Art museums are sites of ongoing negotiation, even contestation, between artists, advocates, collectors, dealers, curators and visitors. But the game is rigged. Museums reflect existing sets of power dynamics. Their collections are shaped around the objects and storylines that guilds of scholars and critics have elevated to the level of being worthy. In these ways the history of collecting and displaying art in the United States can often feel like a familiar tale of European old master paintings, American period rooms, and primitivist fascination with the arts of Africa, Oceana or indigenous America.
The Baltimore Museum of Art is no exception. But in 1939 it opened Contemporary Negro Art, one of the first nationally significant exhibitions of works by African-American artists. It did so in the museum’s main exhibition galleries at a time when the museum was barely into its second decade, had no director, small collections, and few financial means.
Contemporary Negro Art ran for two weeks, overlapping what was then termed “Negro History Week.” It attracted almost 12,000 visitors, and many positive reviews. Baltimore born artist Elton Fax, whose “Coal Hoppers” is reproduced in the exhibition catalog, wrote Chief Curator Charles R. Rogers personally to express his appreciation for the “splendid job put over by the museum.” The press agreed.
It would take another half century before anything of comparable ambition would appear again in a public art museum: David Driscoll’s landmark Two Centuries of Black American Art, which opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1976.1
Why did the Baltimore Museum of Art put on an exhibition of black arts in 1939, and why didn’t the show launch a more sustained engagement with African American artists? What matters about this story today, at a moment when overt nativism and racism is rampant in our public discourse and the American Alliance of Museums has set inclusiveness as a strategic priority for its members? What might it mean for Baltimore, which witnessed significant protests in the wake of the death of Freddie Grey while in police custody, and most recently saw its Confederate monuments removed in response to events in Charlottesville, VA?
These are the questions that guide the project Black Artists in the Museum, a collaborative venture between the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Johns Hopkins University’s Program in Museums and Society. I must extend my heartfelt thanks to the museum for inviting my students and I to participate in their ongoing reflections on their institution and its history. We have been afforded unique insight into a major art institution as it sets its sights on becoming “the most socially engaged museum in the country.”2
I owe a particular debt of gratitude to Emily Rafferty, Archivist, whose detailed investigations into the history of Black Arts at the Baltimore Museum of Art makes this project feasible, to Morgan Dowty in the Prints, Drawings and Photographs Department who curated the 2018 installation 1939: Black Art at the BMA and so generously shared her thinking and process with us, and to Gamynne Guillotte, Director of Interpretation and Audience Engagement, for inspiring and pushing us to think critically about inclusion in the modern museum.
2. Christopher Bedford, on his hire as Director, “Building an Inclusive Baltimore: A New Lens for Inclusion at the Baltimore Museum of Art,” May 4, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZEHcmfRcsQg