ON THE OTHER hand, several recent projects in major museums suggest that the situation for African Americans may be improving somewhat. An extraordinary pairing of exhibitions at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., earlier this year, represented one of the most interesting and unexpected efforts at cultural enfranchisement for African Americans.28 The two exhibitions—“Facing History: The Black Image in American Art 1710–1940” (organized by the Corcoran) and “Black Photographers Bear Witness: 100 Years of Social Protest” (organized by the Williams College Museum of Art) —were strikingly unusual in their approaches to the issues of race and racism in America. Significantly, both shows were curated by African American art historians: “Facing History” was developed by the late Guy McElroy, who was at the time of his death a doctoral candidate in art history at the University of Maryland, and “Black Photographers” was organized by Deborah Willis, head of the prints and photos division at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York.
In “Facing History,” McElroy documented the variety of ways in which American painters (mostly white) “created a visual record of African Americans that reinforced a number of largely restrictive stereotypes of black identity.”29 The aim of “Facing History,” McElroy stated in the catalogue’s introduction, was to illuminate “the shifting, surprisingly cynical nature of the images white men and women created to view their black counterparts.”30 In effect, the show documented the history of representations of blacks in American art, work that was coincidental with the acceleration of racism over the same period. The works in the show—which ranged from acknowledged masterpieces by John Singleton Copley and Thomas Eakins to an unattributed silhouette of a slave that accompanied a bill of sale—suggested that artists were not always in agreement in their attitudes toward slavery or toward African Americans in general. While many of the images are clearly derogatory, others are sympathetic to or even openly supportive of racial enfranchisement. (The show’s impressive educational slant was enhanced by its installation: extended wall labels and an accompanying video program helped to explain racist iconography and offered historical points of reference. Additionally, the Corcoran installed a context room where museumgoers could read various books by black writers.) McElroy assumed a role rarely afforded African Americans in the art world: that of interpreter of culture—both black and white. In so doing, he exposed the underlying racist attitudes of many American artists, including such venerated master figures as Eakins and William Sidney Mount.31 While McElroy’s iconographical approach sidestepped the broader institutional and patronage issues contributing to the formation of racist representations, “Facing History” upset the complacent notion of high culture’s immunity from social responsibility.32
”Black Photographers Bear Witness” was one of three shows organized by the Williams College Museum of Art to celebrate the centennial of Gaius Charles Bolin’s graduation from Williams in 1889—the college’s first African American graduate. “Black Photographers Bear Witness” was also the first exhibition to present photographic documents of the African American social-protest movement exclusively through the lens of black photographers. What is more, in addition to straight documentary photography, the show included Conceptual art pieces—most notably by Pat Ward Williams and Carrie Mae Weems—that examine some of the theoretical and political issues surrounding the documentary idiom, particularly as it relates to people of color. Finally, the elegant catalogue, with essays by Willis and historian Howard Dodson, represents a paradigm of what museums can be but most often are not: a space where art is placed in the broader social, economic, and cultural context of the society that produces it.33
Not surprisingly, this confluence of “Facing History” and “Black Photographers Bear Witness” at the Corcoran created a positive and inviting atmosphere for Washington’s black community. “We are definitely reaching new people, people who are not regular museumgoers,” observed the museum’s outgoing director of public affairs. “I would guess that about 60 percent of our audience for these shows is African American. What’s especially rewarding is the broad spectrum of people all coming and looking at the show together.”34
DESPITE THE POSITIVE climate engendered at the Corcoran, both exhibitions were organized by outside institutions or curators. Like most exhibitions devoted to African American culture in major museums, these shows were token gestures. While the Corcoran, like many other majority museums, has instituted a minority internship program to encourage young people of color to enter museum professions, it will take a far broader range of programs and projects to begin to correct the problem of institutional racism in America’s majority museums. For a start, more exhibitions like “Facing History” are necessary so that white people can begin to examine their own problematic attitudes toward people of color. Of course, museums must also increase their commitment to showing the art of people of color, and curators—white and black—should be encouraged to pay closer attention to this work. Internship and education programs for minority students could be expanded to include education programs that introduce white people, children and adults, to the cultural production of people of color. Large, economically stable museums might be encouraged to open satellite museums, much like the Whitney’s branch museums (located in various corporate centers) in culturally diverse neighborhoods; such spaces could serve as experimental outposts for marginal work, community-based projects and art generally not accepted by mainstream venues. Most important, museums must institute educational programs to examine the institutional hierarchies of museums themselves—programs designed to explore the institutionally validated and encoded racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia of museums.
