Black Perspectives; The Museum of the Nation Center for Afro-American Artists
Good evening welcome to black perspectives the half hour feature focusing on black information issues and lifestyles in the communities of Boston in the south shore. Tonight my guest is Barry Gaither who is the director of the Museum of the National Center for Afro-American August. Thank you very much Barry for joining us tonight. Delighted to be here. The national center has been written up in a lot of very important publications in local newspapers in what have you. And they all speak to the important work that you are doing in the major contribution that the museum has to make to black culture in Boston and throughout the country. Tell us a little bit about the museum and what your direction you know you're planning on taking. Well right I probably should start by making a little bit of context before talking about the museum specifically. I came to Boston myself in the fall of 1969 which is a small eternity ago and I started the work on the museum in the context of the concept of the National Center for American artist which had been
shaped by Elma Lewis who is the founder and director Elma Lewis who is recipient of the MacArthur. Prize. Saw greater than 20 honorary doctorates and who has made an extraordinary place for herself as a spokes person and advocate for the heritage of black people and the world context been born here in Boston and in 150 had started the Elementary School of Fine Arts the Elementary School of Fine Arts continued from 1950 up to present but in the latter 60s the opportunity presented itself to acquire a set of properties just across from Franklin Park in the Roxbury section of the city and at that time these properties also gave the opportunity of expanding both the school and of creating a professional dimension to it. Miss Lewis had been
particularly interested in dance but the school in general had been concerned with performing arts and also with a character building for young people who were students there and already by the late 60s some students of Miss Lewis's had done well and were making their careers in New York particularly in performing arts and dance. And already the problem had arisen that for many black artists at that time they were. I'm doing all right when they were in a show in a production and they were down and out when they weren't. And what clearly needed to exist was some kind of platform that would give her greatest ability to the professional. And in a certain sense making students and developing them and launching them without the next level of support had become clear as a problem. And it was against the second level of problem that the National Center for American
artist was formed the immediate cattle cattle as to the center was a conference in the Midwest involving a large number of creative intellectuals who had all I meant at that and all of the country there really was no platform for the professional black artist which we owned and controlled and which had a enduring presence and Miss Lewis had responded in a very concrete way to that alarm and Haitians in the structuring of the National Center. So the National Center for American artists was incorporated in 1968 as a professional entity that would share a close working relationship and alliance with the Elementary School of Fine Arts. But from the beginning the National Center was seen as existing with the committee met at a national and international level. And when I came at the very beginning end of the 60s beginning of the 70s the and the
National Center included two dance companies and the professional mime company and we had a theatre company and the museum was a concept. It did not yet have any form of greater than the notion that in the context of the National Center just as there were professional performing arts entities there should be a professional visual arts and to my work became giving shape to that notion. So and April of 970 an art gallery magazine and nationally distributed. Magazine in the visual arts world I published an article in which I said fall that what I thought were the five principal objectives that the museum should address and also a broader statement of its mission in that article I stated the mission of the museum was to collect
celebrate preserve and criticize the visual arts heritage of black people worldwide with a particular emphasis on the Afro American. And I suggested in the same article that this should be carrot fall what in four fundamental programs and exhibitions as the most visible public activity. In the holding of collections because we didn't expect to disappear. We wanted to see make clear from the beginning that we had a vision of permanence and the holding of collections is fundamental to that kind of vision. The third thing we wanted to do was we wanted to have some dimension which addressed research. Our resources were very limited. And we made the commitment to building a slide archive that would be of pivotal importance in the Art History of America and of American Art. And we saw
that as a research dimension. We also were interested in publication and we have from time to time published but frankly we were too poor to publish at the level that we would like. And the final or fifth thing was to conduct public education programs. These are activities that interpret for adults and for students the meanings of visual arts as part of a larger cultural picture. So since 1970 we have been working to try and give substance. To that model put fall at a decade and a half ago for most of the period of the seventies we shared space with the Elementary School of Fine Arts and in the late seventies we bought a marvelous 19th century building at the corner of Crawford
