A Question of
New York Museums and the
Black Arts Movement
Mary Ellen Lennon
Where has the Black Artist in America
been all this time?
He's been in the streets in Watts,
in Roxbury and Chicago.
He's been in his body. In hard times.
He's been in the eyes of people who love him
and in the eyes of people who hate him.
And he's been putting it all down.
On canvas. In stone. Out of wood.
—ABA: A JOURNAL OF AFFAIRS OF B LACK ARTISTS, 1972
The doors of a large metropolitan museum of art serve as a signifi+cant threshold, resonant with expectations. Inside wait carefully preserved masterpieces mounted on canvas and pedestal. These doors both promise and confirm the excellence of the works of art inside. Excellence substantiated further by the vaulted ceilings, marble staircases and uniformed guards charged with regulating voices (not too loud!) and bodies (not too close!). The ornate frames, the managed temperature, the skillful lighting… all these elements herald the importance of what is waiting to be viewed. Such rooms of hushed reverence impose their own expectations on the part of the visitors as well. In such a grand and sacred space, viewers are obliged not simply to look, but to appreciate.
The doors' power to command expectations derives from the power of exclusion. The works of art found inside are of "museum quality." By implication, those that remain outside are not. As arbiter of taste and authority on the singularly special, the art museum makes fundamental decisions over which pieces of art should be presented to and appreciated by the public as "genius."