Bridget Cooks on “Exhibiting Blackness” and Art Museums

By September 27, 2017
Bridget Cooks

Art historian Bridget R. Cooks didn’t know how popular her 2011 book Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum (University of Massachusetts Press) had become until recently, when she found out that, among other things, Titus Kaphar had named one of his paintings after it.

An associate professor at the University of California – Irvine, where she teaches in the Department of African American Studies and the Department of Art History, Cooks had early and often exposure to art museums. She grew up near the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, worked as a teen at the then new National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C., and had a summer internship at the Oakland Museum.

This deep experience has given her plenty of insight into how museums work, not just operationally but psychologically — coded language, community outreach or lack thereof.

Cooks was in Atlanta on March 23rd and gave a compelling presentation to the Spelman Museum Curatorial Studies Program. I sat down with her afterwards to find out more.

Stephanie Cash: What was the impetus for writing your book Exhibiting Blackness?

Christian Siriano on view at SCAD FASH in Atlanta through October 9

Bridget R. Cooks: I worked in a museum as a graduate student at the National African American Museum Project, which became the museum that just opened. I was the education intern for the first show we ever did, in 1994. That was so long ago. It took so long for the museum to come to fruition. There’d been fighting since the 1930s to try to get a space on the National Mall.

Participating in museum staff meetings, I heard all kinds of discussions about race and social difference that used different terms as a kind of code, like the public and the community, which are two different groups of people —  the membership, the students, the teachers, the general audience. I was thinking about how these terms were really coded in terms of race and class in particular. I wanted to be able to record that in some way that would be helpful for future scholars.

There were three things I noticed that encouraged me to write the book. One was the wall labels in museums. If you’re Black, the label states that, but if you’re white it doesn’t say anything. For artists with Asian and Latino backgrounds, their last names usually give away their ethnicity, so they’re not really part of the conversation.

Also, I noticed that when there was an exhibition that included the work of Black artists, the other artists in the show were usually also Black, so there wasn’t integration. You couldn’t just have a thematic landscape show, for example, that would include the work of Black artists with work by white artists.

SC: Do you think that’s part of the process of getting to a better place?

BC: Well, it has been the process. I don’t think that segregation had to be the way to get to integration. But that’s the way that it has been historically, mostly because African American artists have been perceived as a kind of social project to the art world, a group that needs help. “We’re going to do a Black show, a kind of social uplift project,” instead of having an integrated art-focused project.

“Harlem on My Mind” appeared at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1969 and included no paintings or sculptures by Black artists.

SC: In your talk, you mentioned how the Metropolitan Museum of Art didn’t want Black artists to help organize the 1969 exhibition “Harlem on my Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900–1968,” namely Romare Bearden, who was offering help.

BC: It’s hard to imagine that, because they were so overqualified to help. Romare Bearden went on to co-author with Harry Henderson A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present, an encyclopedia of African American artists, and at that point had already written an article on the future of Black artists and co-authored with Carl Holty a book about structure and composition. He had also sold out his first solo show in New York. With the Met, museum director Thomas Hoving and exhibitions committee director Allon Schoener had their own ideas of what they wanted Harlem to be, and that was in their mind. For example, in the first iteration of the catalogue — there were four different publications of the same catalogue — Hoving wrote a story about how he remembered having a Black maid and a Black chauffeur. “Bessie the maid.” He knew they were from some other place he’d never been to.

When he wrote his memoirs, Marking the Mummies Dance, he admitted that he had made it all up. He never had a Black maid or chauffeur. But the role that he imagined himself to have in relationship to Black people was a relationship of service, and he knew that would reflect on his own social and economic background. That was really the driving force: we don’t want the exhibition to be accurate, and we’re not really doing this show for you, Black artists and Black people in Harlem. We have our own fantasy of Harlem. They wanted to see images of racial difference that they found comforting. They imagined themselves as magnanimous and benevolent. People in Harlem had a very different idea of who they were, but it wasn’t considered relevant.

SC: Do you think they were white people trying to do good but were just misguided?

BC: That’s possible, but lying about the maid was manipulative and unscrupulous. The Met hired African American advisors to be part of a curating committee that collected documents for the show, but they weren’t from Harlem either. I think the advisors wanted to get the show right, to say to the organizers, you’ve got to do this a different way than what you have in mind, but they didn’t want to lose their jobs by pushing too hard. One member of this committee, Reginald McGhee, went on to write an important book about James Van der Zee, who was a prolific photographer in Harlem who by 1960s had become unknown and was poor. His work was rediscovered through “Harlem on My Mind.” Deborah Willis wrote the book VanDerZee Photographer: 1886–1983 in 1998  that helped to establish his legacy.

SC: You mentioned that there were three points that prompted you to write the book. First was the wall labels, then Blacks not being integrated into shows with white artists.

