Theory, Politics and Performance
The entrance to El Museo del Barrio in New York City
This week I visited the newly renovated El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem to accompany readings on Theory, Politics and Performance in Paul F. Fabozzi’s Artists, Critics and Context. Visiting El Museo provided an opportunity to reflect on how the issues that Henri Ghent examined in his essay, "Black Creativity in Quest of an Audience," continue to affect the art world.
Ghent wrote his essay in 1970 to express his frustration that racism persisted in the art establishment despite the African American Civil Rights movement’s recent social and political gains. He calls upon members of the mainstream art establishment to end their exclusionary practices by increasing their knowledge and understanding of contemporary African American art, exhibiting African American artists, and challenging the appearances of condescending attitudes. In particular, Ghent urges tastemakers to get to know more African American artists through studio visits instead of presenting and celebrating inferior work out of the assumption that "Black artists are [inherently] creatively bankrupt" (Ghent 344).
The persistence of such blatant racism in the arts is even more dispiriting when you consider how human rights movements, like the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, create the conditions for creativity to flourish. When members of marginalized groups want to empower themselves, it often results in individuals developing much healthier views of themselves and increased confidence that they can impact positive change in the world. When people value their experiences and increase their level of critical thinking, they will naturally seek avenues for self-expression.
Kehinde Wiley exhibit at The Studio Museum in Harlem
Ghent’s advice from 40 years ago on how to rectify this situation remains applicable because racism is still a major problem in American society. He encouraged artists of color to dedicate themselves to cultivating art of the highest quality and a strong spirit that would carry them through the rough periods of their careers. He also urged artists to not give up and exile themselves from the mainstream art world or alienate potential supporters in the ways the Black Nationalist Art Movement did, which included not developing the artistic skills to enable them to express their ideas well and “perpetuating an ideology as venomous as the one that has victimized them" (344). He also encouraged African American communities to provide innovative black artists with patronage. He mentions the recent founding of The Studio Museum in Harlem and Dance Theater of Harlem as examples of this.
Despite these organizations' success in developing audiences for Black creativity, they lacked the clout of more established and mainstream arts institutions. Fortunately, since the appearance of Ghent’s essay, the stature of these community arts organizations has increased. This has certainly been the experience of El Museo del Barrio, which began in an East Harlem classroom as a small, alternative neighborhood museum and evolved into a member of the elite group of cultural institutions located on Fifth Avenue's prestigious Museum Mile.
El Museo del Barrio
Their recent $35 million renovation raises a new set of questions on how to best support artists of color and develop audiences for their work. El Museo del Barrio at this stage is grasping with the challenge of staying true to their community roots while pursuing greater influence in the mainstream art world. While some distrust the motives of Julian Zugazagoitia, the current Executive Director, Rafael Montañez Ortiz, the museum’s founder, has asserted that "it doesn't make sense to remain forever underclass. Culture has the right to move out of the barrio too. For Puerto Rican culture to be integrated into Latino culture and then into the larger world culture was always my vision" (Sontag). As the museum grapples with fulfilling Ortiz’s vision, it will be important to follow their attempts to manage the new opportunities and responsibilities that are now available at this stage in their development.
Ghent, Henri. “Black Creativity in Quest of an Audience.” Artists, Critics, Context: Readings in and Around American Art since 1945. Ed. Paul F. Fabozzi. Alexandria, VA: Prentice Hall, 2001. Print.
Sontag, Deborah. "El Museo del Barrio Grows Up, Watching Its Roots." The New York Times. The New York Times, 9 Oct. 2009. Web. 10 Nov. 2009. <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/11/arts/design/11sont.html>.