This past June, in Chicago, the America Association of Museum Directors took a step in this direction as it held the first of a two-part conference on multiracial and cultural issues. The conference, called “Different Voices: The American Art Museum and a Social, Cultural, and Historical Framework for Change,” dealt with such questions as staff diversification, approaches to multicultural audiences, the politics of display, and the new art histories. This conference was not only important for developing a politics of inclusionism, but for suggesting that museum directors can have a direct impact in the battle against cultural racism. One voice for these new attitudes was Marcia Tucker, the conference’s cochair and director of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, who insisted that “museum administrators have to reeducate themselves completely. We must read the new art histories, we must read theory in order to put ourselves in touch with all culture. We must learn to listen, keep our eyes and ears open and stop speaking for others.”35
As if to embody this new multicultural ethos, Tucker’s New Museum this past summer participated in an unprecedented collaborative exhibition on the art and issues of the 1980s. “The Decade Show: Frameworks of Identity”—organized in conjunction with the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art—embraced the aesthetic, cultural and intellectual positions of diverse racial and ethnic groups and examined issues of gender and sexual orientation. While the exhibition was commendable in its attempt to bring together a broad range of institutional, racial, ethnic and sexual perspectives, it nevertheless suggested the ongoing dilemma for artists of color. While “The Decade Show” purported to be about the 1980s, its cultural position could only suggest future possibilities. Nowhere in the cultural scene of the 1980s were artists of color embraced in the ways suggested by “The Decade Show”—not even by the New Museum itself.
The New Museum’s hasty attempt to redress past exclusions was underscored by the overstuffed and sloppy installation of the show (a situation less evident at the Studio Museum or MoCHA). Devoid of didactic wall labels to guide viewers through a diversity of cultural and aesthetic positions, the installations and performance and video programs afforded only the most cursory glimpse of the work of the 140 or so participating artists. Each visual or performance artist was represented by only one or two works, so complex careers were often reduced to a single statement. Of course, such brevity was less problematic for blue-chip white artists like Cindy Sherman, Bruce Nauman, Eric Fischl, and Jenny Holzer, who already have been enthusiastically embraced and championed by galleries and museums. But this one-shot treatment short changed many of the “minority” artists (ranging from “established” artists such as Melvin Edwards, Robert Colescott, and the late Ana Mendieta36 to community-oriented and activist art collectives such as the New York-based Epoxy Art Group, an experimental collaborative formed in 1982 by immigrants from Hong Kong), who rarely participate in the art world. The cramped installation at the New Museum underscored the sense of an institution desperately desperately making up for lost time, hurriedly cramming in a generation of artists ignored and victimized by indifference and racism.37
So, for all the signs of change, many of the fundamental structures that keep people of color out of the art world remain in place. For many years alternative spaces devoted to art by people of color have instituted programs and policies that majority institutions are only now beginning to think about. Literally hundreds of such alternative institutions exist in the United States, but few white curators make an effort to come into contact with them. These alternative venues often have organized training and education programs for young people of color; they also generally have racially diverse staffs. Efforts like these have been slow to appear in majority institutions, where even the best intentions often fall short.
Not until the white people who now hold the power in the art world scrutinize their own motives and attitudes toward people of color will it be possible to unlearn racism. This realization raises a number of crucial questions: Who are the patrons of art, the museum board members, the collectors? Who is the audience for high culture? Who is allowed to interpret culture? Who is asked to make fundamental policy decisions? Who sets the priorities?
The questions are part of a broader sociological discourse on white attitudes toward difference, a discourse which must begin with self-examination. As bell hooks writes,
“If much of the recent work on race grows out of a sincere commitment to cultural transformation, then there is a serious need for immediate and persistent self-critique. Committed cultural critics—whether white and black, whether scholars, artists, or both—can produce work that opposes structure of domination, that presents possibilities for a transformed future by willingly interrogating their own work on aesthetic or political grounds. This interrogation itself becomes an act of critical intervention, fundamentally fostering an attitude of vigilance rather than denial.”38
When it comes to the question of why we ignore the art of African Americans and other people of color, simply learning how to listen to others is not enough. We must first learn how to listen to ourselves, no matter how painful that process might be.
