Museums brush up on black portrayals

April 26, 1992|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Baltimore's museums are, in some cases have long been, making sincere efforts to address the African-American bTC community through a broad spectrum of activities. That doesn't necessarily mean that they are doing all they could or should.

In the area of collecting, the Baltimore Museum of Art both collects African art and has been collecting African-American art for half a century, until it now has works by many artists from Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden and James Van Der Zee to Martin Puryear, Roland Freeman, Tom Miller and Joyce J. Scott. The Maryland Historical Society collects all sorts of objects related to art, history and life in Maryland, and makes "great efforts to penetrate the African-American community in order to develop collections," according to chief curator Jennifer Goldsborough. The Baltimore City Life Museums collect material relating to life in Baltimore and the Baltimore Museum of Industry materials that have to do with working people in Maryland.

Exhibitions range from BMA individual and group shows of African-American artists (Jacob Lawrence, Robert Colescott, "Hidden Heritage: Afro-American Art 1800-1950") and African shows ("Gold of Africa") to the Walters' "African Body Art" and a coming (1993) exhibit of treasures from Ethiopia, to BCLM exhibits about Baltimore churches and parks to the historical society's current "Mining the Museum" about African-American life in Maryland to "Field to Factory: African-American Migration" at the Museum of Industry.

Museums are assiduous about programming and education, from school tours to lectures, music programs, internships, special events such as the BMA's Joshua Johnson ball and the Walters' African-American community day, which this year drew 8,200 people.

More museums are setting up groups to advise on African-American activities and/or serve as a link to the community. The BMA's Joshua Johnson Council dates to the early 1980s; the Walters is in the process of setting up such a committee; the historical society has a group to advise on education and is setting up another to advise the gallery.

And museums have made efforts to increase African-American staff and board members, with varying success. Eleven of the BMA's 55 trustees are black, four of the BCLM's 25, two of the historical society's 61, five of the Walters' 35 will be as of June. African-American docents still make up a small percentage of total docents, and if museums can point to a staff person in a decision-making position here or there, Walters director Robert P. Bergman acknowledges a general problem when he says, "There are very few black professionals in the core ranks. It's very difficult to find a curator or conservator, less so educators. There are very, very few people even in a lot of the administrative ranks."

Leslie King-Hammond, dean of graduate studies at the Maryland Institute, College of Art and a keen observer of the local scene, says, "I think basically most museums are making a concerted effort within the parameters of how they perceive the mission of the museum and what they feel they can best do to interface with the African-American community." But, she adds, they "could be more creative."

Specifically, she thinks museums, "and especially the Baltimore Museum of Art," should initiate projects which broadly investigate African-American history and culture in this region of the country, being multidisciplinary in their approach.

"When you deal with the African-American community, art, history, culture, music, all play integral roles. Unlike the Eurocentric approach, which is much more linear, many of the traditions in African-American life are a composite. It is difficult to look at one art form independent of others, for these traditions simultaneously manifested themselves and are interlaced within each other. It is difficult for Eurocentrically defined museums to branch out [in such ways]. They feel it is a violation of their mission." But it is necessary in order to "understand an aesthetic tradition which evolved out of a set of circumstances literally opposite to the dominant culture."


More than 4,000 professionals from museums in every state and about two dozen foreign countries have gathered in Baltimore for the annual meeting of the American Association of Museums today through Wednesday at the Baltimore Convention Center. During the meeting there will be more than 100 sessions and workshops, covering everything from administrative policies to sprinkler systems. The meeting is not open to the public.

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