Swimming Upstream?

A troubling trend is cited at the “Navigating The Mainstream” conference of support groups for African American art at major museums.

Cliff Hocker

What a difference a few decades make. Even as late as the 1980s, works created by artists of African descent got little exposure in mainstream American museums.  By the 21st century, many of these institutions were regularly exhibiting and adding African American art to their permanent collections.

The Conference Organizers: L-R: Vanity Gee, Romare Bearden Fellow (2012-13); Sherri Williams (Romare Bearden Fellow (2009-10); Jennifer Doyle (2005-6); Renee Franklin; Rochelle Caruthers (Romare Bearden Fellow (2011-12); and Ellene Stampley-Whiley (Romare Bearden Fellow 2004-5). Photo Bridget Cooks.

Much of the credit for this change belongs to people who formed support groups that promote African and African American art at their local museums.  But today, the identity and influence of some of these groups is threatened as they are incorporated into larger, general membership groups at the museums. This development was one of the challenges discussed at a recent conference of African American support groups.Renee Franklin, director of Community Partnerships at the St. Louis Art Museum. Photo Bridget Cooks.


 The groups are connected by the National Alliance of African and African American Art Support Groups, co-founded by Alvia Wardlaw of the Volunteer Circle of the University Museum at Texas Southern University and Geri Pass-Sowell of the Don P. Sowell Committee of the Cincinnati Art Museum.

 On July 12-July 15, African American art support groups from around the country came together for the National Alliance conference hosted by the St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM). The title of the event was "Navigating the Mainstream | Celebrating Romare Bearden Fellowship."Johanne Bryant-Reid, co-director, Romare Bearden Foundation.  Photo Bridget Cooks.

 Organized by Renee Franklin, director of community partnerships at SLAM, the meeting's purpose was to heighten awareness of issues support groups face, share ideas among representatives of existing groups and give encouragement to people interested in establishing new groups.

 "This was the most well-organized conference I have ever attended," says author Bridget Cooks, associate professor of art history and African American studies at the University of California in Irvine.  "The attendees were interested in the work of African American artists from a variety of perspectives: collectors, museum professionals, artists, academics, and enthusiasts. The variety of panel topics addressed all of these positions.Danielle Burns, Romare Bearden Fellow (2008-9) and artist, poet, and director of Rush Arts Gallery, Danny Simmons. Photo Bridget Cooks.

 Artist Myesha Francis, owner of the M. Francis Gallery in New Orleans, attended. "I was very interested in the issue of creating opportunities for young minority professionals to enter into the museum field. I believe that the Romare Bearden Fellowship provides a very wonderful opportunity to gain meaningful and relevant experience within a museum," she says.

 Rochelle Caruthers, a current Romare Bearden Fellow at SLAM, and Elizabeth Wyckoff, SLAM's curatorArtist Radcliffe Bailey.  Photo Bridget Cooks. of prints, drawings and photographs, have co-curated a Kara Walker exhibition on view May 4 – August 26, 2012 in the museum's Gallery 321.  This exhibit juxtaposes two prints from Walker's 2005 portfolio, Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated) with a selection of 19th-century wood engravings that are contemporaneous with the original Harper's publication.  These Civil War-era wood engravings portray African American participation in the war and, according to the exhibition announcement, “provide a historical perspective to Walker's very personal and 21st-century viewpoint."


The conference brought up another idea to keep in mind, adds Myesha Francis:  "One very important discussion that the general public should be made aware of is that you can have a voice within museums.  The general public can ask for things that they would like to see in the exhibition halls. They can also ask about the presence of a black staff, etc. Also, the general public should know that there are African American support groups around the nation that they could be members of!"Reginald Baylor, On Duty, Not Driving, acrylic on canvas, 60

 Several of these African American art advocacy groups are confronting the ultimate challenge: a threat to their very existence.  A number of art institutions, particularly at some of the public museums, are moving away from "friends groups" altogether.  They are combining their diversity of groups -- each which up to now have had their own ethnic or other special focus --  into one large membership group. "If institutions do that, then the uniqueness and distinctness of the African American support groups will be diluted, diminished," says Sande Robinson, who attended the meeting as a representative of the African American Art Alliance of the Milwaukee Art Museum.  As activists used to say in the 1960s, they would get "co-opted."  African American support groups are not the only ones in danger of being eliminated.  Other groups are also at risk of being absorbed into larger membership blocks.

 Delivering a compelling sales pitch may be one of the ways art support groups can make sure they Book cover, Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the Americans Art Museum (University of Massachusetts Press, 2011) don't go out of existence.  "They can make the director and the curatorial staff realize the impact of diversity that your support groups can bring to the table in terms of fostering more diversity in membership, in admissions, docents, collectors and trustees," says Robinson. She points out that the situation varies from institution to institution.  For instance, the director at the Milwaukee Art Museum is very supportive of the individual eight support groups there, Robinson says.  "It's not an issue at the Milwaukee Art Museum, but it is kind of an issue at certain of the other museums."


Discussions about taking a global point of view caught the attention of Myesha Francis.  "I really enjoyed seeing how African American artists such as Xaviera Simmons and curators such as Isolde Brielmaier, chief curator at Savannah College of Art and Design, are out and about in the world creating and sharing their work as well as putting together art exhibitions specifically for broad audiences," says Francis.

