In 1969, a white curator named Allon Schoener mounted an exhibition titled “Harlem on My Mind” at the Museum of Metropolitan Art
. Despite being the first-ever exhibition of African-American art at the museum, however, it included only archival material and the work of photographers (then considered to be beneath the status of fine art), and failed to include a single non-photographic work created by a black artist. The exhibition immediately provoked an outcry from the very people it aimed to represent. African-American artists picketed the museum, furious with Schoener’s oversight. Though the exhibition was radical in one way—showcasing a medium that deserved serious attention—it ultimately represented one of many missteps from the curator, demonstrating the lack of diversity within the institution.
The exhibition is one of three addressed in Susan Cahan’s new book Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power
, which looks at how major New York museums marginalized African-American artists in the late 20th century, and how those artists responded amid a rising black power movement. From “Harlem on my Mind” at the Met to “Contemporary Black Artists in America”
at the Whitney
in 1971 to MoMA
’s “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern” in 1984, the major institutions of the New York art world attempted to exhibit African-American artists while refusing to put them on an equal footing with the white canon or to commit to structural changes by hiring curators of color.
Now Associate Dean and Dean of the Arts at Yale College, Cahan has drawn from her background working in museums like the New Museum
and MoMA to craft a book that powerfully demonstrates the way in which broader social and political forces are felt inside museum walls. And though the art world is different today, “the most significant change since the 1970s has not been full integration or equality, but the development of a two-tiered system of cultural institutions, one ‘mainstream’ and the other ‘culturally specific,’” Cahan writes.
Mounting Frustration is a crucial read for anyone who is interested in understanding why the New York art world looks the way it does. The book also furthers an understanding of how activism and negotiation can be used to change institutions going forward. I sat down with Cahan to discuss the ways in which museums respond to political demands, the relationship between artists and institutions, and how the history of the 1970s and 1980s can help us imagine a different art world in the future.
Isaac Kaplan: Looking at the Whitney’s “Contemporary Black Artists in America” in 1971, that show was, perhaps, well-intentioned but ultimately proved very problematic, with African-American artists withdrawing from the exhibition and picketing it. What went wrong?
Susan Cahan: In early 1969, an artist-activist group called the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC) approached the Whitney to advocate for the museum being more inclusive. One of the group’s requests was that the museum mount an exhibition of work by African-American artists. And BECC asked that that show be curated or co-curated by someone who identified with the experience of African Americans. The museum refused. Instead, they put the show in the hands of an in-house curator who was out of his depth. And despite his seeking external advice and doing a fair amount of research, it was unrealistic to expect that someone with no previous involvement with this material could become an instant expert.
IK: Did the Whitney ever do this with other exhibitions—assign a curator to a subject they had little experience with? Or does this suggest that they thought, “Well, anyone can curate a show of black art”?
SC: I don’t know for sure. But I do know that the museum told the artists that it was institutional policy not to use guest curators. And then the very same year, the museum did an exhibition of Native American art that was organized by a guest curator. So the museum wasn’t always forthcoming. The history is interesting, but the more important point for us today is to understand what kinds of mechanisms are used to define identities and cultures. The mechanism in this case was an administrative ploy, the Whitney’s misleading declaration that the museum had a policy against using guest curators when, in fact, it didn’t.
One of the things that drove me to write this book, and that underlies my thinking, is a desire to understand the ways in which art institutions perpetuate cultural hierarchies and certain concepts of race—even the existence of the concept of race. The planning for the “Contemporary Black Artists in America” show involved sifting through artists and identifying the racial identity of each before then deciding whether or not to include him or her in the exhibition. This was an operation that ultimately served neither the artists nor the institution. This was segregation in the guise of integration.
IK: What were the protests in response to these exhibitions able to achieve? And how do we look back at history and see protest movements as models for present and future activism in the art world?
SC: In every case study presented in the book, the artists began with an openhearted invitation to help the museums grow. And only after being either ignored or misapprehended did the artists begin to resort to more confrontational methods. And in some cases the confrontational methods (protests, for example,) were designed to leverage media coverage and bring public attention to the museums’ biases. So this was a dynamic system and, in each instance, the relationship between the artists and the museums were complicated and nuanced.
The artists who led these efforts toward change loved the museums.
, for example, said that protesting outside the Met was like protesting your grandmother.
the Museum of Modern Art. A piece of hers that MoMA recently acquired—the first painting that MoMA has ever acquired by her, one of the greatest artists of the 20th century—was American People Series #20: Die
, painted in 1967 and purchased in 2016. And it was influenced by ’s Guernica
(1937), a work that she saw hanging on the walls of the museum in the 1960s. So these artists were not simply protesting against institutions; they were trying to help the culture advance.
IK: There were broader goals beyond just these individual exhibitions.
SC: Yes. And, these protests were acts of generosity for those who were willing to listen.
IK: But the museums framed them as confrontations.
SC: The picture that I try to portray is one of tensions between groups that were all invested in the vitality of museums as institutions but had different notions of what that meant. Institutions, as they grow and mature, begin to consolidate their identities. And the people who work in those institutions and run those institutions are active agents in that process. But so are those who visit those institutions and have their work collected by those institutions—all these groups participate in the construction of an institution’s identity. And so the artists who were working to broaden the range of art shown in those museums were trying to help those museums evolve.