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In 2015, the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston, produced a large, handsome catalogue featuring approximately one hundred works by African American artists from its permanent collection, all of which were acquired over the past four decades. Three factors had a significant impact in amassing this art. Since 1969, Edmund Barry Gaither, curator and director of the National Center of Afro-American Artists (NCAAA) in Boston, has also served as a curator and consultant to the MFA. In 2005, the MFA Trustee and Overseer Diversity Advisory Committee established the Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection to strengthen and diversify its world-renowned holdings. Built with contributions from over two hundred individual donors and a We the People challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the Heritage Fund has underwritten acquisitions of more than eighty works by American artists of color. (The MFA is the only museum in the country to receive NEH acquisition funds.) In part, the Heritage Fund also allowed the MFA to acquire a major collection of sixty-seven artworks by African Americans and Afro-Brazilians from Boston native John Axelrod in June 2011, situating the MFA’s holdings of African American art in the first rank among museums in the United States. Axelrod also made the publication Common Wealth: Art by African Americans in the Museum of Fine Arts possible.
The director’s foreword is followed by the brief essay “Introduction: Painting Yourself Out of a Corner” by the catalogue editor, Lowery Stokes Sims, formerly the William and Mildred Lasdon Chief Curator of the Museum of Arts and Design, New York, and previously the president of the Studio Museum in Harlem. The title is inspired by writer James Baldwin’s interview with Quincy Troupe (not credited here) in 1987, a portion of which artist Glenn Ligon hand-stamped in oil on a 6 1/2 by 84 inch canvas named Untitled (James Baldwin) (1990); the painting is reproduced across two facing pages (12–13) after the three-page introduction. Baldwin said, “No true account really of black life can be held, can be contained, within the American vocabulary. As it is, the only way that you can deal with it is by doing great violence to the assumptions on which the vocabulary is based. But they won’t let you do that. And when you go along, you find yourself very quickly painted into a corner” (quoted in the exhibition catalogue, 9). Sims concurs, arguing that African American artists “are still caught up in the questions of whether their racial identity and cultural experience should be seen as a central modifier of their work” (9).
Sims traces the development of African American art from slave and freed craftspeople to nineteenth-century landscapists and biblical painters through to New Negro artists of the 1920s and 1930s who responded to philosopher Alain Locke’s directive to look to African art for inspiration. She summarizes stylistic responses to and engagement with Abstract Expressionism, figuration, the Civil Rights Movement, sexual preferences, gendered identities, portraiture, and craft media and the fine arts. Sims declares, “Questions about the validity, the propriety, and the currency of separating African American art as a distinct category were not broached as an issue during the organization of this book” (11). Of course, such issues had to be discussed or the publication would not exist, and indeed they appear in Sims’s interview with Michael Rosenfeld at the end of the catalogue and in Elliot Bostwick Davis’s conclusion. Sims ends by noting that African Americans still seem to be grappling with Du Boisian “double consciousness,” but work by such artists is becoming increasingly “adept at avoiding being stereotyped or ‘painted into a corner’” (11).
The catalogue is divided into eleven thematic sections, each with a two-page introduction by Sims, followed by five to twenty-three works of art with short catalogue entries by MFA curators, four interns, and a collections librarian at the University of Baltimore. It is quite the challenge to conceive of categories both broad and specific enough to adequately encompass a large assemblage of diverse art spanning four centuries, but Sims did so admirably, penning thoughtful, contextual overviews on the following themes: Vessels of Memory; Interiors (the smallest group); Landscape and Place; Men (the largest section); Women; Family and Community; Street Life; Dance, Music, and Song; Spirituality; Masks and Symbols; and Abstraction.
There is no apparent order to the reproductions; they are not listed chronologically or alphabetically by artist. There are, however, groupings by medium, such as five ceramic pieces in Vessels of Memory, and by formal similarities, such as three portrait heads, three men with pipes in the varied media of acrylic, ink, and wood, three Civil Rights/Liberation images, two compositions of military veterans, and two depictions of boxers in the Men section.
Three brief, but significant, sections follow the catalogue entries. In “Art by African Americans in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,” Davis frankly admits that the MFA did not actively pursue art by African American artists until the 1960s and 1970s, and “only a handful” of their pieces were in the Art of the Americas department by 2001 (213). These were works on paper by Bostonians Allan Rohan Crite and John Wilson. Davis points out that the paintings at the heart of the department’s holdings from the colonial period through the early twentieth century by white artists such as John Singleton Copley, William Matthew Prior, and John Singer Sargent feature African Americans prominently in their compositions.