1 See Marcia Tucker “Preface,” and Laura Trippi, “Fractured Fairy Tale, Chaotic Regimes,” in Strange Attractors: Signs of Chaos, New York, New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1989, n.p. Hammons’s installation is neither mentioned nor illustrated m the catalogue.
2 See C. Gerald Fraser, “The Voice of Malcolm X Has an Audience Again,” New York Times, Feb. 20, 1990, p. B3.
3 Judith Wilson, “Art,” in Donald Bogle, ed., Black Arts Annual, 1987/1988, New York, Garland, 1989, p. 7.
4 See Howardena Pindell, “Art World Racism: A Documentation,” New Art Examiner, vol. 16, no. 7 (Mar. 1989), pp. 32-36. In addition to a listing of New York galleries with mostly white stables (and the percentage of artists of color represented by each of these galleries), Pindell supplied a detailed statistical overview of exhibition records for artists of color at the following New York museums: Brooklyn Museum, Guggenheim Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Queens Museum, Snug Harbor Cultural Center (Staten Island) , and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Statistics were also given for selected group exhibitions and publications.
5 For more on PESTS, see Wilson, “Art,” p. 5.Island), and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Statistics were also given for selected group exhibitions and publications.
6 Judith Wilson then continues in “Art” (p. 4): “Thus black artists often find it harder to gain exposure in New York than in other parts of the country, because the economic stakes are generally higher in a town that serves as the hub of the international art market.”
7 For more on the historical resistance of the “white cultural avant-garde” to artists of color, see Michele Wallace, “Reading 1968 and the Great American Whitewash,” in Barbara Kruger and Phil Mariani, eds., Remaking History, Seattle, Bay Press, 1989, pp. 106 –09.
8 Kinshasha Holman Conwill, audiotape of an interview with Adrian Piper, International Design Conference Aspen, 1988.
9 The panels (followed by their chairpersons in parentheses) included: “Exoticism, Orientalism, Primitivism: Modes of ‘Other-ness’ in Western Art and Architecture (Frederick Bohrer); “Reflections on Race and Racism in Modern Western Art (1800 to the Present)” (Kathryn Moore Heleniak); “Firing the Canon” (Linda Nochlin); “Ethnicity/Ethnography: The Uses and Misuses of Traditional Aesthetics by Contemporary Artists” (Leslie King Hammond); “Abstract Expressionism’s Others” (Ann Gibson); “De-facto Racism in the Visual Arts (Howardena Pindell); “Vanguard Art of Latin America, 1914-30” (Jacqueline Barnitz); “Institution/Revolution: Postmodern Native-American Art (W. Jackson Rushing); and “Mainstreaming Independent Film( Isaac Julien).
10 This statement was made by Richard R. Brettell, director of the Dallas Museum of Art, in the preface to Black Art/Ancestral Legacy: The African Impulse in African-American Art, Dallas, Dallas Museum of Art,1989, p. 7.
11 Wilson, “Art,” p. 3.
12 Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “Writing ‘Race’ and the Difference It Makes,” Critical Inquiry, vol. 12, no. 1 (Autumn 1985), p. 5. For more on the issue of racial difference and culture see Maurice Berger, “Race and Representation: Representing the Normal” and David Goldberg, “Images of the Other: Cinema and Stereotypes,” in Maurice Berger and Johnnetta Cole, eds., Race and Representation, New York, Hunter College Art Gallery, 1987, pp.10–15 and 29–37. For an excellent analysis of how racism actually functions in a cultural setting, see Adrian Piper, “High-Order Discrimination,” in Owen Flanagan and Amelie Rorty, eds., Identity, Character, and Morality, Cambridge, Mass., and London, MIT Press, 1990.
13 Pindell, “Art World Racism,” p. 32.
14 Lowery Sims, in conversation with the author.
15 Allon Schoener, ed., Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900–1968, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1969.
