Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power
(Duke University Press, 2016)
In 2005, Andrea Fraser wrote that, whether one’s name is attached to an institution or not, anyone associated with the art world is, by default, a participant in the institution; her statement amounted to an invocation to participate in repairing a broken system.1 In Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power, Susan E. Cahan (surely a part of the institution, as Associate Dean and Dean of the Arts at Yale College) seeks to expose the continual injustice that has helped whitewash the art-historical canon, naming names and addressing corruption. The book is the result of ten years of investigative work on New York City’s major museums and their early attempts to grapple with the civil rights movement and African American art. If Fraser’s statement holds true, Cahan’s book is merely due diligence.
2016 has, so far, been a year of turbulent racial and cultural tension in America, and though the art world can appear to operate almost outside of the real world, the consequences of bureaucracy still prevail within it: the canon remains non-representative of the country’s history; exhibitions are repetitive and safe; and artists, educators, and students are still exploited by the handful who hold most of the power. Even in the wake of institutional critique, there is a lack of action and change toward restructuring institutions, which would allow artists of color, students, professors, and curators the autonomy, credit, and compensation they deserve, along with a stark revision toward a representative canon and better social mobility for more than an elite few.
As an intern at the Met, Cahan learned that the specter of the museum’s Harlem on My Mind show, organized by Allon Schoener in the late ’60s, loomed as an unspeakable disaster even decades later; she cites this as the moment that sparked her investigation into why artists of color are still much less visible. Mounting Frustration is presented as a journalistic history of controversy in New York City’s arts community within the Met, the Whitney, MoMA, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and events that took place outside of these large institutions as pressure grew from the community to better represent and serve artists and people of color. Beginning with an articulate summary of her focus and purpose for the book, Cahan breaks down the chapters by institution, starting with the history of the Studio Museum in Harlem, then moving to Harlem on My Mind, to the Whitney’s Contemporary Black Artists in America (1971), and finally to MoMA’s “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern (1984). Her goal is nothing more than to help “frame our understanding of the present,” (although this is also legible as a strategy to underplay the explosive political potential of what could be a radioactive topic both inside and outside the institution).
Harlem on My Mind was the first public show in New York City that addressed the civil rights movement, opening in 1969 (fifteen years after Brown v. Board of Education). Rather than exhibit works by artists of color, however, Schoener (famously) patronizingly chose to exhibit documentary photography of black people as subjects, and even refused to consult a team of African-American artists and scholars. This sparked artists to organize heated protests at the Met, where they mocked museum administrators as “the latest experts on the black experience.” Cahan believes that, while Schoener’s intentions were sincere, the controversy surfaced from ethnocentric ignorance and the collective absence of African Americans from mainstream art, commerce, and education. According to Schoener, African Americans “deserved to have their art dignified at the Metropolitan Museum,”2 (though he later doubled-down, stating, “But I didn’t see that [exhibiting black artists] as my responsibility.”3). Here, Cahan ties in white privilege, curatorial malpractice, artist and community protests—and joins them with the fact that the show was a fundamental means toward general support for the Met’s expansion (and problematic centralization) further into Central Park, known as the Met’s director Thomas Hoving’s “Master Plan.” The most chilling part is that Schoener intrinsically believed in the show as a self-sacrificing project in the name of improving cultural inclusivity; he asserts a patronizing view still today that Harlem on My Mind was an act of “dignifying” individuals of color.4 The problem, of course, is that Schoener—who was drastically removed from the individuals he aimed to represent—was unable to understand the documentary-photography model’s obvious failing: it allowed for the Met to capitalize on individuals of color and preserve the status quo of keeping artists of color removed from the museum.
That Schoener was allowed to fail in this way raises another question: where were the colleagues, or some system of checks and balances, that could have prevented this social and political disaster? Museums are trusted to signal to the public what is culturally significant; by excluding or minimizing artists of color, they are separating individuals of color and defining their art as culturally valueless. While one would assume that institutions like MoMA and the Whitney would carefully examine the controversies behind the Met’s failure, they, too, remained amnesic, allowing curators to mount shows that allowed half of American artists to remain in the shadows. Places like the Studio Museum in Harlem and other culturally- and community-specific organizations, like the AWC, were formed to disrupt these economic and political landscapes, and they remain relevant today in an American society that hasn’t created a genuine space for its art to meld into an egalitarian, representative whole.
