On March 23, critic and curator Maurice Berger died of complications related to COVID-19. Much of his work focused on racial justice in the art world. In 2004, he organized “White: Whiteness and Race in Contemporary Art” at the International Center of Photography in New York,” exploring how artists examined, or exploited, racial privilege. He wrote a column for Lens, a photography blog published by the New York Times, on the social and political contexts of compelling images. His landmark essay “Are Art Museums Racist?” was first published in our September 1990 issue. Berger wrote the piece at a time when white curators and white-led institutions were increasingly making attempts at racial inclusivity: putting works by one or two artists of color in group shows, or mounting occasional exhibitions focused on race. But Berger’s searing critique made it plain that this tokenism was not enough. People of color had to be given positions of influence and allowed to speak to their own experience for the art world to change. As a white critic, he emphasized the importance of self-reflection and self-critique: “Not until white people who now hold power in the art world scrutinize their own motives and attitudes toward people of color will it be possible to unlearn racism,” Berger wrote. In the 1990 issue, his essay was followed by “Speaking Out: Some Distance to Go,” six interviews he conducted with black cultural leaders, including David Hammons and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., on the role of museums and the market in perpetuating misunderstandings of African American art. With these conversations, Berger practiced what he preached: he uplifted other voices and gave people of color the last word. Below we offer the full text of “Are Art Museums Racist?” in remembrance of Berger and his contributions to our field. —Eds.
Walking through a group exhibition installed last fall at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, I heard the distinctive, albeit muffled, voice of the late Malcolm X. The sounds emanated from a multimedium installation by the African American artist David Hammons. The installation itself, titled A Fan (1989), was almost surreal in its juxtapositions: a funereal bouquet, its flowers dried and decayed, stood next to an antique table on which the head of a white, female mannequin “watched” one of Malcolm X’s early television interviews. The work was powerful, challenging, even painful. Rather than advocating conciliation (as he would later), in this video interview Malcolm X spoke of his distrust of white people and of the inherent foolishness of integration. An understandable sense of frustration echoed in his voice when he said, “There is nothing that the white man will do to bring about true, sincere citizenship or civil rights recognition for black people in this country. They will always talk but they won’t practice it.”
These words offered an appropriate postscript to my museum experience. The exhibition in question was “Strange Attractors: Signs of Chaos,” what the curator called an exploration of “some of the most compelling issues raised by the new science of chaos as they relate to recent works of art.” The confluence of Malcolm’s ideas and the show’s theoretical perspective summarized for me the difficult place of African American artists in museums—even in ones as ostensibly supportive of racial inclusion as the New Museum. The charismatic presence of Malcolm X’s voice in “Strange Attractors” simply underscored how irrelevant both the exhibition and its catalogue were to the issues about which he was speaking—that is, when those words could be heard at all, given the video monitor’s subdued volume. The catalogue reverberates with the jargon of “the new chaos science”: words like “period doubling,” “bifurcation cascade,” “phase space,” “limit cycle,” “hysteresis” appear throughout its pages. As one reads through the catalogue, one recognizes the names of white, male academics. And while curator Laura Trippi maintains that “the discourse of postmodernism sets up within the aesthetic (sometimes to the point of shrillness) a situation of extreme urgency and indeterminacy,” nowhere are the systemic, institutionally defined conditions of racism·discussed.1
Twenty-five years after Malcolm X was assassinated, “his voice is being heard again and his ideology is being reexamined” as many African Americans search for new social structures for survival and growth in a period of renewed conservatism and indifference.2 This search contemplates a radical realignment of society that is unthinkable to most white people—a realignment that is not about chaos but about order. Perhaps it is the urgency of this project that made the inclusion of Malcolm X in this art exhibition so striking. Without the Hammons piece the sensibility of “Strange Attractors” would have been very different, more typical of the splashy group shows of contemporary art that simply ignore the issue of race. That one image threw the entire show into question and pointed up the racial bias of its institutional context. Increasingly, across the country, similar catalysts are inserting painful questions into the heretofore complacent space of exhibition as curators with good intentions attempt to “include” the cultural production of people of color.