16 Allon Schoener, as quoted in Grace Glueck, “Adam C., Mother Brown, Malcolm X,” New York Times, Jan. 12, 1969, p. 26.
18 Black and white demonstrators picketed the exhibition’s press preview, wearing signs that read “Trick Tom at It Again” and “That’s White of Hoving”—references to Metropolitan Museum president Thomas Hoving, who brought the show to the museum. The demonstration was organized by the “Black Emergency Cultural Government,” an activist art group, to express outrage at a show that had been organized by “whites who do not begin to know the black experience.” A leaflet handed out by the protesters urged “the entire black community” to boycott the show, called for the appointment of blacks to policy-making and curatorial positions, and insisted that the museum “seek a viable relationship with the total black community.” “They should make a serious statement, or no statement at all,” said artist Benny Andrews, one of the protest organizers. “There are artists in the black community and they’re not represented.” For more on the protest, see “Soul’s Been Sold Again,” a leaflet of the Black Emergency Cultural Government, quoted in “Museum Pickets Assail Hoving Over Coming Harlem Exhibition,” New York Times, Jan. 15, 1969, p. 41.
19 Eugene Genovese, “Harlem on His Back,” Artforum, vol. 7, no. 6 (Feb. 1969) p. 35.
22 For more on the general issues involving this exclusion, see Ann Gibson, “Norman Lewis in the Forties,” in Norman Lewis, from the Harlem Renaissance to Abstraction, New York, Kenkeleba Gallery, 1989, pp. 9–23.
23 Beryl Wright, in a telephone conversation with the author, Feb. 13, 1990. Also see Wright, The Appropriate Object, Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1989.
24 See Eric Gibson, “‘The Blues Aesthetic’: A Pretty Sad Selection,” Washington Times, Sept. 14, 1989, p. E2. Also see Richard Powell, The Blues Aesthetic:Black Culture and Modernism, Washington, D.C., Washington Project for the Arts, 1989. For comprehensive studies of the complex influence of African art on African American artists in the twentieth century, see Alvia Wardlaw, “A Spiritual Libation: Promoting an African Heritage in the Black College,” and Robert Farris Thompson, “The Song That Named the Land: The Visionary Presence of African-American Art,” in Black Art/Ancestral Heritage, pp. 53–74 and 97–141.
25 Kathy Halbreich, “Culture and Commentary: An Eighties Perspective,” in Halbreich, Culture and Commentary: An Eighties Perspective, Washington, D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 1990, p. 16.
26 The catalogue included a general essay by Halbreich as well as essays by London-based AIDS activist Simon Watney; Sherry Turkle, associate professor of sociology in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; novelist Michael Thomas; and Harvard Medical School professors Vijak Mahdavi and Bernardo Nadal-Ginard. The artists represented were Laurie Anderson, Siah Armajani, Francesco Clemente, James Coleman, Tony Cragg, Katharina Fritsch, Robert Gober, Jenny Holzer, Jeff Koons, Sherrie Levine, Yasumasa Morimura, Reinhard Mucha, Julian Schnabel, Cindy Sherman, and Jeff Wall. Another glaring omission, particularly given Simon Watney’s excellent essay on the politics of the body in the realm of AIDS, were the various AIDS-activist artists and art collectives (such as Gran Fury and Testing the Limits). While the inclusion of essays by non-art historians is insightful, the show’s roster of mainly blue-chip contemporary artists represents a market-oriented bias that, although commensurate with recent curatorial practice, displays little vision or creativity.
27 After the artists’ statement, the museum’s text continues, “As with many provocative works of contemporary art, there is no single interpretation possible for this untitled collaboration. . . . It is clear, however, that one of the work’s principle themes is racism, particularly that which has victimized African Americans historically. By juxtaposing the repeated images of a lynched black man with that of a sleeping white man, the artists suggest that the prevailing response to incidents of brutal racial violence has more frequently been indifference and neglect rather than outrage. Moreover, the reduction of the black and white figures to components of the wallpaper pattern implies in yet another way how sensibilities have been deadened by repetition and how one people’s tragedy has been trivialized into nothing more than another’s neutral background.”
