by Susan E. Cahan. Duke University Press, February 2016. 400 p. ill. ISBN 9780822358978 (cl.), $34.95; ISBN 9780822374893 (ebook), $34.95.
Reviewed July 2016
Susan Cahan, associate dean and dean for the arts at Yale College, describes the struggles of African American artists to be included in New York City's elite museums during the 1960s and 1970s. She focuses on five well known exhibitions: Electronic Refractions II at the Studio Museum in Harlem (1968); Harlem on My Mind at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1969); Contemporary Black Artists in America at the Whitney Museum of American Art (1971); and Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual and The Sculpture of Richard Hunt, both held in 1971 at the Museum of Modern Art. Each exhibition has its own chapter except for the last two, which together are the subject of the final chapter. Interviews with artists and internal museum documents are obtained and analyzed to reveal the racial injustices African Americans faced with New York City museum professionals.
The Studio Museum in Harlem offers insight into early racial politics of museums in the 1960s while questioning the meaning of cultural museums and community museums, and the role these museums played in providing exhibition opportunities for African American artists. Harlem on My Mind was criticized because while the exhibition was intended to represent Harlem, it excluded African American artists who lived there. Rather than showing works of African American art, the exhibition included historical documents and reproductions of photographs. Contemporary Black Artists in America showcased African American artists and their work, but the exhibition was neither curated by an African American curator nor a curator experienced with African American art. Many artists withdrew from the exhibition as a result. Additionally, the Museum of Modern Art faced challenges with racial politics when they tried to decipher their relationship with and responsibilities to African American artists and other artists of color.
Cahan exposes the racial inequalities that African American artists faced in New York City in the 1960s and 1970s, but these inequalities are still prevalent in American museums today. As Cahan argues, one-person exhibitions are preferred for artists of color, and artists of color are often in ethnicity or identity-based exhibitions and "other" art histories. With an extensive bibliography and list of notes, Cahan does a thorough job of providing a detailed historical overview and analyses of the struggles African Americans faced with exhibiting their work in New York City museums. Highly recommended for students and faculty studying, and anyone interested in, museum studies, art history, and ethnic studies.