and walnut and Rock Spring. The building it was already in some dilapidation because it had been out of use for a couple of years and we started to try and redevelop that building as a permanent home for the museum and one thousand eighty eight quite prematurely we moved into that building and we brought the portion that we were occupying roughly 50 percent of the building into a shape that allowed us. To communicate the quality of program that we wanted to run even though not yet the full model. And scope of programs that they wanted to do and and we've been working on getting in the position to do the rest of the building and to do the grounds. Since then. So perhaps. And another question I might say a little bit more. About the things that we think in terms of programs and uses of space we visualize
for the facility where we are now. So I guess in summary I would say that the museum is the visual arts component. Within the National Center of Afro-American artist. It addresses the visual arts at a professional level with an interested that is a balance of this area of the nation and of the world and it attempts to bring to the whole community of museums in Boston an institution which has a particular focus on the artistic production of black artists everywhere. I think that it's not unreasonable to say that the American public black in white as well have very little knowledge of the contributions of black artists and blacks in general to the
visual arts. I guess I should ask the question is that in the context of the work that the museum is doing how successful and and if success is the right word to rhyme with place that you know but to what extent do you find that when there is a receptivity on the behalf of the public to gain exposure to and derive knowledge about the work that the museum is doing. And and secondarily Why is it important that this be done. Well it's. Good question. Both parts of it. I would add a third dimension to the question. I think at its largest The first question is what is the contribution that black artists have made in the area of the visual arts and is it known at all. And the second question is how in this
area this New England region. Is it known through what instrumentalities and at what level and then specifically how does the Museum of the national sort of Afro-American artist fit into addressing these questions. I think that the visual arts heritage of black people tends to be not well known in the general history of visual arts heritage. It is only in the 20th century that the place of African Art has come to be acknowledged and African art represents a huge part of the global history. Visual Arts production and it has been a profoundly influential body of traditions in the shaping of 20th century art in Europe and in the United States. So African
art has only in this century come to be regarded as art rather than as curiosities of ethnographic material artifact in the context of American Art. There have been black American artists working in both fine arts and folk art since the 18th century. Yet these artist are not well-known. And prior to very recent years were not cited in books discussing the history of American Art. This was a scholarly omission rooted in the general racism of the society in which we live. And more particularly in the absence of the consideration of the contribution of
blacks in the study of what America is. So even though in a region such as this one Edward Mitchell Bannister won the prize at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia 976. And no other artist in New England won such a prize. Nevertheless Edward Mitchell Bannister does not automatically appear in exhibitions of 19th century landscape in New England. That is just a lie. It simply isn't true. There have not been advocates. For Bannister to raise the question How have you omitted this figure who in his own time has gone at such considerable recognition. So in the context of American Art there has been a general. Absence of attention given to the substance and scope. Into the eighteenth and
nineteenth century participation in American art. In the 20th century much the same has been true. And it has been as a consequence. Of the device of the black exhibition. As it emerged in the latter sixties. Related to a larger social upheaval and to an insistence by black people on being recognised as part of the fabric of America is that 20th century black artists have come to be visible. Now in the 60s and beginning of the 70s in the context of black shows major American museums were called upon to finally remove their glasses and show a more complete picture. Here in Boston the Museum of Fine Arts in 1070 presented what was at the time the largest and perhaps most important
exhibition of Afro-American fine arts. Up to date I mean I organize that exhibition it represented an important new arena in which our work could be seen and as a kind of extension of that in the new wing opened at the Museum of Fine Arts. We have a larger number of Afro-American artists included on an ongoing and permanent basis that is one part of the work because the whole work of correcting art history does not fall to the Museum of the National Center it falls to all institutions with such a commitment. Where we have a unique role is that we have committed ourselves as that but tequila patron and advocate of off American artist. I want to interrupt you right now just to let our listening audience know that you're listening to WNBA at the University of Massachusetts at Boston I'm Charles Desmond hosts of black perspectives and we're talking with Edmund Berry Gaither was director of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American as well we turn Shelley after this brief public service announcement.
