“Black Museums Matter” declares a shirt at the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey.
“That shirt gets people really charged up,” said Ralph Hunter, founder and director of the organization.
The museum, which has a location in Newtonville in Atlantic County, and in Stockton University’s Noyes Arts Garage in Atlantic City, is an anomaly in New Jersey — one of the state’s only art and history museums dedicated to African American artists.
An exhibit called “Black Lives Matter” will run through the end of the year and feature art inspired by the murder of George Floyd and other Black Americans.
“There was a need to tell the African American story and give new artists a place to come up and showcase their goods,” Hunter said. “That’s our mission statement, to work with up-and-coming Black artists who don’t have as many opportunities.”
A lack of opportunity for non-white artists and an undervaluing of their art in all its forms — dance, fine arts, performance — is a pervasive problem in the East Coast and country.
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According to a 2019 study by the nonprofit Public Library of Science, an estimated 85% of artists represented on U.S. gallery walls are white (a disparity, as the 2019 census estimates that 76.3% of Americans are white). Researchers mined more than 40,000 pieces of art at 18 museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Detroit Institute of Arts, to create the study.
Stages are similarly white-washed, studies show.
Minority actors were cast for one in three roles in the 2016-17 New York theater season, according to the most recent study by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition. Slightly more than 13% of plays produced were written by non-white writers. Slightly less than 13% of plays were directed by non-white directors.
“These new statistics provide a startling look at the imbalance of power that continues to be normalized within our industry,” said the AAPAC in the study. “We can’t begin to hold stakeholders responsible without statistics like these. The numbers speak for themselves.”
Still, these numbers represent some of New York theater’s most diverse productions to-date, the AAPAC noted.
Indeed, art-lovers living today can still remember when Black and brown artists were making history.
Marian Anderson was the first Black person to perform as a soloist with the Metropolitan Opera in 1955, an institution founded 72 years earlier in 1883.
In 1982, Debra Austin became the first Black ballerina to become a principal dancer at a major American ballet company: the Pennsylvania Ballet, established in 1963.
In 1988, Thelma Golden was hired as the first African American curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. In 2014, Carrie Mae Weems became the first Black artist to have a major retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Why did it take these pillars of the art world so long to recognize non-white artists?
A lack of access
According to Hunter, a sense of gatekeeping has kept Black artists from prestigious displays in galleries.
“Other museums want the best of the best. They usually only feature four to five very famous Black artists,” Hunter said. “There’s no place for up and coming artists to get their start. We showcase really tremendous art from seniors to high school students.”
Pieces by Black artists have historically been valued less than those done by their white counterparts. It was only in 2013 that a Black woman, Julie Mehretu, joined the ranks of living women whose works are sold for the highest amount at auction.
As recently as August, the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan was criticized for purchasing prints from Black artists at a discounted price to display in its now-canceled “Collective Actions” exhibition, which would have displayed prints, photographs, posters and digital works created in response to the Black Lives Matter movement and COVID-19.
Instead of purchasing the works at full price from the artists, The Whitney, which has a multi-million dollar endowment, acquired the art for the exhibit through sales put on by the artists intended to raise money largely for anti-racism organizations and to make their work accessible to people with less money.
“[The Whitney has] purchased artists’ works at horrendously discounted prices meant to make folk’s work accessible outside of the art buying context and to raise money for several organizations,” photographer and writer Gioncarlo Valentine said on Twitter. Valentine’s work “Untitled” was acquired by the Whitney for the exhibit without his permission, and bought on sale, he said.
Farris Wahbeh, the Whitney’s curator, has since apologized.
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“Going forward, we will study and consider further how we can better collect and exhibit artworks and related material that are made and distributed through these channels,” she said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the Atlantic County museum showcases work from lesser-known as well as established artists, including a $250 thousand, 10-foot-by-10-foot portrait of WhoopiGoldberg, a vocal supporter of the museum, by Yigal Ozeri.
The African American Historic Museum also shows the history of Blackness in America. Artifacts and racist portrayals of Black people, such as old copies of “Little Black Sambo” and Aunt Jemima merchandise, are showcased in the South Jersey museum to examine the history of racism and how Black Americans have persevered.
“We would love to have bigger museums work with the African American Heritage Museum. We have literally thousands of pieces of art that we can lend out to a stationary museum,” said Hunter. “But they don’t come to us and ask.”
Changing the system one wall at a time
Systemic racism from the gatekeepers of the art world is something Jane Golden, founder and executive director of Mural Arts Philadelphia, knows well.
Since the early 80s, Golden has been an activist for social justice within the arts.
In 1984, she was hired by the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network to help bridge the gap between artists and politicians — those who were fighting against the use of a spray paint can on city walls.
Her mission was to replace graffiti with murals that showcased the City of Brotherly Love’s beauty and diversity.
Initially, she and her team of young artists faced criticism from the community.
