Minority artists say museums have a long way to go

August 04, 1991|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Minority artists and educators say the impetus for museums to collect African-American material in any depth is a recent development, and while the change is praiseworthy, they caution that the effort still has a long way to go.

Though museums previously might have acquired works by well-known black artists such as Jacob Lawrence or Romare Bearden, "until recently there was no aggressive collecting," said Leslie King-Hammond, dean of graduate studies at the Maryland Institute, College of Art and an art historian whose specialties include African-American art. "Museums now are at the juncture where they're realizing that yes, their collections are not representative of the full American point of view and that includes the African-American perspective."

She said there is still a need for institutions "to work harder, to go outside of their immediate personnel and try to stay away from the problems of insularity." Specifically, she said, "Most institutions are not taking full benefit of scholars, art historians and critics of color who could direct them to significant works and artists who should be included."

Ms. King-Hammond noted that institutions in Baltimore "have made significant strides far and above where many other cities have gone, because of the higher level of ethnicity in this city." She added, "Everyone is making an effort, but efforts can always be improved and one has to work hard to break old habits."

Ken Royster, assistant professor of art and coordinator of the visual arts area at Morgan State University, comments that "most of my contemporaries feel that there have been some gains over the last five to 10 years but there is still so much more that can be done."

One area that he points to is that of regional artists. "Jacob Lawrence and Sam Gilliam are represented [in museums] throughout the world, but a lot of times local or even regional artists don't get a chance." (Mr. Royster notes that Morgan collects African-American works, as is true of other universities and libraries outside the scope of this article.)

Joyce J. Scott and Thomas Miller, African-American artists who have been collected by the BMA, agree that times are changing, and could change more. "Institutions are more inclusive just by a little," said Ms. Scott. Erasing of boundaries between art and craft are prompting institutions to collect "more freely," she said, but not across the board yet. For instance, she said, "film has more entree, but not black jewelers."

Museums are "all of a sudden" discovering African-American, Latino and other ethnic groups, said Mr. Miller. "It's exciting. It's a shot in the arm. We need more of it."

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