Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power

Join us Friday, February 16
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


Prior to 1967 fewer than a dozen museum exhibitions had featured the work of African American artists. And by the time the civil rights movement reached the American art museum, it had already crested: the first public demonstrations to integrate museums occurred in late 1968, twenty years after the desegregation of the military and fourteen years after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision. In Mounting Frustration Susan E. Cahan investigates the strategies African American artists and museum professionals employed as they wrangled over access to and the direction of New York City's elite museums. Drawing on numerous interviews with artists and analyses of internal museum documents, Cahan gives a detailed and at times surprising picture of the institutional and social forces that both drove and inhibited racial justice in New York's museums.

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.

Susan Cahan
Susan E. Cahan is Dean, Tyler School of Art at Temple University, the editor of I Remember Heaven: Jim Hodges and Andy Warhol, and the coeditor of Contemporary Art and Multicultural Education. She received a B.A. in Art History and English from Tufts University in 1982 and a Ph.D. in Art History from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2003. She was Associate Dean for the Arts in Yale College from 2009 to 2017, prior to which she taught at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, the University of California at Los Angeles, and the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where she was also Associate Dean in the College of Fine Arts and Communication. She has had over twenty years of experience as a curator and museum professional. From 1996 to 2001 Cahan was the senior curator for the private collection of Eileen and Peter Norton and director of arts programs for the Peter Norton Family Foundation. From 1987 to 1996 she served as Curator of Education and Deputy Director at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. From 1982 to 1987 she served at The Museum of Modern Art as New York City high school programs coordinator. Her publications include “Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power” (Duke University Press, 2016); “The Wonder Years” in the exhibition catalogue Tim Rollins and K.O.S.: A History (2009); “Performing Identity and Persuading a Public: The Harlem On My Mind Controversy” in the journal Social Identities (2007); I Remember Heaven: Jim Hodges and Andy Warhol (Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, 2007); "Regarding Andrea Fraser’s Untitled” in Social Semiotics (2006); and Contemporary Art and Multicultural Education (Routledge, 1996). . She has directed programs at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Peter Norton Family Foundation.

Meg Onli

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 Art21Daily Serving, and Art Papers.

Event date: 

Friday, February 16, 2018 - 6:00pm to 7:30pm

Event address: 

130 S. 34th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6304
Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power (Art History Publication Initiative) Cover Image
ISBN: 9780822371458
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Duke University Press - February 2nd, 2018