, who despite having earned a certificate to teach at Hampton Institute, was blackballed from teaching in New York because she was black. So she had to work as a domestic.
I found in my mother’s papers, shortly before she died, a notice to my grandmother that she had qualified for a civil service position in New Jersey and another letter that her rejection was beyond the control of that person. In those days, race trumped ability. It reminded me of the story Howardena Pindell used to tell me of how in the ’70s she would send her slides to a gallery and she would be invited in to discuss possibilities. But when she arrived she would be told that the gallery didn’t show Black art.
I always wondered—when did Howardena’s artwork become black and how did my grandmother become unqualified? But in any case, my mother went on to major in biology at Brooklyn College, and very well may have been one of the only African-Americans to work as a lab technician at Mount Sinai Hospital in the 1940s. She was also a kind of incipient socialist and got in trouble with her boss for showing up in public for a demonstration to support colonized peoples. So she worried about it so much that when my father got a job at an architecture firm and had to be cleared by the government she thought she might be a hindrance to him because of her socialist interests—but, fortunately, that was not an issue.
All the while, she voraciously absorbed theater, dance, and art as attested to by the playbills and programs she left behind. Together, my parents encouraged our participation in New York’s cultural offerings, as my mother drummed into us the most economical ways to do that—you got your library card, then free admission to the museums, and then you could always do standing room at the opera, ballet, or symphony. She was such a maniac that, when I was four, she got tickets for us to see Oklahoma. Two or three days, maybe it was four days beforehand—I came out with the worst case of chicken pox you’ve ever seen in your life, and she was smearing me with calamine lotion and calling the doctor to find out when I would be less contagious. She insisted that I go in this white organdy dress with a pink bow and patent leather shoes—why she couldn’t have given the ticket away and left me in peace, I don’t know. But to this day, I cannot hear “You’ll never walk alone” without thinking of poor John Raitt standing in front of the curtain at the end of the play.
My father introduced us to architectural wonders and I have vivid memories of excursions to Idlewild Airport before it was renamed for John Fitzgerald Kennedy. We used to observe the success of the construction of terminals, chapels, and most especially, the famed TWA Terminal by Eero Saarinen. We also got to watch the landings and takeoffs of planes from the roofs of the terminals—this was definitely pre-terrorist period. And in 1967, he bundled the entire family into our black ’57 Ford Fairlane, and drove to Montreal so that we could see Buckminster Fuller’s biodome design for the American Pavilion.
I can say that the extraordinary exhibition of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and Minimalism made an indelible impression on me, then a freshman in college, deciding on a major in art history at Queens College.
At the age of 14, I trekked from Queens to the Met to see the Mona Lisa, which had been sent over for a visit from the Louvre. The Met was also the site of my first date. The downside was that my mother insisted that my younger sister accompany us—lest my date think that I was an easy mark. My sister proceeded to do ballet leaps up and down the galleries and my lousy social life in high school was sealed. But, undeterred, I continued my relationship with the Met, and it was almost inevitable that when my mother got me a job as a weekend salesgirl at Woolworth’s near us, this was a ploy . . . to impress on me that this was not a viable forever job. I took one of my first paychecks and took out a membership at the Met. I was really really a nerd.
For the next few years, if I couldn’t convince a boyfriend to come with me, my father would meet me at the opening exhibitions at the Met or pick me up from lectures that I attended and drive me back to Queens. On one occasion, I attended a lecture on forgery given by Joseph Nobel. On exiting the auditorium and entering the Great Hall, I saw my father standing there all dressed in black with a cap and his arms folded like a ferocious Mr. Clean. Not a few of the patrons took notice—after all, there were not many black people in the crowd and as I approached him, he whispered to me, “Don’t say a word.” We exited the museum and descended the staircase that preceded the current grand one—and there below in the old circular driveway I saw a series of limousines and the same Ford Fairlane. We got into the car without a word. As we drove away my father relayed how he had spied a parking space in front of the museum as he had turned onto Fifth Avenue, so he drove in, parked, and said to the fancy chauffeurs that he worked for an eccentric woman who wouldn’t buy a fancy car.
It was things like that that forged a special bond between me and my father, who, besides being urbane and sophisticated, was canny in the navigation of the racial dynamics in those situations and people’s assumptions about who and what he was and was willing to maneuver them to get the results he desired. His example and ever-ready advice would serve me well when I started at the Metropolitan Museum several years later at the age of 23.
About a year ago, a notice landed in my box from designer Dror Bensitrit that announced his proposal to activate the stockpiled American Pavilion from the 1967 World’s Fair in Montreal. His idea was to preserve the original Buckminster Fuller biodome and add a plant-covered doppelgänger in the Saint Lawrence River. I was immediately transported back to that trip to Montreal with my parents and my siblings and I was happy that the original building would be preserved, as the Eero Saarinen Terminal has been repurposed at Kennedy Airport. In a landscape that changes as quickly as it does in New York, I am happy to have those landmarks remind me of the important influence and support that my parents gave that helped make me who I am.
As I stand here today, I am happy to have so many friends from different eras in my career at the Metropolitan Museum and the Studio Museum in Harlem and at the Museum of Arts and Design, who are here to celebrate with me. As you can see, I did eventually expand my consumption of art to other museums. There are so many special friends here and I can’t mention them all because there are so many who showed up who I didn’t know were going to show up. But I want to especially shout out to my longtime sister, friend, and collaborator, Leslie King Hammond, whose presence in my life goes back to our Girl Scout days; Jaune Quick-to-See Smith who honors me by schlepping all the way from Corrales, New Mexico, to be here; Marta Vega who showed me that I could be African and American.