Tales from The b.a.SKET: Black Art Sketches for the Contemporary Art Lover
By D. Amari Jackson
This week, we reach into the b.a.SKET and pull out the institutional protests of yesteryear, the ones that paved the way for the artistic representations and successes of today…
Sometimes, despite all our targeted protests and efforts, we fail to make a difference.
Other times, we do.
A little over a half-century ago, amidst passionate cries of “Black Power” and a national backdrop of civil unrest, Black artists in New York engaged in a series of art strikes and demonstrations aimed at the woeful lack of representation and skewed imaging of women and people of color by city museums. For a four-month period in 1970, the Ad Hoc Women Artists’ Committee picketed the Whitney Museum of American Art every Sunday, demanding that at least half of the artists in the museum’s approaching biennial celebration be women. This bold request was initiated by Ad Hoc member, Michele Wallace, an outspoken activist who also represented WSABAL, or Women Students and Artists for Black Art Liberation. Wallace’s demand was pulled from WSABAL’s manifesto, which stated that 50 percent of artists in American art exhibitions should be women, and these exhibitions should “reflect the ethnic distribution of the metropolitan area in which the show is being given.”
Joining and guiding Wallace in her organizational efforts was her mother, prominent painter, writer, sculptor, and performance artist, Faith Ringgold. A cofounder of Ad Hoc and WSABAL, Ringgold and her daughter were regulars outside the Whitney, chanting and picketing the institution’s dismal failure to include artistic representations of and by women and people of color.
Ad Hoc pulled no punches. In the fall of 1970, the group issued a fake press release on the Whitney’s behalf, announcing the museum had agreed to comply with Ad Hoc’s 50 percent mandate. After the Whitney publicly refuted the false announcement, the group of activists infiltrated the building, placing eggs and sanitary products labeled “50 per-cent” throughout. At the official opening of the 1970 Biennial, the activists disrupted the proceedings by blocking gallery entrances, whistle blowing, chanting, and engaging in a sit-in. For her part, Ringgold was arrested in November 1970.
Nonetheless, the impact of their efforts was felt. While only 5 percent of the artists showcased at the 1969 Whitney Painting Biennial were female, 22 percent of the artists included in the museum’s 1970 Sculpture Biennial were women.
The Whitney ultimately acknowledged the impact of Ringgold, Wallace, and their fellow protesters. Museum administrator, Stephen Weil, subsequently told the press that the Whitney was now “bending over backwards to not to ignore requests from women.”
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Amari Jackson is a creator, author, TV/web/film producer, and award-winning journalist. He is author of the 2011 novel, The Savion Sequence; creator/writer/coproducer of the 2012-2014 web series The Book Look; writer/coproducer of the 2016 film Edge of the Pier; and current writer/coproducer of Listen Up! on HBCU GO/Roku TV. He is a former Chief of Staff for a NJ State Senator; a former VP of Communications & Development for the Jamestown Project at Harvard University; and a recipient of several writing fellowships including the George Washington Williams Fellowship from the Independent Press Association. An active ghost writer, song writer, martial artist, and journalist, his writings have appeared in a wide variety of national and regional publications.
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