Susan Cahan’s Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power

Susan Cahan’s Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power presents a straightforward argument: US Museums (specifically in her book, NYC museums) were and remain segregated. Museums have been “resistant to racial integration” and hostile to the Black power and civil rights movements. Cahan argues that the resistance against social movements in the museum space was active, as the museum boards were and are made of the very politicians that sat and sit in on policy changes regarding race, oversaw the passing of desegregation laws, and witness(ed) the impact of these new policies. She traces their pathways:

“Nelson Rockefeller, for example, the governor of the State of New York, a presidential hopeful, and vice president of the United States under Gerald Ford, was a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art from 1932 to 1979 and a longtime board member at the Metropolitan Museum. C. Douglas Dillon, the secretary of the treasury in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, was a Metropolitan trustee for more than fifty years, its president in the early 1970s, and a chairman of the Museum of Modern Art’s International Council. Privileged families and individuals moved seamlessly from one power center to another, keenly aware not only of the high stakes involved in the civil rights struggle, but also that the effort to integrate the art world was part of a much larger movement to address racial inequality and social injustice. Armed with this knowledge, one key strategy for insulating their institutions from the conflicts that attended civil rights debates and actions was to deny that the art world was part of the larger sociopolitical system.”

Key museum figures were aware—if not in charge of—pivotal legal legislations and social changes underway in the United States. However, the art museum became a realm of exception from social and political change (there’s a larger theoretical argument to be had about why and how the field of aesthetics remains so reticent toward discussions of race and desegregation—and why it practices what Harryette Mullen describes to be “aesthetic apartheid”). Arts museums for various gatekeepers, politicians, and corporate managers, became a space in which the race policies they reluctantly oversaw and witnessed remained intact from infiltration. The museum space became the vehicle in which an unmirrored, unpopular they could be reflected (Anna Chave makes a similar argument in “Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power” regarding the role of corporations, museums and minimalism).  

I’m assuming that the demographic that reads this blog might regard Cahan’s thesis to be a fundamental truth regarding museums (this is often the experience). Many of us know too well: Cahan’s thesis carries over to the present day. Contemporary exhibitions’ and biennales’ behaviors regarding race remain unchanged. While lots of other people, especially white male painters, might dismiss this as a conspiracy, hyperbole enacted to divide the love of art! Kidding not kidding.

Preemptively understanding how and the kind of evidence that might be required, Cahan supports the argument regarding racial resistance/hostility through an extensive examination of museum acquisition and exhibition records. When were Jacob Lawrence’s Migration of the Negro paintings acquired by MoMa: for how long did they sit in storage, when did they travel, when were they shown? Cahan writes,

“…Jacob Lawrence’s Migration of the Negro painting series (1940–41), owned by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City and the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. The museums acquired the series in 1942 and sent it on a national tour for two years. Records indicate that the work was shown in its entirety at MoMA in 1944 and again in 1971.  Since then, this masterful, iconic series has been unified and shown in its New York City home only twice: in 1995 during the “multicultural” moment in which museums demonstrated a resurgence of interest in showing works by artists of color; and in 2015, a year when the United States was gripped by repeated incidents of police violence against African American men.  As curator Thelma Golden has observed, “The fact is that there have been waves. Everybody puts their big black shows on the books, they get their corporate funding, it goes all around the country, it’s a big extravaganza, and then it’s over.”

The work being shown in 1944, 1971, and 1995 and 2015 seems like Jeopardy game answers. Trivial facts one could memorize, as a speciality, because it’s a rarity. Four times in 74 years of acquisition: isn’t there a art culture storage rule that would immediately deem this kind of exposure “not enough” recklessly not cared for: shouldn’t these dates prompt an inquiry for new ownership? In addition, much could and should be said about MoMa exhibiting Lawrence in 2015, as some kind of contemporary commentary regarding police brutality and Black Lives Matters. If museums believe that visuality, visual language, and artistic movements impact and are impacted by the social world at large, what does the thirty-year absences denote? What do the gaps denote? One way to think about the absences and gaps is via membership. Cahan states that regarding museums, “[f]or artists of color there has not yet been such a thing as life membership.”   

