The Cooper Gallery of Harvard University

Serving the Campus, the Community and the Art of the African Diaspora

John Welch

A place where you can nourish and reflect and restore yourself. — Vera Grant

Elthelbert Cooper Gallery, Hutchins Center, Harvard UniversityIn November 2014 Harvard University reopened its triad of university art museums under a single roof as envisioned by renowned architect Renzo Piano. The university’s momentous art season began with a gala preview opening of the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art on September 30, 2014. Media mogul Oprah Winfrey, film director and artist Steve McQueen, Congressman John Lewis, David Adjaye, the architect who planned and designed the building's renovation, and others celebrated at the gallery's preview opening.  

Henry Louis Gates, Suzanne Blier and Vera Grant (center) with Oprah Winfrey, David Adjaye and others at Cooper Gallery opening, September 30, 2014The Cooper Gallery is part of Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research (formerly known as the W.E.B. DuBois Institute).

One could easily regard viewing art and related activities (traditionally elite pursuits) in a gallery on an Ivy campus as having little connection to struggling people or even average people in the world beyond. But Cooper Gallery director Vera Grant’s vision for the gallery is a 180° departure from elitist tradition and includes it being a “healing” space for people most in need of it. Grant is a former executive director of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute. 

In the foreword to the Cooper Gallery’s first exhibition catalog, Hutchins director Henry Louis Gates, Jr. recalls the history of the gallery space:

The Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art realizes a dream that I have shared since the nineties with my colleagues, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah and the art historians Suzanne Blier and David Bindman, to establish Harvard University as a premiere site in the academy for the study of both African and African American art. In spring 2006, we opened the Neil L. and Angelica Zander Rudenstine Gallery, a small exhibition space located on the third floor of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute … to support both historical and contemporary practices in the black visual arts. Fifteen exhibitions opened in the Rudenstine over the next eight years. 1  

Vera Grant, Mariane Ibrahim-Lenheardt, Jean Pigozzi and David AdjayeThe story of how the Cooper Gallery came to be concludes with the acquisition of street level space adjacent to the Hutchins Center offices, approval from the university administration, and philanthropic support from Gates’ Yale college friend and current Hutchins Board member, Ethelbert Cooper. Cooper is a leader of African natural gas and mineral industries.

Grant views the inaugural exhibition, Luminós/C/ity.Ordinary Joy (October 21, 2014-January 8, 2015), as a careful interplay between the concept for the Cooper Gallery spaces as designed by architect David Adjaye and the subject of the exhibition: the vital, contemplative and imaginative visions of African city life. 

In her catalog statement, Grant walks readers through the thought and discovery process that resulted in Luminós/C/ity.Ordinary Joy and image selections for the exhibition:

A detailed and close investigation of the Pigozzi Collection reveals, as a theme, the exploration of African city life. The objects gracefully unfold unexpected, bright, and joyful moments on urban terrain; they share their poignant opinions on the transitory nature of the modern home, and at times chill you with criticism of our historical and colonial legacies. It is through these universally experienced routes of modernity that you may trace the movement from rural to urban encounters. You may recognize the process of self-making both on and off city streets as something that you also do, where you live. 2

Kudzanai Chiurai, The Minister of Arts and Culture, The Minster of Health, The Minster of Defense, The Minster of Finance, The Minster of Education, ultrachrome prints, 2009The collection was created in 1989 by Italian business man Jean Pigozzi and encompasses several thousand artworks — paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, installations and videos —  by contemporary artists living in sub-Saharan Africa.

The architectural concept for Cooper Gallery spaces and the Luminós/C/ity.Ordinary Joy installation are seamlessly intertwined by David Adjaye who also served as co-curator, with Mariane Ibrahim-Lenheardt, for the exhibition. Gates says these elements will set the tone for future visitor experiences at the gallery.  