And so what do you say when you take a couple of well we can have fun with jokes like this but when you need a lawyer it's no laughing matter. You want someone who's had experience with your particular kind of problem called a lawyer referral service toll free at 1 800 3 9 2 6 1 6 4 check the Yellow Pages. They'll put you in touch with someone who can help order. The lawyer referral service is a public service of the Massachusetts Bar Association. We're back from a beach intermission and I'm your host Charles Desmond for a black perspective is my guest this evening is Ed and Barry Gaither who is the director of the Museum of the National Center for Afro-American artists and they are discussing black art in America and in particular the work of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American artist. You were at the time of the break talking about the special role that not just the. Museum has to play but museums in the
collectivity of the United States but they have the role that they have to play in recognition of in celebration of the work of blackout as it's clear though however that the museum that you are heading is light years ahead of the awareness that seems to exist in other museums that are not of the type that the Museum of the National Center. I think that's true I mean I think that we have given ourselves a very specific task and our task is to make sure that the knowledge base about the contribution of black American artist gets to be increasingly better known and more richly appreciated and that that happens not only for a general public but it's especially for a black public because the black public does not have a very. It's knowledge of its own visual arts heritage is not really a lot greater than that of white Americans.
So our education function is not simply to the community be yond the black. Neighborhoods. But it is also to the black community itself. We have to learn from institutions that are committed. To talking about it in a substantial way our heritage. We have to learn how broad how rich how integrated and how singular it is. So the Museum of the National Center has taken on participating in that educational undertaking. That means that that in projecting how we want to do programs we try to cover a wide scope. We do exhibitions that are historical so that a viewer will know what was being done in the 19th century all what was being done in the 20s and 30s who were the major figures from that
era. In short they will begin to experience the present day artist as part of a tradition rather than as an isolated character who just popped up out of nowhere. We also build into our schedule some exhibitions that include works from the Caribbean. Latin and South America because the black presence in this hemisphere is everywhere. And has been creative every place here and has made its own unique contributions. It's hard to think of the art of the Americas for example without thinking of the quite distinct contribution that Haitian artist have made to the art of America in the broad sense of all of the nations that make up this hemisphere. The Caribbean artists that Jamaican Brazilian so forth are
important. We want to give a public here in Boston as a sense that those traditions belong to the global black tradition. We also want to bring the African art. An artist so that there is a whole picture. Of a cultural complex in which there are many diverse expressions that share a set of common roots. And in a certain sense we're always trying to give the notion that the visual arts heritage of the black world is part of the kindred spirit of black people everywhere. At the same time we don't want to suggest that there is a Nowra and close in that quality to creativity Creativity starts out with the entire world before it but it has to start out from a particular time and place from a particular cultural base. So we
want to also support the contemporary working artist who wants to go in many directions because all of those directions broaden the tradition and base which we're describing as a core. So we see doing all of those things now in terms of actual program commitments. This means that when we finish all of the space we will have a suite of three galleries committed to historical and critically important exhibitions largely from outside of the region. We have our Boston gallery which we presently operate which is committed on an ongoing basis to one person exhibitions within this region. We have also on our second level which we have not occupied a commitment to works. From our permanent collection that includes 19th and 20th
century works it includes African Caribbean and Afro American works. Prints drawings sculpture photography. We also have a suite of three galleries that will be committed to African art on a long term basis. So when our facility is fully operational a visitor would be able to come. To see a little bit of the ancestral legacy that belongs to us. To see some permanent works which reconstruct a broad sweep of what afro american art has been. To see some of what artists are doing in this region and also to see something from the broad creative life of visual artist across the country we think that that role is an important one because it. Not only
takes responsibility for supporting artists in this region. It takes a responsibility to bring to the artist and the public in this region work from outside of it. So it's a broadening undertaking in all education should ultimately intend to broaden. So we have committed to that kind of proposition. In my mind at least that the goals and objectives of the museum are indeed broad but the circumstances and the conditions that we are addressing require them to be broad and require them to take the responsibility for doing this and I think that's obviously the reason why the museum exists in my it's work become so vitally important to Boston and to the nation. Let me ask you around the country I know in my own reading I hear of other museums that have not the same task but are taking some bit or piece of the task that the museum here in
