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Who Will Preserve and Curate Black America?

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Archival photograph: groundbreaking for the Studio Museum’s renovation at 144 West 125th St., c.1981.
Archival photograph: groundbreaking for the Studio Museum’s renovation at 144 West 125th St., c.1981.Courtesy Studio Museum

For centuries, African Americans have used the creative arts to redefine cultural narratives and to share unique aspects of the collective African-American experience with the world.

Social and political progress during the 20th century forced America’s most prominent cultural institutions to recognize African-American culture as a discipline worthy of scholarship and to capture this work for exhibition within public forums. Yet significant details and nuances remain absent when presented within dominant American historical and cultural narratives.

Leaders of the country’s foremost cultural institutions gathered to examine this issue and the role of 21st century institutions in preserving and presenting the Black American experience during “Curating Black America”, the 2015 Marion Thompson Wright Lecture (MTW) at Rutgers University.

So much of America’s stated ideals were made visible, were made real and were made whole by the African-American experience... We must use this opportunity to take African-American culture and use it as a lens for all to understand what it means to be an American.

Hosted in memory of Dr. Clement A. Price, founder of the MTW and leader of the Rutgers Institute on Ethnicity, Culture and the Modern Experience, the day included keynote lectures by Dr. Lonnie Bunch, Founding Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, DC and Thelma Golden, Director and Chief Curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem.

“As a historian, your job is to help people remember not just what they want to remember, but what they need to remember,” Bunch said as he discussed his work and conceptualizing the NMAAHC vision and mission. “The African-American story is not ancillary, but it is the quintessential American story.”

Bunch said the idea of a national African-American museum began in 1919 following the noticeable omission of black soldiers in photographs that commemorated the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. Descendants of Black Union soldiers decided they would work to create a place where African Americans would be remembered for their role in America’s most significant historical milestones.

Although federal legislation appropriating funds to a national African-American museum wouldn't pass until 2003, decades of scholarship during the 1900s led to a reputable body of work on which the foundation of the NMAAHC would be set.

“[NMAAHC] must help Americans realize that so much of America’s stated ideals were made visible, were made real and were made whole by the African-American experience,” he said. “We must use this opportunity to take African-American culture and use it as a lens for all to understand what it means to be an American.”

To date, 35,000 artifacts that help document the African-American experience have been donated to the NMAAHC and will be on display at the museum when it opens on the National Mall in spring 2016.

Thelma Golden, who began her career in 1985 as an intern at the Studio Museum in Harlem, and returned in 2000 as Chief Curator after a stint at the Whitney, discussed the power of art to create a space where conversations that shift cultural dialogues can take place.

“I thought about considering what it would mean to curate from this very specific intellectual place, a place from which many of these artists were operating where there wasn't a deep understanding of a way to characterize Black art,” Golden said.

Archival photograph: groundbreaking for the Studio Museum’s renovation at 144 West 125th St., c.1981.
Archival photograph: groundbreaking for the Studio Museum’s renovation at 144 West 125th St., c.1981.Courtesy Studio Museum

Golden celebrated the early work of the Studio Museum during the 1970s and 1980s as “rewriting art history” to include Black artists, and in forcing the global art world to recognize that it could not understand itself without acknowledging the contributions of Black artists.

“And I thought, could the [Studio] museum be the place that would take on the multiple ways in which Black artists could make work and be understood? Could we open up the debates as opposed to shut them down? Could we take perhaps a different position than museums often do and sit behind authority and allow for perhaps a little contradiction to be within the space?”

“I began to think about what the dialogues are between [Black] artists right now and what conversations we could have that make us think about their processes and what they are doing in different ways,” she said. “I want [the artists] to think about themselves as part of the Black arts movement, but to also understand that they are charting a new one.”

Golden also discussed the need to ensure diverse voices are heard in the curatorial world.

“When we talk about curating Black America, we also have to be talking very deeply about who is curating Black America,” she said.“ The more diverse voices at the curatorial table, the more possibilities we have for engaged radical, innovative and inspiring work.”

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