Just Above Midtown, Linda Goode Bryant’s Daring Gallery, Gets Overdue Spotlight at MoMA

Ayanna Dozier
Oct 10, 2022 8:49PM

Installation view of “Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2022. Photo by Emile Askey. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.

Imprinted on the wall of the Museum of Modern Art’s third-floor gallery is a quote by artist and curator Linda Goode Bryant that reads: “Let’s just do it ourselves.” The statement is indicative of what’s to come: a rare glimpse through the lens of Bryant’s gallery Just Above Midtown (JAM) into the artistic histories of those—primarily artists of color—who made groundbreaking work in the 1970s and ’80s. Of course, it was the systemic conditions created by major white-led institutions like MoMA overlooking her work and that of her fellow artists that incited Bryant to “just do it” herself by founding and directing JAM.

During the press preview for MoMA’s “Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces,” Bryant asked, “Can JAM still be JAM at MoMA?” The exhibition, which has been in the works for the past five years, is co-organized by Bryant and Marielle Ingram (special projects assistant at Bryant’s living installation and food initiative Project Eats) with MoMA curator Thomas (T.) Jean Lax. On view through February 23, 2023, the show focuses on documenting a space and its oral histories. While it includes impressive work that was once exhibited at JAM, it’s remarkable for its ability to capture and redistribute a spirit of rebellion—the ethos that drove Bryant and others to make and give space to art that resisted market and institutional trends.

Installation view of “Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2022. Photo by Emile Askey. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.


Bryant founded JAM after working at then white-dominated spaces like the Studio Museum in Harlem. She sought to remedy the absence of exhibitions of radical Black art, both at institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art where she once worked and elsewhere. Bryant convinced a landlord to rent her a (just above) Midtown office space—much to the chagrin of the broker who, after looking at Bryant’s financial records, insisted to the owner that she could not afford rent. “[The owner] asked me, “Why should I rent you this building for $300 when I’m asking for $1,000?’” Bryant recalled. “And I told him, ‘Because $300 is better than nothing!’”

Now, 50 years later, JAM is back in Midtown with its MoMA show, an irony and contradiction that Bryant and Lax embrace. “One of the reasons why I agreed to do it was that challenge,” Bryant said. For Lax, the exhibition is an opportunity to leverage the museum’s expansive resources so that JAM’s work and history can live both inside and outside of its physical space. The show is less about folding JAM into MoMA’s canon and more about sharing the gallery’s story with others—specifically artists, curators, and collectors who may feel creatively conflicted in this market-driven moment of artistic expression. In fact, money is the main protagonist in this exhibition.

David Hammons, Untitled, 1976. © David Hammons. Courtesy of the Hudgins Family Collection, New York.

Photo of David Hammons (left) and Suzette Wright (center) at the Body Print-In for “Greasy Bags and Barbeque Bones,” 1975, at Philip Yenawine’s home by Jeff Morgan. Courtesy of David Hammons and Linda Goode Bryant.

Bryant was, in her own words, in self-exile from the art world after closing JAM in 1986 when the market took over. “JAM was not about objects. JAM was about process and experimentation, and money started to make itself present [towards the end],” she said. “Artists were at first skeptical [of the market]. But now, this many years later, I had imagined what it would be but it’s so much fucking worse! There’s a crisis in art now because it has been commodified.”

To that end, the works in the exhibition are a testament to process-oriented practices, with pieces by David Hammons, Howardena Pindell, Vivian E. Browne, Senga Nengudi, Susan Fitzsimmons, Lorraine O’Grady, Janet Olivia Henry, and so many more. In particular, Fitzsimmons’s Hang Ups: Hair (1979) features the artist’s hair, cut at age 26, encased in lucite, and presented on a hanger. The work was featured at JAM in Fitzsimmons’s 1979 solo exhibition “Moving from the Transparent to the Invisible.” There are works like this that clearly speak to the conceptual- and abstract-driven focus of the gallery and the artists it supported. It was ideas and processes, rather than a fixation for what the art object would look like, that led to creative experimentation.

Senga Nengudi performing Air Propo at JAM, New York, 1981. Courtesy of Senga Nengudi and Lévy Gorvy.

This is no more obvious than with October Ghost (1980), Rosemary Mayer’s large-scale sculpture made of plastic bags and cellophane. While Mayer’s work is central to the canon of feminist conceptual art, placing October Ghost in conversation with other like-minded work, as the MoMA exhibition does, feels like a cautionary throwback to when creativity took priority over aesthetic outcome.

While some may fear that MoMA’s resources may sanitize JAM’s mission statement, there’s enough thoughtful curation to dispel worries. Take, for instance, the wall of debt. It features all of the unpaid bills Bryant accrued running JAM and supporting the vision of those around her. Some of the requests for payment range from polite to hostile as Bryant’s outstanding bills were shuffled from one collector to another. This wall and its accompanying audio reveal, in a shockingly transparent way, the reality behind giving space to creative rebellion.

Installation view of “Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2022. Photo by Emile Askey. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.

“I come from a family with very modest means and I was a single mom with two kids. The only resource I had was the ability to accumulate debt. I’m not ashamed about that,” Bryant said. “You use what you got to create what you need.”

This refrain undergirds every object, detail, and testament of collaboration present in “Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces.” By looking back at a moment where these artists, now largely canonical, were not widely supported, audiences may be encouraged to say “fuck it” and go their own way, unswayed by market demands. For Bryant, it makes no difference how you go about it, so long as you feel that you have a choice in what you’re doing. That’s why she started JAM—to give artists the freedom to make and exhibit what they love.

Ayanna Dozier
Ayanna Dozier is Artsy’s Staff Writer.