Having grown up in a predominantly black and Hispanic low-income housing project on Manhattan’s Lower East Side—a place that was presumably also about good intentions—I am used to the experience of witnessing social and cultural indifference to people of color as a white person on the inside. It is startling to me, however, that in a nation that has seen at least some effort made by white people to share mainstream cultural venues (and the concomitant social and economic rewards) with African Americans and other people of color—most notably in the areas of popular music, dance, literature, and theater—the visual arts remain, for the most part, stubbornly resistant. My point in this article, then, is to examine the complex institutional conditions that result in the exclusion or misrepresentation of major cultural voices in the United States. These muted voices are complex and varied. There are veteran black artists, such as Al Loving, Faith Ringgold, and the late Romare Bearden, who have received considerable art world attention but are prevented from rising to the superstar status available to white artists of equal (or less than equal) talent. There are the younger African American artists of the so-called MFA generation, such as Maren Hassinger, Pat Ward Williams, and David Hammons, who have had considerable difficulty finding gallery representation. And finally, there is a new generation of “outsiders,” artists and collectives that function independently of the gallery system in communities across the country.
Viewed in the broader context of social changes in American race relations—from the advances of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s to the reversal of many of these advances in the Reagan era—the question of black cultural disenfranchisement seems daunting, Is the art world merely mirroring social changes or can art institutions actually play a role in challenging the conditions of institutional racism in America? Sad to say, with regard to race, art museums have for the most part behaved like many other businesses in this country—they have sought to preserve the narrow interests of their upper-class patrons and clientele. It is this upper-class, mostly white bias that l want to interrogate in order to find out “what’s going on with whiteness” (as the writer bell hooks might say) at one of America’s most racially biased cultural institutions—the art museum.
DESPITE THE RECENT increase in exhibitions devoted to African American art in major museums, these shows rarely address the underlying resistance of the art world to people of color. Such exhibitions often fall into what the art historian Judith Wilson has called the syndrome of “separate-but-unequal programming”: African American shows in February, during Black History Month, white shows the rest of the year.3 A recent study of “art-world racism” in New York from 1980–87 by artist Howardena Pindell seems to verify that white-identified galleries and museums have little interest in enfranchising African Americans and other people of color. Based on her statistical overview of the demographics of mainstream art exhibitions, Pindell concludes that “black, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American artists are . . . with a few, very few, exceptions systematically excluded.”4 PESTS, an anonymous group of New York-based African, Asian, Latino, and Native American artists organized in 1986 to combat “art-world apartheid,” came to a similar conclusion. In 1987, the PESTS Newsletter published a roster of sixty-two top New York galleries whose stables were all or nearly all white.5 While the situation would appear to be somewhat better outside of New York (a city where, Wilson claims, “the relative economic powerlessness of [the] black population . . . keeps displays at the . . . largest, publicly funded museums less integrated.”6 African American and other artists of color remain underrepresented in museums and galleries across the United States.
During the past twenty-five years a number of institutions devoted to African American art and culture have opened in the United States, a response to the general problem of institutional racism and the art world’s frustrating indifference to people of color.7 The Studio Museum in Harlem, for example, was founded in 1967 to fill a void left by mainstream institutions; its mission was to support the “study, documentation, collection, preservation and exhibition of art and artifacts of Black America and the African diaspora.” The Studio Museum is to the African American art world as the Museum of Modern Art is to the white art establishment in terms of visibility and prestige. But there are literally hundreds of smaller, lesser-known institutions across the country devoted to the art of African Americans and other people of color. Such alternative museums raise a number of questions about the relationship between white and black culture in America. Are African American artists stifled by the segregation of black museums, or do these institutions allow their art to flourish despite the dominant culture’s lack of interest? Must African Americans renounce their own cultural identity in order to be accepted by mainstream institutions? To what extent does the mere existence of African American museums unintentionally absolve majority institutions of their social responsibility to black Americans?
