He points to black collectors and historically black colleges, like Howard University and Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University), which were buying work when few others were. Another force was the founding of the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1968 and pioneering exhibitions that began to change the conversation, like one Mr. Gaither organized at the Museum of Fine Arts in 1970, “Afro-American Artists: New York and Boston”; and “Two Centuries of Black American Art,” curated by the scholar David C. Driskell in 1976 for the Los Angeles County Museum.
David Driskell’s Suite Music pictured above and currently on display at Greenhut Galleries.
After decades of spotty acquisitions and token exhibitions, American museums are rewriting the history of 20th-century art to include black artists.
The painter Norman Lewis rarely complained in public about the singular struggles of being a black artist in America. But in 1979, dying of cancer, he made a prediction to his family. “He said to us, ‘I think it’s going to take about 30 years, maybe 40, before people stop caring whether I’m black and just pay attention to the work,’ ” Lewis’s daughter, Tarin Fuller, recalled recently.
Lewis was just about right. In the last few years alone, his work has been acquired by the National Gallery of Art in Washington; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. This month the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts opened the first extensive survey of Lewis, an important but overlooked figure in the Abstract Expressionist movement — and a man who might well have been predicting history’s arc for several generations of African-American artists in overcoming institutional neglect.
After decades of spotty acquisitions, undernourished scholarship and token exhibitions, American museums are rewriting the history of 20th-century art to include black artists in a more visible and meaningful way than ever before, playing historical catch-up at full tilt, followed by collectors who are rushing to find the most significant works before they are out of reach.
“There was a joke for a long time that if you went into a museum, you’d think America had only two black artists — Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden — and even then, you wouldn’t see very much,” said Lowery Stokes Sims, the first African-American curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and later the president of the Studio Museum in Harlem. “I think there is a sea change finally happening. It’s not happening everywhere, and there’s still a long way to go, but there’s momentum.”
The reasons go beyond the ebbing of overt racism. The shift is part of a broader revolution underway in museums and academia to move the canon past a narrow, Eurocentric, predominantly male version of Modernism, bringing in work from around the world and more work by women. But the change is also a result of sustained efforts over decades by black curators, artist-activists, colleges and collectors, who saw periods during the 1970s and the 1990s when heightened awareness of art by African-Americans failed to gain widespread traction.
In 2000, when Elliot Bostwick Davis arrived at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, as chairwoman of its Art of the Americas department, there were only three oil paintings by African-American artists in the wing, she said, and not many more paintings by African-Americans in the rest of the museum’s collection. “I had to deal with a lot of blank faces on the collections committee, because they just didn’t know these artists or this work,” said Ms. Davis, whose museum has transformed its holdings in the last several years.
Over just the last year, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Dallas Museum of Art and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., have hosted solo exhibitions devoted to underrecognized black artists. Within the last two years, the Metropolitan Museum has acquired a major collection of work by black Southern artists, and the Museum of Modern Art has hired a curator whose mission is to help fill the wide gaps in its African-American holdings and exhibitions.