BC: Third, we had an exhibition at LACMA when I was there in the 1990s, “Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance,” and I trained docents and UCLA students to give tours. So when I’d walk around on the tours I’d hear people say things like “I never knew that there were Black artists,” or “This is so wonderful to have this show, we should have more shows about Black artists, why haven’t they done one before?”

That was an impetus because it encouraged me to figure out how to write down the history so that the book would be informative but also helpful like a reference text.

The cover of Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum by Bridget R. Cooks, published by University of Massachusetts Press  in 2011.

SC: Did you really just realize how influential it has become?

BC: I really had no idea until I was talking to Mora Beauchamp-Byrd, who’s one of the visiting assistant professors at Spelman, and she said they were using it as part of the curriculum for the curatorial studies program.

And then Andrea [Barnwell Brownlee, Spelman Museum of Fine Art director] said that Titus Kaphar had made a painting using the book’s title, so I texted him and he said it’s true. That’s the thing, often you don’t know how the book is making an impact unless someone tells you. It’s an academic book from a university press, so it’s not going to sell millions of copies. With academic presses, if you’re lucky, the first run is 1,000. I did sell the first 1,000 within the first year, which is good for an academic book, but it’s not a bestseller. It’s not easy to find. You have to be looking for it.

SC: Tell me about the image on the cover.

BC: I love music and I thought of this as my album cover. I wanted to make something unique, and I didn’t think there was any one work of art that would be representative of the whole thing. So I contacted some people at LACMA who wanted to help and I was able to construct this photo in the American galleries. There are four of us: my parents are sitting on a bench, my father is looking at Homer’s Cotton Pickers from 1876, so after slavery but the two women who are picking cotton were probably sharecroppers. My mother is looking at Mary Cassatt’s 1880 painting Mother About to Wash Her Sleepy Child.

SC: Why Cassatt?

BC: I think it’s a very idealized look at motherhood. You don’t see Black women in idealized pictures of motherhood. Here’s the image [Homer] that’s available of blackness, and here’s the image [Cassatt] that’s available of whiteness, the happy mother with her healthy child. Both paintings are amazing, but if you think of being the African American visitor who looks at this and thinks, here’s my place, how much variety and diversity can we have?

The guard is Abraham Agonafir, who immigrated to this country very well educated but wasn’t able to work in his field — he was trained as an engineer and architect —  because of different national standards and licensing, so he had to start all over. He’s also a painter. He wanted to work in the U.S., but also be around art and in a place that appealed to his taste. He stands on his feet for hours and hours every day telling people where the bathrooms are. He’s been doing it for over 25 years. He’s one of the most elegant soft-spoken intellectual men that I’ve ever met. The guards look at the paintings much more than the artists ever did. They spend so much time looking at work but no one asks them what they think, but they think something because they look at these works day after day. He agreed to be in the picture.

Mary Cassatt, Mother about to Wash her Sleep Child, 1880. Collection Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

SC: You also had a lot to say about the “Black Male” exhibition curated by Thelma Golden when she was a curator at the Whitney.

BC: Many of the artists in the show weren’t Black, but the curator was. One of the points I wanted to make with that chapter is that having a Black curator organizing a show that has a Black theme doesn’t mean that everyone’s going to be happy. That’s not the quick solution. There’s a lot of diversity of thought among African American people. The exhibition showed a lot of diversity but there were some artworks that people found really insensitive. Then there was a controversy about the Rodney King video being part of the film program.

So, just because Thelma is Black didn’t mean she automatically got everything right. That was a really complicated show. My hope is that after reading that chapter we can think about the conversations that really need to happen instead of saying “we’re going to hire Thelma and let her do anything she wants, and we don’t have to be responsible as the white administration.” Everyone needs to be a part of this conversation.

SC: What are some of the conversations that need to be had?

BC: There should be conversations between local artists and museums. There are many art worlds and I think that mainstream museums often don’t admit that. They use words like “quality” to try to make distinction between the kind of art they deem worth buying for a permanent collection and work that’s not. If museums get public funding, they do have a responsibility to listen and engage their local communities. Museums need to think about their collection  —  what will we buy and when and how will we show it?

SC: Right, and while a lot of work stays in storage, someone makes the decisions about what to show. There’s also been some criticism about how the African art galleries in museums are often on the lower level. Can you speak to that?

BC: Placement is something to consider, even if it’s for practical reasons. If works are really heavy, we have to have them on the lowest exhibition floor. The National Gallery of Art had “Art of the Ancient Olmecs,” and those heads weighed four tons and had to be placed on a floor that could support them. That wasn’t a decision about the culture not being seen as relevant.

There are some more obvious ways that placement is questionable. Like at MOMA, there have been works by African American artists that are underneath the staircase on the way to the bathroom. Why did someone put them there? Museums shouldn’t be defensive about it but more thoughtful and anticipatory about what that may say.