Kinshasha Holman Conwill, executive director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, maintains that African American museums are necessary:
“Black artists are segregated by society. If we waited for Romare Bearden, Al Loving, or Betye Saar or other black artists to have their retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art or in some of the wonderful contemporary museums around this country, we would be waiting a long, long time. Many people ask me if the [Studio Museum] perpetuates [this problem]. It’s as if racism would end tomorrow if we disbanded the Studio Museum in Harlem, and there would be this great opening of doors and black artists would start pouring in to the mainstream of American art. Well, that’s not what is happening.”8
On the whole, the financial situation for African American and other minority art institutions remains poor. The American Association of Museums (AAM) in Washington, D.C., has begun to address the needs of these institutions, but their own rigorous accreditation standards, including stringent technical and acquisition guidelines, actually discourage validation of younger and economically poorer institutions. The Studio Museum in Harlem, accredited in 1987, is still the only black or Hispanic museum certified by the AAM. Because most corporate and private sponsors insist on proof of accreditation as part of their grant-giving process, lack of accreditation has serious consequences for institutions seeking outside funding. As a result, alternative spaces devoted to African American art, a relatively recent programming phenomenon, are often dependent on severely limited funding sources. This problem of accreditation is so serious that the Association of African American Museums was formed recently to help validate institutions overlooked by the AAM. The Ford Foundation, responding to its own study of twenty-nine black and Hispanic art museums, recently instituted a three-year, $5-million program designed to improve economic conditions in these museums.
Still, few programs are directed toward improving African American representation in white-identified, mainstream art venues. Even fewer programs press the culture industry to examine its own racism and indifference. A rare instance was the program for this year’s annual conference of the College Art Association in New York, where an unprecedented number of presentations were devoted to issues of cultural disenfranchisement and institutional racism.9 Mainstream support of the interests of the “Other” (when it does occur) generally takes one of two forms. By far the more prevalent approach depends on a pragmatic, statistically calibrated inclusion of artists of color, either as tokens in mostly white group shows or, more likely, in token exhibitions devoted exclusively to people of color. This statistical approach is one way of correcting years of exclusion from the art world. Other institutions take a second approach. Wishing to go beyond mere quotas, they organize exhibitions concerned with exploring and ultimately embracing cultural and social differences. The Dallas Museum of Art, for example, has instituted progressive programming in order to confront the reality that “our museums are devoted almost exclusively to the representation of ‘white’ culture, our libraries to the Western tradition of literature, our universities to the history of ancient Mediterranean and modern Europe.”10 Significantly, the 1987 appointment of Alvia Wardlaw as the DMA’s adjunct curator of African American art made her the first holder of such a position at a major museum.
But in an art world that remains what Judith Wilson has called “one of the last bastions of white supremacy-by-exclusion,”11 most art museums offer little more than lip service to the concept of racial inclusion. Art that demonstrates its “difference” from the mainstream or that challenges dominant values is rarely acceptable to white curators, administrators, and patrons. This cultural elite bases its selections on arbitrary, Eurocentric standards of “taste” and “quality”—the code words of racial indifference and exclusion. “Race has become a trope of ultimate, irreducible difference between cultures, linguistic groups, or adherents of specific belief systems which—more often than not—also have fundamentally opposed economic interests,” writes Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in an observation that has searing relevance to the art world. “Race is the ultimate trope of difference because it is so very arbitrary in its application.”12
These tastemakers, in turn, reflect the interests of the ruling caste of cultural institutions. The boards of art museums, publishers of art magazines and books, and owners of galleries rarely hire people of color in policy-making positions. Thus, the task of cultural interpretation—even in instances where artists of color are involved—is usually relegated to “people of European descent, as if their perspective was universal.”13 The very ground of art history, in fact, has proven infertile for most African American students. As Lowery Sims, associate curator of twentiethcentury art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, observes:
“Art history was not a career that black middle-class children were taught to aspire to. For one, the Eurocentrism of art history often made it irrelevant to black college students who never heard African American culture discussed in art history classes. Museums—the major conduit for teaching young people about art—were not always accessible to blacks. African Americans were socialized into certain careers after Reconstruction; visual art was not one of them. The economic realities made a career in art even less desirable. You didn’t see many black visual artists until the 1920s and ’30s, when the black colleges started to establish art departments. Black art historians are an even rarer breed.”14
WHILE MAJORITY MUSEUMS have not totally ignored the interests of people of color, they have had an extremely difficult time approaching cultures outside of the Anglo-European tradition. The 1969 exhibition “Harlem on My Mind” at the Metropolitan Museum in New York remains the classic example of the deep problems between white institutions and people of color. Twenty years later, the issues surrounding “Harlem on My Mind” offer an interesting model for rethinking our own era of cultural indifference to people of color.