The politicization of New York’s museums, reflected in the power that city and national politicians, board members, and donors have on an institution’s purchases, exhibitions, hiring and firing, and public programming, is well known. Cahan identifies pivotal examples that may mirror current practices, or at least inspire better investigation. For instance, Carter Burden, a politician running for New York City Councilman tried—after already losing once—to dig his hands in to the inception of the Studio Museum as a means to win the vote of the predominantly black district for which he was running. Most recently, the Koch brothers donated millions for the Met’s new plaza, playing to a population that is likely unfriendly to their agenda. Questions of power and morality arise in both cases: what would happen if museums publicly refuse to accept funds from those who play dirty politics? In the case of MoMA, John Hightower, who seemed most indebted to repairing the ethnocentric canon, was fired after a member of the trustee committee found artists’ accusations of this imbalance untrue.5 This act likely set ethical practices within museums back for decades.
As Cahan illuminates the complexities of problematic shows, it becomes clear that the book is a guide to poor practices for curators, which could be of parallel significance to aspiring and practicing curators, administrators, and art historians. The Harlem on My Mind chapter highlights curatorial practices that are collectively unethical: some are common sense, while others, even five decades later, mirror contemporary problems, thereby serving as a reference for many of those compelled to restructure the system. Within this mostly chronological narrative of how museums mounted African-American art are expositions of the city-wide and national political landscape, the techniques artists of color used to make their demands, and the rise of more spaces for artists of color to see and show work. Mounting Frustration powerfully zeroes in on the moment museums were forced to address the neglect of artists of color, mapping artists’ ways of fighting the establishment and the ways in which artists and administrators chose to take action.
The Whitney’s Contemporary Black Artists in America and MoMA’s “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern were two exhibitions that sparked questions of qualifications and credentials needed to design culturally-specific exhibitions throughout the ’70s and ’80s. The Studio Museum’s present director, Thelma Golden, found tokenism most problematic as it was used for museums to shamelessly capitalize on an entire culture: “Everyone puts their big black shows on the books, they get their corporate funding, it goes all around the country, it’s a big extravaganza, and then it’s over.”6 Systematic neglect may have instigated this patronizing and fetishizing approach to exhibiting artists of color. For example, the Whitney’s neglect of black artists in more shows, like the Realists show, surged new controversy and tensions between museums and artists.7 Cahan argues that it was largely due to curator Robert Doty’s lacking qualifications and expertise and the white-dominated administration who refused to take affirmative action—affirmative action seems like it could have been one large step in solving the barrier blocking black artists from showing at large museums across the country. Like the Harlem on My Mind show, Doty was extremely removed from the African-American art world and community, writing a letter to a curator at LACMA: “I am organizing an exhibition of work by Black artists […] I would like to know if Eatkin and Hardy are Black.”8
Mounting Frustration, then, may be either another critique of the institution that will never infiltrate into museum and gallery practice, or, optimistically, a springboard that administrators, dealers, and especially the upcoming generation of artists and art historians use to make reparations. Moreover, while critique can often read as a sermon, or laundry list, of how things should be, Cahan has instead researched and presented a chronology of museums’ misguided practices that have helped maintain the art world as a place for racially privileged elites and the methods that curators and administrators used to do so—despite heavy resistance from artists and the public since the ’60s. Mounting Frustration stresses continual resistance to disrupting conventional practices that have squandered social mobility for artists and art historians of color, and, most importantly, the fact that consequences often appear as the fault of an institution’s large, invincible presence is actually as much a product of one individual’s leadership.
- Andrea Fraser, “From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique,” Alexander Alberro & Blake Stimson (eds.), Institutional Critique: An Anthology of Artists’ Writings, (MIT Press, 2009), 408.
- Susan Cahan, Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 61.
- Cahan, 62.
- Allon Schoener’s biography from personal website.
- Cahan, 9.
- Cahan, 3.
- Cahan, 128.
- Cahan, 139.
Alexandra Fowle is a Senior Production Assistant at the Brooklyn Rail and a graduate student in art history.