David Adjaye in front of Chéri Samba, Le Nid dans le nid / The Nest in the Nest, 1996, acrylic on canvas, sequins, glue, mixed mediaDavid Adjaye is the John C. Portman Design Critic in Architecture at Harvard.  He explained his design challenge and vision for the gallery in detail:

The Cooper Gallery is located at the base of the Hutchins Center’s building and does not naturally lend itself to a gallery space in the conventional sense: two access points on Mount Auburn Street and Elliott Street rush visitors towards a core of elevators and services leading up the building…My challenge, then, was to refashion this existing narrative of space in such a way as to slow the visitor down into a set of episodic, special moments between two doors…What emerged is an enfilade of eleven rooms: two for administration, one flexible space for events and meetings, and eight unique showing spaces of different qualities and spatial investigations. The diversity of these spaces very much expresses and reflects the complexity of the urban condition, wherein existing space is constantly refashioned and transformed to suit a variety of ever-shifting needs and purposes. In this way, symmetry is formed between the context in which the pieces [Pigozzi Collection] were created and to which they speak. For me, it is precisely this found quality of the existing that makes this gallery exciting as a space to view art. 3

View of the Ramp GalleryElaborating on Adjaye’s concept, Grant explains that the Cooper Gallery can be regarded as an experience of “eight curatorial moments.” The adjacent rooms are treated as organic spaces that visitors traverse; with each space representing another type of volumetric sphere and a singular experience that relates to an exhibition’s larger themes. These experiences will not be chronological or linear in most instances:

The Entry Gallery has one of the gallery’s highest ceilings – a little over 11 feet high — extends almost 30 feet across. This space also has a largely glass façade that allows light into and out of the building’s entryway. The Ramp Gallery moves from a height over 11 feet to a smaller ceiling height of less than ten feet. The Tall Gallery is nine foot eight inches high and 16 by 14 feet wide. The Low Gallery is an adaptable space without fixed walls that is seven foot eight inches high with a cascading set of surfaces forming walls that are easily adapted to special installations. The Corridor Gallery, which is long and narrow, has a facing set of wood paneled walls that opens into the Niche Gallery: two “C” shaped formations that face each other. The last gallery – the Long Gallery – is the largest open exhibition space, ranging a length of over 34 feet with a ceiling 10 feet high. 

There is also a Media Room outfitted with technology to accommodate media-related installations and to serve as a teaching and seminar room where live streaming, power points, DVDs, phone conferences and the like can be engaged. The ACT (Art, Community and Teaching) Room, is an auxiliary space for exhibition-related and public program activities such as spoken-word, dance, drawing/painting, spontaneous group discussion. And, finally, The Vitrine is designed to accommodate small or delicate objects from other museums or collectors that can be displayed in vitrines and leveraged for other creative modes for viewing and teaching. 

View of Low Gallery with Samuel Kane Kwei, Mercedes fantasy coffin, 1993, enamel paint on wood, glass, metal, textileTo advance the gallery’s operations, Grant engages with a constellation of stakeholders – the Cooper Gallery’s three sets of boards; university and community officials; collectors; donors; staff; collaborators/partners and peer organizations.  She calls these constituents the gallery collaborative team and the resulting line-up of exhibitions and programming the “gallery matrix’,” a term coined by Studio Museum of Harlem director and chief curator Thelma Golden, who, herself, is now a vital part of the new gallery’s team and matrix developer. Golden serves on the gallery’s international advisory board.

A budding art connoisseur at the Cooper Gallery: Marli Forrester, daughter of artist Marlon ForresterOur discussion turns to a recent piece on university art museums. In "The Rise of the University Museum" (Boston Review, November 13, 2014) Alana Shilling-Janoff contends that university art museums have a special resource in their academic affiliations to fulfill the public museum mission of education and audience development.  University art museums are well positioned to teach visual literacy – i.e., how to read a work of art. Also, because they are located on sites of academic freedom with many people who question the status quo, university museums may be less hampered by conventional approaches to art.  “[This] makes it not just possible but imperative to investigate challenging issues in new and unconventional ways,” Shilling-Janoff claims. 4

Grant concurred and noted that the faculty is “engaged in disruption, because research naturally takes that sort of posture. It’s looking at things anew, or its examining or unearthing new insights. It has a disruptive quality by nature.” Grant also cited the benefits of having the gallery unfold as a flagship of the Hutchins Center: 

We have the Hutchins Center with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. at the helm. That is really important, because a lot of the general museums only report directly to boards. They constantly have to provide these metrics -- you know, the review and summing up — before programs have a chance to get off the ground. Then what clout or authority does a curator [or director] have within that group of high-powered board members who might have particular agendas and politics that are behind them? 