Organized by the white art historian Allon Schoener, then visual-arts director of the New York State Council on the Arts, the exhibition represented an unprecedented effort on the part of an old-line American art museum to sociologically “interpret” African American culture. The exhibition was not an art show in the traditional sense but an ambitious historical survey of Harlem from 1900 to 1968. Attempting to celebrate Harlem as the “cultural capital of black America,” the show consisted of blown-up photographs, photomurals, slide and film projections and audio recordings. As Schoener explained in his introduction to the exhibition’s catalogue, the objective of “Harlem on My Mind” was “to demonstrate that the black community in Harlem is a major cultural environment with enormous strength and potential . . . [a] community [that] has made major contributions to the mainstream of American culture in music, theater, and literature.”15 Art was one form of cultural expression not mentioned by Schoener, despite the exhibition’s location in a major New York art museum. This omission seemed to reflect Schoener’s conviction that “museums should be electronic information centers” and that paintings have stopped being a vehicle for valid expression in the twentieth century.” While responding to the ideological inadequacies of elitist art museums, Schoener’s view also allowed the Metropolitan to almost completely ignore African American painting and sculpture.16 Schoener felt free to construct a sociopolitical profile of Harlem, but he never applied this sociological methodology to his own position or to that of the museum that commissioned him. Rather than engaging Harlem writers, art historians and intellectuals to help interpret the culture of Harlem, a “curious” Schoener felt compelled to conduct his own investigation of the subject because he decided “it was time . . . [to find] something out about this other world.”17
When it opened, the show was widely condemned by African Americans and others as yet another example of white carpetbagging and well-intentioned meddling.18 In a 1969 Artforum critique, historian Eugene Genovese questioned the proliferation of material related to Malcolm X in the exhibition:
“There are pictures of Malcolm the Muslim minister and the street-corner speaker and of Malcolm the corpse, together with indifferent excerpts from his magnificent autobiography. The exhibit immediately involved political decisions: should you emphasize the early or the late Malcolm? Malcolm the uncompromising black nationalist or Malcolm the man who ended his life edging toward a new position? The exhibition settles these questions in a manner that will not be to everyone’s taste, but the real problem lies elsewhere: Who is making the decision to interpret Malcolm? Since the show purports to be a cultural history of Harlem, only that community as a whole or, more realistically, one or more of the clearly identified groups recognized as legitimate by the people of Harlem have that right.”19
Concluding his discussion of Malcolm X, Genovese suggested a compelling metaphor for the problem with “Harlem on My Mind.” Trying to listen to Malcolm’s speeches in the exhibition galleries, Genovese realized that he could not hear them because “the loudspeaker in one room drown[ed] out the one in the next.”20 As in “Strange Attractors,” the voice of one of America’s most influential black leaders had been subjugated by the curatorial apparatus of an art exhibition. In each case, the museum’s attempt to deal with African American culture was in the end simply embarrassing. While Malcolm X can be an engaging, even sympathetic figure for white curators, his complex teachings must be understood first of all in relation to the African American community to whom he was principally speaking. It is not that white people are incapable of analyzing his ideas but rather that cultural interpretations offered in exhibitions like “Harlem on My Mind” and “Strange Attractors” can never stray too far from the interests of their white, upper-class patrons or their principally white audience.
