Approaching the Table:

The Rich and Strange Plight of African American Representation within Major Museums

by D. Amari Jackson

“Full fathom five thy father lies.

Of his bones are coral made.

Those are pearls that were his eyes.

Nothing of him that doth fade,

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange…” 

–Ariel in The Tempest, William Shakespeare


Saint Adrian, 2006 by Kehinde Wiley
Oil on canvas, 96″ x 84″, Nelson-Atkins, gift from collectors John and Sharon Hoffman

The thing about representation is, like a daydream, it can be fleeting and unreal.  In its popular phase, when familiar images abound, it is easy to assume it anchored in a foundational progress, one moving us all forward to a different reality, a better place.   However, like a tide, representation commonly ebbs and flows, appearing full and buoyant when high before dissolving into the deliberate sands of time, barely leaving a trace.

Perhaps such could be said about the institutional history of American visual art regarding industrial representations of African Americans.  If so, then our current moment constitutes a high tide, one waxing with the mounting social inequities of, at least, the past five years while buoying the artistic representations of a people long relegated to the institutional margins.  By 2015, a surge in interest and acquisition was already being recognized by the likes of the New York Times and major artworld mags as African American artists were in.  Paintings by abstract expressionist Norman Lewis were acquired by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan (MoMA).  The work of  Chicago painter-printmaker Eldzier Cortor graced the reopening of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York seven months before the 99-year-old passed on Thanksgiving Day.  Also, by 2015, other major institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York City (the Met) and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art had either acquired additional works by Black artists or taken ostensible steps to further diversify their holdings.

The trend has continued.  While institutions like the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Brooklyn Museum, the High Museum of Art, the Dallas Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Newark Museum, and MoMA have persisted in shedding light on the artistic contributions of African Americans, the prominent enlistment of Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald to paint the Obama portraits, unveiled in February 2018, further galvanized such interest. 

Some feel this recent activity, combined with the country’s current reckoning with race, historical imagery, and police brutality, represents a sea change, a major shift in the sands below. 

“I do think this is a very profound movement, one that is shaping American society in a profound way,” offers Julián Zugazagoitia, CEO and director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.  Over the past six years, the museum has acquired works by Charles White, Sonié Ruffin, Hale Woodruff, Bisa Butler, Mickalene Thomas, Steven Townes, Simone Leigh, and Kehinde Wiley.  Set to reopen to the public on September 12th, the Nelson-Atkins houses a variety of Black artistic representations including the Gordon Parks exhibition on Muhammad Ali and an exhibition on master printmaker Robert Blackburn.  Zugazagoitia believes this current movement “will have an impact, not only on the programming of museums and the acquisitions that we do, but on the organization of society as a whole.  So it is an important moment, and I think institutions are paying attention in a deeper way than we ever have before.”   

Such impact is needed.  While museums, recently and at various points within the past three decades, have attempted to address the historical underrepresentation of non-male and non-white artists, a 2019 study spearheaded by statisticians and art historians at Williams College clarified the gaping disparities that remain in the nation’s permanent collections. The report revealed that 85 percent of the artworks in the collections of major American museums belonged to white artists, with 87 percent produced by men.  Only 1.2 percent of the works were attributed to African American artists. 

And while there is certainly room for optimism given the increased representation of the past half-decade, one could argue we have been here before.  In the 1970s and, again, in the 1990s, there was a flurry of interest in and acquisition of African American art by major institutions.  However, despite these periods of artistic enlightenment facilitated by the cultural politics of the times and ongoing efforts by Black artists, arts activists, and collectors, the push for a sustained institutional acceptance of Black art failed to gain traction. 

“I think it’s a fleeting moment, I don’t think it’s a foundational change,” opines Sonié Ruffin, the nationally acclaimed textile artist and fabric designer.   In December 2019, the Nelson-Atkins acquired 20 Odd, a hand and machine-quilted work of textile by Ruffin featuring 20 silhouetted figures tethered together and surrounded by a border of African drums.  “Foundational change comes with education, and with education comes the intellectual capability of making a decision.  So therefore, no, this is a fleeting moment because people merely have to be satisfied.”  

20 Odd by Sonié Joi Thompson- Ruffin 2019-2020

Consistently, in her August 24 article in Vanity Fair titled, “What Should A Museum Look Like In 2020?” writer-curator Kimberly Drew voiced some well-justified concerns over recent interest in Black art by major institutions and their posting of “Black Lives Matters” slogans.  “Watching museums like the British Museum and the Met—institutions with historic ties to colonialism—use a slogan rather than admit to their own roles in the ‘race problem’ ignites a desire for a more holistic investigation of museums not only as homes for art and culture, but as entities with both the buying power and the political ties to make a lasting impact on life beyond this uprising,” wrote Drew.  She identified “a chasm between institutions issuing newsletters about ‘standing in solidarity’ and those, like the Walker Art Center, that have, for example, stopped contracting their local police force for public events. Historically, museums have used themed exhibitions, acquisitions schemes, or public programs to signal a shift, but otherwise they continue with business as usual.”  Real shifts, continued Drew, “must be seen from the sidewalk to the boardroom.”

Along with their recent acquisitions and what Zugazagoitia notes as the Nelson-Atkins’ longtime commitment to art by African Americans and other marginalized groups, the 10-year museum director suggests additional ways to increase artistic representation.  “If you came to walk the galleries and the installations,” explains Zugazagoitia, you would see exhibitions “that put someone like Jeff Sonhouse or Lynette Yiadom-Boakye next to Vanessa German and Simone Leigh.” And while some of these are permanent acquisitions, others are on loan or “promised gifts.  So we are encouraging patrons of the museum to collect along the lines of African American artists and to also give us gifts.” He notes that Kehinde Wiley’s Saint Adrian currently on view at Nelson-Atkins was a gift from collectors John and Sharon Hoffman.

Ruffin takes it a step further, advancing that education and equity can create long-lasting change as far as the African American narrative is concerned.”  She stresses the need for more African Americans on museum boards in decision making capacities and more African American employees in upper level management in museums across the country.  “We have the capabilities and the education to do so, and we understand our own narrative,” promotes Ruffin, insisting such realities have to be “taken into serious consideration” if museums “want change and support, and the dollars from our community.” 

“That’s just what it has to be,” continues Ruffin, noting the process will not happen overnight and “this isn’t something that you can just put a band-aid on.”  She recognizes the nature of such social, educational, and institutional progress as more akin to decades and centuries than any heightened political moment.   

“If you really want change, and you’re being sincere about the change that you so desire, then we have to be at the table,” concludes Ruffin, adding, at least, that part of the process is “real simple.  It’s just real simple.”

Kindred by Bisa Butler, 86 7/8 × 66 5/8 inches, 2019, Cotton, wool, silk , velvet and polyester, quilted and appliquéd, Nelson-Atkins: Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust through the George H. and Elizabeth O. Davis Fund


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