28 Needless to say, viewing an exhibition about cultural exclusionism at the Corcoran Gallery of Art is disturbing given the museum’s earlier cancellation of a traveling exhibition of photographs by the late Robert Mapplethorpe (a show booked for the museum by former chief curator and associate director Jane Livingston, who has since resigned her position in protest). “Facing History” in no way challenges the censorial actions of the Corcoran or disguises the fact that the museum caved in to the forces of bigotry and ignorance. Despite the board of directors’ decision to oust director Christina Orr-Cahall, the person presumably responsible for the cancellation, the museum has made no substantive gesture to the people most harmed by its actions—gay men and lesbians. Until the Corcoran sponsors positive exhibitions around issues of gay and lesbian identity, it will continue to be identified with the homophobic philistinism that intimidated it in the first place.
29 Guy McElroy, “Race and Representation,” in Facing History: The Black Image in American Art 1710–1940, San Francisco, Bedford Arts, 1990, p. xi. While Facing History is the first deconstruction of the images of blacks in American painting to be done by a black art historian, such projects have been undertaken by white art historians in the past. Sidney Kaplan, professor emeritus of American literature and American art at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and a founder of the W.E.B. DuBois Department of Afro-American Studies there, curated two pioneering exhibitions in the 1960s and ’70s: “The Portrait of the Negro in American Painting” (Bowdoin College, 1964) and “The Black Presence in the Era of the Revolution, 1770-1800” (National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C., 1973). For other recent explorations see Hugh Honour, The Image of the Black in Western Art, Cambridge, Mass., 1989, and Peter Wood and Karen Dalton, Winslow Homer’s Images of Blacks: The Civil War and Reconstruction Years, Austin, Texas, The Menil Collection, 1989.
30 McElroy, “Race and Representation,” p. xi.
31 McElroy was recruited for the project by Jane Livingston.
32 See Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “The Face and Voice of Blackness,” in McElroy, Facing History, pp. xxix-xliv. For important discussions on the issue of patronage and African American art, see Beryl Wright, “The Harmon Foundation in Context,” and Clement Alexandre Price, “In Search of a People’s Spirit,” in Gary Reynolds and Beryl Wright, Against the Odds: African-American Artists and the Harmon Foundation, Newark, Newark Museum, 1989, pp. 13–25 and 71–87. Because of limitations of space, Facing History does not concern itself with images of African Americans in popular culture, initially an area that McElroy wanted to cover. The absence of this material tends to strand significant questions about racial stereotyping in a high-art context, thus avoiding the public channels through which most people are conditioned to accept racist imagery. The Brooklyn Museum, the only other venue for “Facing History” decided to address this problem by rewriting certain wall labels and installing a multimedium slide show at the entrance to the exhibition.
33 See Deborah Willis and Howard Dodson, Black Photographers Bear Witness: 100 Years of Social Protest, Williamstown, Mass., Williams College Museum of Art, 1989.
34 Gina Kazimir, in conversation with the author.
35 Marcia Tucker, in conversation with the author. The New Museum, for example, has published a multiracial anthology of essays that address the theme of cultural marginalization, engaging “fundamental issues raised by attempts to define such concepts as mainstream, minority, and ‘other,’ and open[ing] up new ways of thinking about culture and representation.” See Russell Ferguson, Martha Gever, Trinh T. Minh-ha, and Cornel West, eds., Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures, New York, New Museum of Contemporary Art, and Cambridge, Mass., and London, MIT Press, 1990.
36 Colescott and Mendieta were, in fact, given retrospectives at the New Museum during 1987–88.
37 This rushed quality extends to the catalogue as well. “The Director’s Introduction,” for example, which consists of a transcript of a conversation between Marcia Tucker (New Museum), Nilda Peraza (MoCHA), and Kinshasha Holman Conwill (Studio Museum), begins and ends with Tucker speaking—an insensitive imperative to establish the first and last word that tends to accentuate the hierarchical role played by the New Museum in the organization of the show. This lack of forethought extends to the selected bibliography, which is plagued by glaring omissions, particularly the work of intellectuals involved in analyzing cultural colonialism, sexism, homophobia, and racism. The arbitrary, sometimes irrelevant list includes works like T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and John Graham’s enigmatic Systems and Dialectics of Art (1937), while ignoring groundbreaking texts of such authors as Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, Barbara Ehrenreich, Simon Watney, bell hooks, and Cornel West. In addition, while the issue of AIDS is discussed at length in the catalogue, Douglas Crimp’s widely known anthology AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism (London and Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1988) is omitted from the bibliography.
38 bell hooks, “Expertease,” Artforum, vol. 27, no. 9 (May 1989), p. 20.