Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Rebecca Zorach reviews Mounting Frustration

Susan E. CahanMounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2016. 360 pp.

Review by Rebecca Zorach

In the late 1960s, New York City’s white art museum administrators were coming to the realization that they needed to acknowledge and “reach out” to communities of color. Susan Cahan’s Mounting Frustration tells the story of these efforts and the confrontations that generated and surrounded them through a series of case studies of key exhibitions at major museums. Whether well-meaning or not, whites’ efforts at cultural outreach were bedeviled by the facile association of African Americans with consumption of art (as newfound audiences) but not production of it. Indeed, among the many contributions of this book are the appalling statements Cahan has unearthed in internal museum documents. The museums’ implicit (and sometimes explicit) definition of “quality”—indeed, of “art”—excluded African American artists and their work. Rejecting the possibility that racism structured their ability to see, know, judge, and even do research, museum administrators attached themselves to the idea that if work was good, they would already know about it. It is in this way that the Whitney Museum of American Art could, in 1968, present an exhibition of American art of the 1930s that displayed one hundred works by eighty artists without including a single African American artist.

In a preliminary chapter on Electronic Refractions II, the 1968 opening exhibition of the Studio Museum in Harlem, Cahan identifies conflicts over race, culture, representation, and aesthetics that carry through to the other three, longer chapters, which address the Metropolitan Museum’s highly controversial 1969 Harlem on my Mind exhibition, the Whitney’s Contemporary Black Artists in America of 1971, and MoMA’s pair of one-man exhibitions devoted to the work of Romare Bearden and Richard Hunt in 1971. The story of the Met’s highly controversial 1969 Harlem on my Mind exhibition has been told many times (full disclosure: curator Allon Schoener and I are cousins twice removed); Cahan illuminates this story by setting it in the context of institutional and civic politics, specifically the Metropolitan Museum’s proposed expansion further into Central Park, an effort that called for an intensification of community outreach. The Whitney’s exhibition came at a time of growing pains as it sealed its transformation from private club to public institution seeking to define the Americanness of American art; its staff and board stumbled in negotiations with Black artists by rejecting the idea of bringing a Black curator in who might be uniquely knowledgeable about and sensitive to Black artists’ work. In the case of MoMA, Cahan traces a longer history of the institution that addresses its investments in a modernist narrative dependent on primitivism and implicitly excluding African American artists, and shows how the museum turned away from what could have been a promising opening with the Bearden and Hunt shows and other efforts of the early 1970s.

These issues were not unique to New York, nor was the New York story entirely representative. As a group, Black artists there were closer to the formalist positions of the white art world and farther from the centers of Black radical politics than their counterparts in Chicago or California. Cahan notes that the mainstream Civil Rights movement had already peaked before museums began to react to its impact. But the arguments made by a new, militant, and vigorous Black Power movement are actually the crux of the issue: as museums thought they could magnanimously welcome Black audiences, politicized artists were seeking Black agency. A fuller scholarly treatment of the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition as an organization in its own right and the robust contemporary critique by Black intellectuals of western cultural hegemony and modernist primitivism might have provided a firmer bridge between Cahan’s case studies and her brief discussion of Black Power as a political movement. The fact that museums became a target in the late 1960s was not only a function of those institutions’ slow reaction time (though it was also that) but also of their inability to comprehend the language of Black Power, which sought not only to integrate Black audiences into spaces whose terms were set by whites, but to alter, radically, the way those terms were set.

One book cannot do it all, and I do not mean to detract from the very real service Mounting Frustration does. Helping to make sense of these halting experiences and their institutional contexts, it contributes welcome new material to our understanding and critical study of twentieth-century museum history and to the contexts within which artists, particularly Black artists, operated. With or without good intentions, institutions fought mightily against change, accepted it grudgingly, executed it badly, and/or abandoned it quickly. In so doing, if only unintentionally, they spurred successive generations of artists to politically astute, critically informed, and inventive work.