BLACK CULTURAL SEPARATISM (which was usually a matter of necessity during the first half of the twentieth century and a matter of preference since the mid-1960s)21 has only served to reinforce the historical marginalization of African American artists in art museums. Only rarely do mainstream institutions acknowledge African American artists who have engaged or modified more traditional European cultural traditions. One need only think of the exclusion of prominent African American artists who worked in an Abstract Expressionist idiom—Norman Lewis, Hale Woodruff, and Romare Bearden—from the white-identified art historical canon of Abstract Expressionism.22 “The idea that black artists can produce work that is not visibly black offers a great point of resistance for white art historians, curators, and critics,” suggests Beryl Wright, curator of “The Appropriate Object,” a traveling exhibition of contemporary abstract art by African Americans. “This art cannot be easily ghettoized; it’s harder to control work that doesn’t fit white people’s perceptions of who black people are.”23
The influence of African American culture on European and American modernism is also often denied, underestimated, or misunderstood. Art critic Eric Gibson, for example, denigrates the profound influence of black jazz culture on the modernist sensibility in a review of “The Blues Aesthetic: Black Culture and Modernism,” a traveling exhibition recently organized by Richard Powell at the Washington Project for the Arts. Gibson writes, “The reason ‘The Blues Aesthetic’ finally breaks down is that black culture’s influence on modernism was at most one of the spirit, not form. To be sure, there were any number of artists who were deeply taken with jazz . . . but in every case, when it came to making a work of art, it was existing modernist idioms—in particular cubism—to which they turned.”24 Gibson’s observation is particularly embarrassing given the Cubists’ appropriation of African tribal artwork that helped shape the structural and conceptual dynamic of Cubism itself.
While a number of contemporary art exhibitions over the past decade have sought to highlight the art of African Americans and other people of color, most of the major group shows have all but excluded artists of color or discussions of racial issues. The Whitney Biennial, a bellwether of recent art trends in the United States, for example, has consistently had notoriously poor representation of artists of color. (Perhaps this is not so surprising since the Biennial closely reflects the New York gallery scene; the show may simply be an accurate reflection of how underrepresented such artists are in the city’s most profitable galleries.)
Another recent example of the pervasive art world insensitivity to racial issues was “Culture and Commentary: An Eighties Perspective,” mounted last year at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C.—a city with one of the largest black populations in the country. This group exhibition of socially oriented art in the 1980s was almost entirely white; the one exception, Yasumasa Morimura, lives in Osaka, Japan. Guest curator Kathy Halbreich claimed that the purpose of “Culture and Commentary” was to “locate a particular set of intellectual concerns that have informed the cultural dramas of the past ten years.”25 Various catalogue essays by scholars generally outside of art history attempted to contextualize the exhibition’s cultural artifacts: advanced technology, the politics of gender and AIDS, the new global economy, and genetic engineering were discussed in detail.26 Apparently for curator Halbreich, the politics of race in America or the issue of black liberation in South Africa do not rate among the “cultural dramas” of the 1980s worthy of extended discussion. In fact, the one work that addressed the issue of American race relations—a room-size installation by Sherrie Levine and Robert Gober in which wallpaper designed by Gober juxtaposed drawings of a lynched black man with those of a sleeping white man—offended some of the museum’s African American security guards. In an attempt to calm tensions, the museum installed an explanatory sign (with an epigraph by the artists) at the room’s entrance. “When we were invited to make this installation in Washington, D.C.,” Gober and Levine are quoted as saying, “we thought about the underside of the American Dream—the alienation, the denial, the violence.”27 Given that no African-American artists were represented in “Culture and Commentary,” the words “alienation” and “denial” had a sardonic relevance.