SC: There have been a number of incidents in the news lately that have raised questions about who owns which culture and who can tell which stories — the Dana Schutz Open Casket controversy and Kelley Walker’s show at the Contemporary Arts Museum in St. Louis.

BC: I’m not compelled to request censorship. I’m fascinated by the fact that the artist is not taking the work down. If I do anything that legitimately offends someone, I’m going to apologize and rethink what I did. That’s just how I was raised. I try to be as thoughtful as possible so that I never get into that kind of situation.

I think that the concerns in Hannah Black’s letter make sense and I’m proud of the artist and the community who have been creative in responding to the work in legitimate ways, like by blocking people’s view. It’s not shooting, it’s not killing. It’s a much more thoughtful, provocative, serious, and meditative way to try to get people to think about what they’re doing. So it is surprising to me that the artist doesn’t say “I totally fucked up. I wasn’t thinking about it in this way, but you are, so I’m taking it out.”

SC: Do you think that only Black people should be able to depict something like that? If a Black person had done that, how would it read differently?

BC: I think it depends. I think the issue for the protestors is about Black pain. It’s about trying to articulate Black pain for profit. It does help her reputation as an artist, certainly not with some people, but the publicity boosts her career. As an African American person, I find it totally bizarre that someone would do this and say, oh, I never considered what it would be like to be Black and look at my work.

SC: Do you know the work of Jeanine Michna-Bales? She recently had a show at Arnika Dawkins about the Underground Railroad. The work is strong, but she’s white, and at the opening the question came up of whether she was the right person to be telling this story.

Rafael Soldi: A body in transit is now on view at the Frost Museum, Miami through December 4

BC: I don’t think that you have to be Black to make supportive commentary on the need for Black freedom. I’d like to hear more people who aren’t Black articulate the need for Black freedom. It is important for artists to be able to articulate why they’re doing this work. That was one of the problems with Kelley Walker  in St. Louis. He had nothing to say at the artist talk and was even dismissive.  

We all know of people like Grace Lee Boggs, the Chinese American social activist and advocate for issues affecting Blacks. No one is going to say, she can’t do this, she’s Chinese American. We don’t have enough models for that. I’m hoping that in these conversations among museums, artists, and the public they’ll be able to really articulate what’s at stake and even use therapy language, like, “when you put your painting up, it makes me feel like this…”  Let’s just try to find some language to get it out there. It’s like when a news anchor says something racist on network news and then gets fired. Okay, what happened there? Does he know why he got fired? What about his thinking? Where did that come from? Can we do something productive with this?

SC: A recent example here in Atlanta was the “Art AIDS America” exhibition at the Zuckerman, which started in Tacoma. The organizers in Tacoma received a lot of flak for not including enough Black artists. So when it came here, the Zuckerman curators were proactive and added works to address those shortcomings. They added the video by Marlon Riggs, for example, a seminal work from that period that had been left out.

BC: That should be allowed. That’s a way of showing a commitment, a way of saying, hey, we want to do this better. Educate us.

I used to write about the “Without Sanctuary” show of lynching photos. I felt like it was my job but I had to stop because I was having nightmares. So I started writing about Norman Rockwell. My next book is about his civil rights paintings. The book is tentatively called A Dream Deferred: Art and the Civil Rights Movement and the Limits of Liberalism. I’m looking at how ideas of civil rights and Black equality entered into popular visual culture in the ’50s and ’60s. When Rockwell left the Saturday Evening Post he went to work for LOOK magazine on commission because he wanted to address some of the social ills of America. He did four very interesting and moving paintings. LOOK published three and rejected the last one.

Norman Rockwell’s The Problem We All Live With, 1964, was originally published in LOOK magazine in 1964. It depicts Ruby Bridges, a six-year-old African American girl, on her way to an all-white public school, on November 14, 1960, during the New Orleans school desegregation crisis.

My first book was about things that were in museums; the second book is things that were never in museums. So I’ll have two chapters about images that were put on jazz album covers, from Abstract Expressionist paintings to portraits of Black men. To think about how these beautiful portraits — of John Coltrane, Miles Davis — looking at them as very attractive intellectuals existed at the same time that we have images of Blacks being attacked by dogs and water hoses. I’m arguing that these are two different kinds of photography. They’re using different approaches to civil rights.

Then I’ll look at Chris McNair’s photographs. He’s based in Birmingham and in his 80s now and suffering from dementia. He was later known as a politician and went to jail for taking bribes, and Obama pardoned him because of his medical condition. Most people now don’t know him as a photographer. I’m looking at where his photos were published.

I wrote an article based on the Rockwell chapter in Cultural Critique about The Problem We All Live With, which is the painting with the little girl walking in front of the wall with two Federal Marshals on either side. The marshals don’t have heads. There’s no way a Black artist in 1964 could publish an image of four beheaded white men and a little Black girl. Rockwell got death threats for painting that.

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