  Henry Louis Gates, Jr., at the Harvard Faculty Club on October 21, 2014. Photo by Marcus HaleviAs a Harvard University institution, housed within the Hutchins Center, the Cooper Gallery is, by default, a part of the university’s highly defined mission of education and the premiere Center for African and African American Research. It must also adhere, however, to best practices dictated by the Academic Museums and Galleries Association. Grant notes that there are also important ways in which the new Cooper Gallery will act apart from some of its peer institutions:

Our placement on the very edge of the campus in the heart of Harvard Square…gives us this very public space in the Cambridge community that goes beyond Harvard University, for example. We are a member of Cambridge in terms of being a non-profit, but ours is an organization that operates with the public purview. University museums are more often tucked away within the campus and then seek to draw their audience in when they look for that audience outside of the university. We’re already right there.

Townspeople and other visitors can walk directly into the gallery from the street.

Grant says that Cooper’s relationship to African and African American scholarship mandates that it reach out to other African American cultural figures and organizations in ways that other university museums may not.  In particular, she cites Thelma Golden’s leadership, the Cooper’s affiliation with The Studio Museum in Harlem, and a recent letter from Kehinde Wiley expressing his thoughts about this seminal institution.  Grant says these associations are “critical.”  They “take us outside of the university gallery.”  

The Cooper "gallery matrix’" reflects a multifaceted and ambitious vision for its diverse constituents and the public:

We have a ‘gallery calculus’ that will bring in our local museum and art gallery world — that includes collectors, administrators, curators from other museums and galleries in Cambridge and greater Boston itself…We also want to reach out to the local community of artists and support community-driven work through initiatives that will extend our local Cambridge/Boston area placement.

Similarly, when determining what should be presented to the public at the new galleries Grant points to a matrix of considerations and collaborators:

Another type of engagement that we want to include in our matrix would be our friendly collaborators that we already have relationships with…that would include The Studio Museum, Autograph APB (a part of the Institute of International Visual Arts) operating out of London, the Boston MFA, ICA Boston and the Harvard Art Museums.

Cooper Gallery, a welcoming space for all constituenciesWe have a waiting group of people that want to engage with us. One of the primary groups will be the different sectors within the Hutchins Center and faculty at Harvard, who are engaged in the arts and African and African American studies, whether they’re part of the department of African and African American Studies, or some other area…of the field…. Quite often faculty will develop a course or syllabi that include the development of an exhibition along with their students.

Moreover, she says, the Cooper Gallery Exhibition and Acquisitions Committee reviews proposals received from all sources, not just those cited above, and carefully considers how each proposal brings balance to the gallery’s mission to reach multifaceted audiences and community stakeholders in a balanced way.

Draptomania entrancewayThe gallery’s second exhibition, DRAPETOMANÍA: Grupo Antillano and the Art of Afro-Cuba (30 January – 29 May 2015), curated by Alejandro de la Fuente, director of the Center for Latin American Research at the Hutchins Center, features Afro-Cuban art from the original Grupo Antillano alongside younger artists. Works in the exhibition exemplify the centrality of African practices in Cuban national culture. Drapetomania refers to the slavery-era term for the "disease" of enslaved people who were afflicted with the desire to run away.

Another significant consideration for the Cooper is a careful transition from gallery to museum by becoming a renowned collecting entity. Grant notes the gallery already has a ‘nascent’ collection comprised of gifts:

It started in 2012.  We received several gifts, including our first from one of our board members, Richard Cohen: Yinka Shinibare’s Food Faerie; a Nick Cave Sound Suit; and the last major gift we received, a piece by Magda Campos Pons, a Cuban artist – an installation piece called Sugar/Bittersweet. In addition, we received  Beauford Delaney’s Portrait in Yellow of James Baldwin, which was a gift from Skip Gates; and we also have a beautiful graphic poster of a black fist from the protest era at Harvard University – that was a gift from Glenn Hutchins.

Glenn Hutchins is the financier and Harvard alumnus who gave more that $15 million to create the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research and ensure that the Harvard program would be a leader in its field.