I found the methodology of looking to the archive to situate racial histories and the racial present to be beautiful, devastating; a methodology to teach, practice, and emulate.

In her introduction Cahan foregrounds the various ways in which museums found ways to avoid accusations of racism by invoking what she describes as the “quality debate.” The “quality debate” is exactly what it sounds like, it attempts to explain why certain (almost always Black, Brown) artists cannot be part of the exhibition, cannot be acquired, yet. Their quality is just, “ya know, not there.” Said by one person or persons rather than the institution, so that the institutions are spared from criticisms regarding its racial record. So one person at a time is said to have said: She’s no xyz, or abc, or 123. She’s whatever euphemism to denote a lack of “quality.” That argument! Raise your hand if you’ve heard this before.

In addition to the “quality debate,” Cahan lays out the various ways in which museums managed the racial Other. She outlines how the strategies have been changed. At times it would be via an exhibit that displayed some work by Black artists, segregated yet indebted to a said white movement or artists. Regarding, Contemporary Black Artists in America, a 1971 Whitney Museum of American Art exhibition, she writes, “The show embodied a core contradiction: the artists were shown separately from their white peers, but their work was assimilated into a then dominant art historical narrative.” Museum “inclusion” and its painful management.  

In her conclusion, Cahan details how major museums set up community/diversity departments, internships and grant programs. The development of these programs was a strategy in mitigating the criticism faced by the museum’s previous attempts at putting together segregated shows and/or minimizing the work of Black artists in its main exhibitions. Cahan notes how these approaches had promises and problems:

  1. Head departments of major museums no longer felt as though they needed to do the work of abolishing structural segregation and racism in the museum world, as the work would fall onto the shoulders of one or two people of color in the “community outreach” or “diversity” departments, departments often at the bottom of the museum hierarchy with little to no ability to affect structural changes. Similar attempts have been made by Universities.
  2. However, the “Quality Debate” managers and the like were no longer directly involved in the community/diversity departments and programs. In the case of grant programs, it meant that there was an opportunity for artists and communities of color to impact and prompt the kinds of programming they wanted to see.
  3. Though ultimately, without both internal and external structural overhauls to museums and extensive and sustainable funding for community art centers, the art world will continue to remain segregated.  

Mounting Frustration is full of magnificent personal interviews with Black artists and cultural producers, and can be read as a text of braided genealogies. Take, for example, this interview with Linda Goode Bryant,

“Among those who participated in the program at the Met were Linda Goode Bryant, who went on to work as an educator at the Studio Museum in Harlem, then started the Just Above Midtown gallery, the first major New York City gallery to focus on artists of color. At her interview for the Rockefeller Fellowship, Goode Bryant had worn army fatigues and shouted that the Met was “a racist institution” and that she wanted to “burn the motherfucker down!” Still, even more than burning down the Metropolitan Museum, she wanted to “figure out how to be subversive in this environment.…[Bryant] opened Just Above Midtown on November 18, 1974, at 51 West Fifty-Seventh Street, the heart of the blue-chip art market, showing the work of a broad range of artists, including Senga Nengudi, Houston Conwill, Maren Hassinger, and David Hammons (including Hammons’s first show in New York City). Goode Bryant believed that “something has more value, if it is in the place of the oppressor.”

David Hammons’ first show! There’s so much history here. Cahan interweaves important archival research with personal interviews in a book that situates the structural segregation of US Museums, and Black artists, writers, curators, and educators that have worked and are working to implode the systems in place.

What’s additionally helpful and exciting about Cahan’s book is that it thoroughly accounts for active antagonisms in the museum space, and also the ways in which artists slammed back. Cahan’s book catalogs the structural and systematic racism in art museums, via acquisition and exhibition records, the structural and systematic tools utilized to maintain a segregated art space, and personal interviews with practitioners that pushed back—and how museums responded and consumed critiques of structural racism. Cahan’s work will be a useful map to practitioners and students thinking about contemporary aesthetic segregation, and how to continue to rupture the divisions in place. It’s a field guide in many ways, of what has been said and done, what was momentarily successful and surprising—so that those dedicated and those newly interested might imagine new ways to attack, transform.