“Historically public art has been rather effete. When we did work, it was me and graffiti writers in the late 80s and early 90s and people would constantly say to us, ‘You’re not doing public art, you’re doing social work.’ And they would say it in such a pejorative way that I’d always say to the kids, ‘Hold your heads up high because what we’re doing matters,’’ ’ Golden said.
In 2003, Mural Arts Philadelphia began working in prisons and juvenile detention centers. This led to being invited to do a small mural at the State Correctional Institution: Graterford (now-closed, but which was the fifth-largest state prison in the country at the time). They later began going to the prison weekly and working on outdoor murals with the prisoners on parachute cloth.
“Then that led to a big series we did called ‘healing walls,’ with crime victims, victim advocates and men in a class at Graterford. That led to the class becoming a formal work option at the prison,” said Golden.
Since then, Mural Arts has made prison reform one of its biggest causes and its Restorative Justice Guild program offers paid apprenticeships to inmates once they are released from incarceration.
While narrative in the art world may be changing, Golden feels it is only the beginning.
“There’s a moment where institutions and organizations like Mural Arts and many others need to do their work with great intention and rigor and constantly pay attention to the discrepancy that exists in our society — that it is a racist system and we need to do all we can to dismantle it and understand change is incremental,” said Golden. “I think there’s a tendency to do things in spurts in this country so that’s not any way to create lasting change.”
Calls for change at the top
A lack of diversity in leadership is another hindrance to progress and equal representation, say diversity advocates in the arts world.
Take the controversy at the Delaware Contemporary in Wilmington, Delaware, for example.
In August, former board members and staff at the Delaware Contemporary called on the art museum’s leadership to diversify and place greater emphasis on making its galleries better reflect the community.
After the art museum posted on its Facebook page that it “proudly stands in solidarity with protesters across the nation committed to breaking the systems that create and maintain racism, oppression, bigotry, and inequity,” a petition aimed at the director and members of the museum’s board was created. It asserted that there has been no real progress toward equality and inclusion, which the museum says it supports.
Katy Scarlett, a petition organizer and a former curator at the museum, described a “history of so many unethical behaviors just in the organization of the museum, but also things like protecting harassers and consistent microaggressions related to race, gender and sexuality.”
Scarlett, as well as the other writers and signers of the petition, said board members asked women to take on more roles without increased compensation, have been dismissive of exhibits exploring Black and queer identity, and have not listened to minority artists as they try to change practices at the museum that would allow for more diversity of artists and staff.
In September, the Delaware Contemporary put out a newsletter apologizing to “anyone who has not had a positive experience in the past” at the museum. It promised to look inward to create a more inclusive work environment and diverse galleries and programming.
The museum has also debuted multiple exhibits this fall aimed at featuring artists of color and topics like the identity, immigration, gun violence, etc.
The New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, (a New Jersey city that’s population is about 50% Black) has advisory councils to help guide programming and make sure it reflects the community. The Council of Elders is made up of senior members of the community who bring their wisdom to the arts, leaders say. There also are Latinx, faith-based, jazz and dance councils.
“In a state like New Jersey, which is so diverse, our programming has to intentionally reflective of that diversity,” said President of NJPAC John Schreiber. “The arts should be welcoming. They should say, come on in.”
Each council throws at least one signature event a year and a larger meeting with every council takes place three times a year to see where their programing can intersect.
“We are very good at listening. When our community tells us what we can do better, we listen,” said Donna Walker-Kuhne, senior advisor of community engagement. “The members of our council are all extremely vocal, and they represent constituencies we want to have access to. They make sure they’re heard, so there’s no disconnect in what our community wants and what we’re putting out.”
‘Build’ it and they will come … and dance
And where multicultural art events have been hosted, audiences have responded positively, history shows.
Rochester has New York state’s second largest Latinx population outside of New York City, but Annette Ramos said she was shocked that the city didn’t have an arts organization dedicated to that population. So she started one.
Ramos, executive director of the Rochester Latino Theater Company, said something as simple as offering materials in languages other than English can help programmers and organizations reach diverse communities and bridge gaps in the art world.
“That dual language piece is vitally important, as we have a large population that only speaks Spanish and/or their young children speak both languages but the predominant language is Spanish in their households,” Ramos said.
And when diverse art does arrive on stage, it’s important to be agile and flexible enough to adjust to the specific needs and wants of a diverse audience. Sometimes, that can be as simple as letting audiences feel free to dance.
When a touring Panamanian music group stopped in Rochester, the host theater reached out to Ramos to make sure that Latino leaders in the community were in the audience.
Half an hour into the set, one of the musicians paused and asked, “Where are my Latinos and why aren’t we dancing in the aisles?” according to Ramos.
The house lights came on, and people danced. It was an unplanned moment, but a powerful one. “Of course, once you create environments that are welcoming and culturally competent, people were dancing in the aisles.”