With far-reaching ambitions for placing the gallery at the heart of educating college students and the general public through art, the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery is actively engaged in formalizing its five to ten-year vision:

Drapetomania curator Alejandro de la Fuente (left) with Rafael Queneditt, Andrés Montalván Cuéllar, Clara Morera and Elio Rodríguez ValdésBecause we are so new, we are looking for accreditation as a full-fledged university art gallery within the next five years. A lot of our energy is going to be put towards realizing that goal of determining how our carefully designed environmental and security systems are actually working. We steward our interactions with our peers in terms of care and conservation of the art, as well as the loaning and borrowing of art under registrar related guidelines. Our performance will determine how we are functioning as a full-fledged member of the larger museum community employing industry best practices. It will allow us to seriously collaborate with major peers while still bearing the ‘new kid on the block’ tag.

The other side of that I see as a vision, a kind of landscape going forward ten years, of just what is happening inside the gallery on a daily basis. It’s just fascinating to open and to see who comes in naturally without any special promotion, and the excitement of seeing the space unfold to the local community. 

The small programs that we’ve run and the huge receptions and events are all allowing me to see how the space does responds to that. Where are my vulnerabilities? Our strengths? Where do I have to change my event planning and security or my visitor controls in the gallery? How does it work?

Cooper Gallery mapAs part of the plan for the first decade, Grant wants the Cooper to be as actively engaged with its community constituents as its university ones. She expects that the ACT Room and the Media Gallery will be scheduled six months in advance with lively, relevant programming.

She hopes that visitation will fluctuate throughout the day.  A typical mix would be faculty teaching classes.  Community groups holding board meetings. Kids making art. Local architects or others holding small brainstorming sessions on community problems. 

One of the Cooper Gallery’s imaginative plans is to develop as a requisite stop for a broad range of tour groups, including ethnically-themed tours for groups that traditionally visit HBCUs. These groups might be high school students considering colleges, foreign travelers coming to the US during the summer or diaspora explorers wanting to experience the Cooper Gallery and then have a consistent and unique experience with which to explore other similarly focused art spaces around the country. 

Pragmatic goals include increasing the gallery’s staff and opening a second gallery entrance that would connect the gallery to an adjacent neighborhood pedestrian mall and transform the gallery into a promenade experience in Harvard Square.

Boston artist Marlon Forrester conducts tour at Cooper GalleryIn 10 years, the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery aspires to an acknowledged full “participatory museum” status as expounded upon in a book of the same title by Nina Simon, incorporating its university setting; community proximity, and state of the art virtual technology, in engaged and synergetic interactions. 

Grant cites a recent experience with local artist and public school teacher Marlon Forrester to explain the “participatory” engagement that she seeks for the new space:

Forrester has a studio that produces art for community spaces.  His art deals with African American male stereotypes —things that buy into it and things that disrupt it—in everyday life. Working with Chiurai’s ‘Dying to Be Men’ series installed in the Tall Gallery from the Cooper’s inaugural exhibition, the artist was asked to conduct a From Kudzanai Chiurai’s Dying to Be Men series: The Minister of Defense, ultrachrome print, 2009public workshop exploring parallels or resonances between urban African and African American males’ negotiation of guns and violence. The workshop immersed audiences in African urban themes, a local artist’s interpretation of works in the exhibition and his thoughts on formal approaches to art-making. These elements were integrated into a unique gallery tour one afternoon, or a “walking contemplation,” entitled From Sin City to Afro City that was well attended by a rapt audience.

This type of organic community engagement will remain a top priority among goals for the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery.  “I always want to make the space something that the local artists and community can simply come and engage with through bringing and sharing different sets of eyes and sentiments,” says Grant. “The gallery should be a healing space too, right? It’s a place where you can nourish and reflect and restore yourself.”

IRAAA contributing writer John Welch, Ph.D, is an art historian and museum educator who is based in Philadelphia PA.

Cooper Gallery, 102 Mt. Auburn StreetPhotographs: courtesy of the Elthelbert Cooper Gallery.


1. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (foreword), Luminós/C/ity.Ordinary Joy, From the Pigozzi Contemporary Art Collection, Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2014).

2. Ibid, p. 10.

3. Ibid, p. 10.

4. Nina Simon, The Participatory Museum, Museum 2.0: Santa Cruz, CA, 2010.