 Highlighted at the conference was an innovative example of what an art friends group can accomplish.  The Collectors Circle of the St. Louis Art Museum has created an international travel plan which in the last three years has organized annual group tours. The SLAM Collectors Circle formed a partnership with one of the graduate chapters of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, and individuals from the Deltas and groups from SLAM and a few other institutions have traveled internationally on cultural art tours. Two dozen people have gone on each of these trips. The first trip was to Brazil, and the second was to Morocco and Senegal. The latest excursion was in May 2012 to Cuba for the 11th Havana Biennial art exposition.  "We make the tour Afrocentric, so when we went to Brazil, we wanted to see the Afro-Brazilian culture.  When we went to Senegal and Morocco, we saw the African culture there and the religious culture.  We always go to museums, we have studio visits and take tours by docents at various cultural institutions," says Sande Robinson. 

 In the immediate future, travel plans are to go to Florida for Art Basel Miami, taking place December 6-9, 2012.  Under consideration as the summer 2013 destination are either South Africa or a tour of Black Paris/Black Europe to see diaspora art.


Another example of a friends group accomplishment that was presented at the conference focused on the African American Art Alliance, founded in 1990 at Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM).  For MAM's permanent collection, the group has purchased  paintings of Kehinde Wiley, Iona Rozeal Brown and, most recently, Reginald Baylor, a Milwaukee-based painter and sculptor.  During the upcoming year, the group will not purchase any art works because it is hosting the 30 Americans show at MAM from June 2013 through September 2013.

 "We will be doing a lot of programming for that exhibition," says Sande Robinson, president of Milwaukee support group.  She points out that Reginald Baylor made a living as a truck driver for many years before he was fortunate enough to get a residency at MAM. "That inspired him to try to make a living as an artist. He is doing quite well for himself. Our curator at the MAM really has championed Reginald Baylor and loves his work.  He encouraged our support group to purchase one of his paintings for our museum's collection."


Her new book, Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the Americans Art Museum (University of Massachusetts Press, 2011), was the topic for a conference presentation by Bridget Cooks.  "The discussion that followed addressed the importance of having an analytical history of the engagement between African Americans and mainstream art museums, questions about the role of racial identification in art object labels, the strategies of Alain Locke in promoting the work of Black artists, and how Black artists today can exhibit in mainstream art museums outside of all-Black exhibitions," says Cooks.  "My book was very well received and I enjoyed speaking with each of the purchasers of the book during the book signing. Conference organizer Renee Franklin acquired the last 50 books available through University of Massachusetts Press for sale at the conference, and they were all sold out at the event. The press is currently in the process of the first reprint of the book. It was wonderful to speak to a group that already understands what is at stake in knowing the history of how Black artists and curators have navigated the mainstream museum world. They were very supportive comrades in arms!" says Cooks, a professor of African American art history and visual studies at UC Irvine.


Sande Robinson says the National Alliance needs to maintain the momentum achieved at this summer's successful conference.  Meeting since 1999, there had been a gap of two years between the St. Louis meeting and the previous conference.  Who will host the next conference and when that will be is up in the air.  During the interim, the national organization needs to develop ways hold on to its audience, keep up participation levels and generate interest in its activities.


Support group representatives at the St. Louis conference were:

Faye Ashby and Bertha Smith of the Joshua Johnson Council, Baltimore Museum of Art;

Geri Pass-Sowell of the Don P. Sowell Committee, the Cincinnati Art Museum;

Helen Forbes Fields of the Friends of African and African American Art of the Cleveland Art Museum;

Dr. Valerie Childrey, Cynthia Henry and Sande Robinson of the African American Art Alliance of the Milwaukee Art Museum;

Eugene Foney of the African American Art Advisory Association of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston;

Carolyn Adams and Alex Nygere of the Friends of African and African American Art of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts;

Marilyn Robinson, Doretha Washington, Freida Wheaton and many others of the St. Louis Museum of Art Friends of African American Art Collectors Circle;

Vernita Henderson of the Robert S. Ducanson Society of the Taft Museum of Art;

Alvia Wardlaw of the Volunteer Circle of the University Museum, Texas Southern University.


In addition to the presenters noted above, conference speakers were:

Carolyn Adams of the Carolyn Adams and Associates, LLC;

Bridgette Alexander, art advisor to the White House;

Bill Appleton, director of public programs and education, Saint Louis Museum;

Radcliffe Baily, artist;

Claudine Brown, director of education, Smithsonian Institution;

Darwin F. Brown, Esq., senior wealth planner, PNC Wealth Management;

Johanne Bryant-Reid, co-director, Romare Bearden Foundation;

Janelle Dowell, creator and cofounder, Black Art in America (BAIA);

David Driskell, rrofessor of art emeritus, University of Maryland;

Helen Forbes Fields, Esq., trustee, Cleveland Museum of Art;

Theaster Gates, artist, cultural planner and founder of Rebuild Foundation;

Vernita Henderson, Duncanson Center, Taft Museum of Art;

Simon Kelly, curator of modern and contemporary Art, Saint Louis Art Museum;

Kali Murray, assistant professor of law, Marquette University;

Geri Pass-Sowell, co-founder, National Alliance of African and African American Art Support Groups;

Danny Simmons, founder and president, Rush Art Gallery;

Andrew Walker, director, Amon Carter Museum of American Art.