Davis then summarizes the MFA’s acquisitions from Horace Pippin’s Country Doctor (Night Call) (1935), the first painting by an African American to enter the collection, in 1970, to the acquisitions in 2011. In addition to andirons (ca. 1700), Dave Drake’s storage jar (1857), a quilt by Harriet Powers (1895–98), a monumental secretary by Thomas Day (1841), a sweetgrass basket by Mary Jackson (1992), and a clock by Frank Cummings (2003), highlights include multiple works by artists who trained at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, such as Loïs Mailou Jones and Beauford Delaney (whose 1940 painting Greene Street graces the catalogue cover), as well as paintings by Jacob Lawrence and Norman Lewis, and jewelry by Art Smith. Additional notable gifts include seven works from George and Joyce Wein in 2006 and paintings with a complete set of prints by and from the artist Eldzier Cortor in 2012. Davis concludes, “As the designation of African American art passes into history, the Museum offers the works represented in this publication as the foundation for future generations to enjoy” (215).
One of the most enlightening essays is Gaither’s “The National Center of Afro-American Artists,” which documents the unique relationship between the MFA and the NCAAA, founded by Elma Lewis in 1968. Gaither served as the center’s founding director and also ran the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts. Lewis built relationships with powerful Boston arts institutions, leading Gaither to curate such watershed MFA exhibitions as Afro-American Artists: New York and Boston (1970), “the largest and most critically well-received show of its type presented in a major American museum” ( 217); 19th-Century Afro-American Artists: Duncanson & Bannister (1972); Reflective Moments: Loïs Mailou Jones (1973); Jubilee: Afro-American Artists on Afro-America (1975–76); Massachusetts Masters: Afro-American Artists (1988); Dialogue: John Wilson/Joseph Norman (1995); and The Art of John Biggers: View From the Upper Room (1997). Gaither also facilitated the MFA’s traveling exhibitions of Dogon art (1972), African American decorative arts (1978), and Senegalese art (1980). He clearly played a pivotal role in bringing aspects of African art, African American art, and diasporic art into the MFA and Boston. After Lewis’s death in 2004, Gaither became the NCAAA’s executive director. He anticipates the completion of a mixed-use project, “Tremont Crossing: Where Commerce and Culture Connect,” in 2017, when the NCAAA’s collaboration with the MFA can be more equitable and wide ranging.
The last section before the artist biographies is a transcription of an interview by Sims with Michael Rosenfeld and his wife, halley k. harrisburg, at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in New York on November 1, 2013. The conversation primarily concerned the collector John Axelrod.
Rosenfeld’s father collected American prints and encouraged his young son to do so as well. Rosenfeld initially bought early twentieth-century prints because he loved American history, and he later turned to African American art as he admired the work and it was financially accessible. His relationship with Axelrod evolved over thirty years; the collector became aware of African American art in November 1993 when the gallery installed the exhibition African-American Art: 20th Century Masterworks. Axelrod expanded his collection of American art by buying seven pieces from the show. He assiduously researched the artists and continued to acquire art from the gallery, which held ten annual Masterworks exhibitions. The gallery provided clients with resource guides, scholarly catalogues, posters, and calendars. Since 2003, it has mounted thematic and solo exhibitions of historical African American art, but has not witnessed as much focused energy as it saw for the Masterworks series because the market shifted to contemporary artists. Rosenfeld stated, “We are still concerned that grouping artists within the category of ‘African American’ marginalizes them and diminishes their importance,” and he confirmed Sims’s conclusion that, “In other words, there is still work to be done” (221).
While the title of the catalogue is not explained, one definition of the compound noun “commonwealth” is the official designation of Kentucky, Massachusetts (where the MFA is located), Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Another definition is “any group of persons united by some common interest.” In relation to this collection, that interest is the shared racial and cultural background of the artists and their past exclusion from dominant cultural institutions. Split into two words in the title, the term seems to emphasize that heritage is truly a treasure which is “common” in the sense that it belongs equally to an entire community, nation, or culture.
The catalogue is part of a recent trend of museums publishing and showcasing their growing collections of African American art, dramatically enlarged in the last couple of decades because of recently available scholarship, the expanded market, and the desire to promote diversity and inclusivity. The first such publication was a special Museum Studies issue, African Americans in Art: Selections from the Art Institute of Chicago (Museum Studies 24, no. 2 [Fall 1998]). A dozen years later came Embodied: Black Identities in American Art from the Yale University Art Gallery (New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 2010), and, more recently, the Philadelphia Museum of Art produced Represent: 200 Years of African American Art (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2014). These tomes only exist at major institutions or places with generous donors who can provide research and writing time to curators and/or fund external museum professionals and academics, and who are willing to cover production costs. The publications tend to be coffee table-like books with cursory essays (frequently rehashing the same generalities of African American art history) and discussions of individual works that are often simply biographical and descriptive. By contrast, many of the MFA entries, although succinct, are interpretive. These catalogues make high-quality images more accessible to the public and future scholars. They also document institutional histories that reveal much about evolving museum, cultural, and societal values. One hopes the movement continues to gain ground.
Associate Professor, Art History, University of Cincinnati