On the heels of the launch of New Acquisitions: Featuring Works by African American Artists, The Gibbes Museum of Art is hosting a massive traveling exhibition, Black Refractions: Highlights from the Studio Museum in Harlem, which opens on May 24. Both shows highlight the works of artists of African descent, but for executive director and chief curator Angela Mack, they represent different arcs of the museum’s evolution. “The Gibbes has had a very long tradition of inclusivity in terms of special exhibitions,” says Mack, standing among works acquired by the Gibbes for its permanent collection over the last 10 years, including pieces from Stacy Lynn Waddell, David Driskell, and Kara Walker.
She recalls that one of the first exhibitions she worked on when she started at the Gibbes in the 1980s was a groundbreaking survey of African-American sculpture. And in 2008, she notes, the Gibbes put on Landscape of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art, “A show that was really about presenting landscape art in the South in the larger context of American landscape painting.”
However, as laid bare by the 2009 exhibition Prop Master: An Installation by Juan Logan and Susan Harbage Page, ensuring the same inclusivity was reflected in its acquisition habits has been a more recent and longer term project for the Gibbes. As a part of the exhibition, Logan and Page organized a colony of 10,000 black and white boxes chronologically in Prop Allocations or Accents for Gracious Living to visually illustrate the disparity of artists of color found in the Gibbes’ permanent collection (40 at the time) since its founding in the early 1900s.
“We recognize our age, the fact that the institution was segregated, the fact that at one time you had to be invited, just like a private club, to be a member of the Gibbes,” Mack says. It is precisely why the Gibbes invited Logan and Page to stage Prop Master even though, she admits, “It was risky on our part.” In that exhibit, director of curatorial affairs Sara Arnold notes, “the black boxes don’t start showing up until the 1960s,” with the exception, enigmatically, of one veiled box. It was chosen by the artists to represent an earlier painting (1943) done by a previously unidentified African-American artist named Claude Clark.
The piece came into the Gibbes’ possession along with a group of works that were commissioned by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). In addition to infrastructure programs developed by President Franklin Roosevelt to create jobs during the Great Depression, the WPA also commissioned works by a slew of talented artists. “I think it has lived with us as a staff as this learning tool to expand on and keep in mind,” says Arnold of Prop Master‘s lasting impact on the museum. The pieces showcased in New Acquisitions: Featuring Works by African American Artists were all acquired after Prop Master as a part of the Gibbes’ commitment to making sure their collection was more reflective of the diversity of the Charleston community.
“Exhibitions are all about providing people with an opportunity to see something that they wouldn’t see otherwise … in that sense, it is a continuation of something that we have been doing for a very long time,” Mack says.
An initiative created to share The Studio Museum in Harlem’s vast collection with audiences across the country while its 125th Street galleries are closed in New York City (their new building is currently under construction), Black Refractions represents a coup for the Gibbes; it’s only the second art institution after the Museum of African Diaspora (MoAD) in San Francisco to host the show. After leaving Charleston, the landmark exhibition will travel to the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts (Mich.), Smith College Museum of Art (Mass.), Frye Art Museum (Wash.), and Utah Museum of Fine Arts.
“We were contacted by the American Federation of the Arts (AFA),” says Mack. AFA collaborated with Studio Museum to bring the show to a broader audience. AFA is a a nonprofit that organizes touring exhibitions of all types, often partnering with major institutions. Mack says that these exhibitions can be too expensive for the Gibbes, but thanks in part to grant support from the Art Bridges Foundation, the Gibbes will showcase 72 works by 60 artists from the collection. This includes art world luminaries Carrie Mae Weems, Glenn Ligon, Jacob Lawrence, and Sam Gilliam who, in his 80s, has recently experienced a resurgence of interest in his color-field installations, with new work featured at Art Basel in Switzerland. Including Gilliam, more than a dozen of the artists in the exhibition have lasting connections to the American South.
In addition, the injection of funds has allowed the Gibbes to design a robust suite of educational programming and events around the exhibition. These include a conversation with Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem; an abbreviated version of their junior docent program, which will offer 7th, 8th and 9th graders the opportunity to talk to the public about a work of art of their choosing at the exhibit; and a program that will give local creatives like Marcus Amaker the opportunity to react to the work in real time, among others.
“We’re trying to take this opportunity to make long-lasting, strong connections with various aspects of the community that will live on,” says Mack. One of the more unlikely partnerships is with CARTA. Advertisements for the exhibition will be seen on the sides of buses around town, and, in turn, the Gibbes will help CARTA beautify the hulking transformer boxes that dot the corners of various intersections. Another feature of their inspired marketing campaign for the exhibition will see images from the show printed on church fans and distributed in houses of faith throughout the community.
You can learn more about the full breadth of programming and event dates for Black Refractions: Highlights from the Studio Museum in Harlem by visiting gibbesmuseum.org/exhibitions. Black Refractions will be on view from May 24-August 18.