African American Art and the “White Cube”

Authored by: Nika Elder

The Routledge Companion to African American Art History

Print publication date:  December  2019
Online publication date:  November  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138486553
eBook ISBN: 9781351045193
Adobe ISBN:


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At the end of the 1960s, each of the four major museums in New York was the focus of ­righteous activism on the part of black artists and organizers. In November 1968, the Studio Museum in Harlem quickly organized and opened an exhibit called “Invisible Americans: Black Artists of the ‘30s.” The exhibit was a response and corrective to the Whitney Museum of American Art’s “Painting and Sculpture in America: The 1930s,” which included no works by black artists. Just months later, in January 1969, Romare Bearden and Benny Andrews led other Harlem artists in organizing the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC) to protest the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition “Harlem on My Mind.” Intended to welcome black audiences, if not content, the exhibition (curated by Allon Schoener, who was the visual arts director of the New York State Council on the Arts) offered an ethnographic look at contemporary Harlem through photographs, taped interviews, slides, recordings, and a live video feed—but, again, not a single painting or sculpture by a living black artist. Harlem photographer James Van Der Zee was well represented, but his work was treated as a documentary record rather than an artistic enterprise. That same month, the Art Workers’ Coalition sought redress from the Museum of Modern Art, submitting a thirteen-point call to action that included “(1) a separate wing for black artists, (2) that museum activities be extended into the neighborhoods, (3) night hours once a week, (4) free admission at all times, and (5) more artist control over the decisions of the museum.” 1 In March, the group held a protest outside of the museum, and a subcommittee called the Guerrilla Art Action Group staged an event in the lobby of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. In an effort to visualize the violence of the “Art Establishment,” they threw paint on the walls of the lobby and clawed at each other to explode ketchup packets worn under their clothes.

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