The March into the Museum ; Black Artists Are Joining the Expanding Canon at U.S. Cultural Institutions

By Kennedy, Randy | International New York Times, December 2, 2015 | Go to article overview

The March into the Museum ; Black Artists Are Joining the Expanding Canon at U.S. Cultural Institutions


Kennedy, Randy, International New York Times


After decades of spotty acquisitions and token exhibitions, American museums are rewriting the history of 20th-century art to include black artists.

The painter Norman Lewis rarely complained in public about the singular struggles of being a black artist in America. But in 1979, dying of cancer, he made a prediction to his family. "He said to us, 'I think it's going to take about 30 years, maybe 40, before people stop caring whether I'm black and just pay attention to the work,"' Mr. Lewis' daughter, Tarin Fuller, recalled recently.

Mr. Lewis was just about right. In the past few years alone, his work has been acquired by the National Gallery of Art in Washington; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This month the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts opened the first extensive survey of Mr. Lewis, an important but overlooked figure in the Abstract Expressionist movement -- and a man who might well have been predicting history's arc for several generations of African-American artists in overcoming institutional neglect.

After decades of spotty acquisitions, undernourished scholarship and token exhibitions, American museums are rewriting the history of 20th-century art to include black artists in a more visible and meaningful way than ever before, playing historical catch-up at full tilt, followed by collectors who are rushing to find the most significant works before they are out of reach.

"There was a joke for a long time that if you went into a museum, you'd think America had only two black artists -- Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden -- and even then, you wouldn't see very much," said Lowery Stokes Sims, the first African-American curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and later the president of the Studio Museum in Harlem. "I think there is a sea change finally happening. It's not happening everywhere, and there's still a long way to go, but there's momentum."

The reasons go beyond the ebbing of overt racism. The shift is part of a broader revolution underway in museums and academia to move the canon past a narrow, Eurocentric, predominantly male version of Modernism, bringing in work from around the world and more work by women. But the change is also a result of sustained efforts over decades by black curators, artist-activists, colleges and collectors, who saw periods during the 1970s and the 1990s when heightened awareness of art by African-Americans failed to gain widespread traction.

A more even playing field

In interviews with more than two dozen artists, curators, historians, collectors and dealers, a picture emerges of a contemporary art world where the playing field is becoming much more even for young black artists, who are increasingly gaining museum presence and market clout. But artists who began working just a generation ago -- and ones in a long line stretching back to the late 19th century -- are only now receiving the kind of recognition many felt they deserved.

Like Norman Lewis, most of these artists showing up for the first time in permanent-collection galleries -- including the painters Beauford Delaney, Alma Thomas, Bob Thompson, Aaron Douglas and William H. Johnson -- did not live to see the change.

But others, like the Los Angeles assemblage sculptor Betye Saar, 89, and the Washington-based abstract painter Sam Gilliam, 81, are witnessing it firsthand. Eldzier Cortor, painter and printmaker from Chicago, who worked in New York for many years and died at 99 on Thursday, lived to see his work featured in the inaugural show of the new downtown Whitney Museum. Mr. Cortor had been fielding curators' inquiries with increasing frequency and donating pieces he still owned because the market had ignored them for much of his life.

"It's a little late now, I'd say," he observed during an interview last month in his Manhattan studio. "But better than never."

And while it was bad enough for male artists, black women faced even steeper obstacles. …

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