Boston has taken. Do you collaborate to any great extent with other museums that are focusing on the works of black. Yes we have a very close relationship in fact I'm one of the founders of the African-American museums Association which is the National Organization of all of the museums which deal with black heritage in this country. We have quite a number. Perhaps as many as 50 depending exactly on how you can screw the definition and a very open definition we have upward to a hundred. But most of the museums are history museums. The kind of task which the Museum of the National Center of American artist has committed to is in relationship to the arts because here in Boston we also have an Afro-American History Museum the Museum of Afro-American history and we have an agreement as a working agreement between ourselves that we
in general are not involved with social history. And they in general are not primarily involved with with artist. And it's a useful distinction to make because it's easy to confuse the two things and think why are they duplicating. We don't duplicate we complement in the national scene. There are a comparatively small number. Of Afro-American arts museums we share this distinction with the Studio Museum in Harlem with the African-American art museum in Los Angeles. And to a lesser degree with the museums in traditionally black colleges and universities which are for the most part much more insulated institutions because they exist in university or college settings. There are several other museums such as the Afro-American cultural and historical museum in Philadelphia of the Detroit Afro-American Museum of the California State Afro-American museum which are
essentially history museums that also do an art component. But they are essential roles and their essential identities are in social history. So we are one of less than a handful of institutions committed specifically to the visual arts and of black museums. Well it seems as though as we hear you talking tonight and in particular the work that you have been doing here in Boston that first of all we're all very much indebted to you since I know that the empty museum would not have gone as far as it has gone now would it be as good as it presently is without the. Work in dedication that you give into the museum into the national center and that a listening audience needs to be aware that. Let me ask you in conclusion. How can the public become more involved in the work of the museum and what can the public do to help you achieve these goals that you set for the museum there are still
things yet to be done for the museum and how can the public at large help. I think that everyone listening ought to be a regular visitor. And ought to take a membership membership as a direct a way of being supportive and it allows us to put you into our mailing list because we obviously can't afford to mail to everybody and the membership helps to pay for that quality of communication. If you are a visitor you could also become an ambassador or to make our work better known and to share it with your visitors from out of town. Beyond that we need support. And both financial way. And also in terms of other special programs which we do we are available as a site where receptions and other specialized programs can take place and a number of organizations do
use us in this way. Several organizations have their annual meetings at their regular meetings there. Increasingly conferences to the city may have a special reception in our space. And if you belong to an organization we are available in that in this way and we are prepared to to give you a package which will help to interpret for your group. What our role is and what our heritage is. So that's another way of but dissipating. We also always looking for volunteers to help with specific programs and for any of those things you can just give me a call and I will get back to you and we can customize a way for you to participate depending on your time and your resources. But at a bare minimum you ought to be a member and you ought to be a regular visitor and you ought to be an ambassador are. I think that that's as compelling a chargin as compelling an invitation as
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- Edmund Barry Gaither, director of The Museum of the National Center for Afro-American Artists (NCAAA) in Boston joins host Charles Desmond. Gaither discusses NCAAA's founding and history, along with the founding and history of the museum. He also discusses the museum's objectives and activities, including its educational work; its collaborations with black organizations across the country, and how the public can get involved with the museum.
- Black Perspectives is a public affairs talk show featuring in depth conversations about issues of interest to the African American community.
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Copyright Holder: WUMB-FM
Guest: Gaither, Edmund B.
Host: Desmond, Charles
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Identifier: BP07-1987 (WUMB)
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- Chicago: “Black Perspectives; The Museum of the Nation Center for Afro-American Artists,” 1987-04-01, WUMB, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed September 20, 2020, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-345-93ttf7d0.
- MLA: “Black Perspectives; The Museum of the Nation Center for Afro-American Artists.” 1987-04-01. WUMB, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. September 20, 2020. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-345-93ttf7d0>.
- APA: Black Perspectives; The Museum of the Nation Center for Afro-American Artists. Boston, MA: WUMB, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-345-93ttf7d0