at 6 pm
for a reading and discussion with author
Susan Cahan, Dean of Tyler School of Art
in conversation with Meg Onli, Assistant Curator, ICA
Cahan focuses on high-profile and wildly contested exhibitions that attempted to integrate African American culture and art into museums, each of which ignited debate, dissension, and protest. The Metropolitan Museum's 1969 exhibition Harlem on My Mind was supposed to represent the neighborhood, but it failed to include the work of the black artists living and working there. While the Whitney's 1971 exhibition Contemporary Black Artists in America featured black artists, it was heavily criticized for being haphazard and not representative. The Whitney show revealed the consequences of museums' failure to hire African American curators, or even white curators who possessed knowledge of black art. Cahan also recounts the long history of the Museum of Modern Art's institutional ambivalence toward contemporary artists of color, which reached its zenith in its 1984 exhibition "Primitivism" in Twentieth Century Art. Representing modern art as a white European and American creation that was influenced by the "primitive" art of people of color, the show only served to further devalue and cordon off African American art.
In addressing the racial politics of New York's art world, Cahan shows how aesthetic ideas reflected the underlying structural racism and inequalities that African American artists faced. These inequalities are still felt in America's museums, as many fundamental racial hierarchies remain intact: art by people of color is still often shown in marginal spaces; one-person exhibitions are the preferred method of showing the work of minority artists, as they provide curators a way to avoid engaging with the problems of complicated, interlocking histories; and whiteness is still often viewed as the norm. The ongoing process of integrating museums, Cahan demonstrates, is far broader than overcoming past exclusions.
Meg Onli is a curator and writer whose work attends to the intricacies of race and the production of space. Prior to joining Institute of Contemporary Art she was the Program Coordinator at the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts. While at the Graham Foundation she worked on the exhibitions Architecture of Independence: African Modernism and Barbara Kasten: Stages. In 2010 she created the website Black Visual Archive for which she was awarded a 2012 Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant. In 2014 she was the recipient of a research grant from the Graham Foundation for the collaborative project Remaking the Black Metropolis: Contemporary Art, Urbanity, and Blackness in America with curator Jamilee Polson Lacy. Onli holds a Master’s degree in art history from the Courtauld Institute of Art. Her writing has appeared in Art21, Daily Serving, and Art Papers.