Black artists look coolly at February

Showings: The token attention offered during Black History Month has led some African-Americans to turn down February opportunities.

February 17, 2000|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

African-American artists know this for sure: Their phones will start ringing furiously toward the end of December, when gallery owners, schools, libraries, museums and other cultural institutions begin scheduling their annual tributes to the heritage of black Americans.

But many black artists say they're tired of being lauded for one short month and ignored the rest of the year. Many are increasingly unwilling to exhibit during the month of February, as a form of protest.

"Black History Month is like a broke-down carousel for black artists," says Leslie King-Hammond, an artist and the dean of graduate studies at the Maryland Institute, College of Art. "As soon as the month ends, we cease to exist. It's like we just fall off the end of the Earth.

"It's so bad that you know that you're just being asked to exhibit as a convenient way to pay short attention to the needs of black constituents. Once that's over ," King-Hammond says, her voice trailing off.

"Museums have got to deal with the issue that they're not showing black artists until February," says Larry Poncho Brown, a Baltimore native and successful commercial artist.

Museums and art galleries around the country "all want to honor Black History Month but not always for the right reasons," says Baltimore artist Juan Logan, whose medium-sized copper, bronze and metal sculptures hang in the Gomez Gallery on Clipper Mill Road in Baltimore.

Joyce J. Scott, a Baltimore artist enjoying critical and popular success with her 30-year retrospective "Kickin' It With The Old Masters" at the Baltimore Museum of Art, has a pet nickname for the month.

"I've been calling it Black Hysterical Month," Scott says, laughing. "I truly believe Black History Month is an important time of year. What's difficult is when universities and elementary schools and museums target all of their funding for African-American artists in this one month.

"What's really unfortunate is that we're still having this discussion," Scott adds with a sigh. "It's been going on since I was in college 30 years ago."

Black artists such as Kimberly Camp, executive director and chief executive officer of the Barnes Foundation, a museum and art school outside Philadelphia, refuse to exhibit during Black History Month.

Bad weather

February is a horrible month for blacks to have an exhibit, Camp says.

"You can count on the weather being bad, so people don't want to come out to see the show. People are also spent out from the holidays, and they're looking for bargains or big markdowns," says Camp.

Logan says he decided years ago that he "wouldn't show during February. If a show is worth doing at all, it's worth doing in November or March or any other month."

Complaints aren't new

Black History Month, which started as Negro History Week in 1926, has taken on a life of its own as a cultural esteem-builder for African-Americans, and as an awareness-raiser for the rest of America.

Each February, events for all ages -- from storytelling and lectures to theatrical events and living-history programs -- are performed around the country.

Complaints about Black History Month are nothing new.

As King-Hammond and others point out, black critics have long argued that spotlighting the many accomplishments of black Americans during one month encourages people to ignore them the rest of the year.

Still others contend that viewing the black experience outside the all-encompassing umbrella of American history minimizes its impact.

Black artists end up feeling that their work is segregated from other nonblack artists -- "ghettoized" is how Camp phrases it -- and many feel that they have nothing in common with other exhibitors.

Feeling tempted

For black artists, however, the opportunity to show their work in important institutions such as the BMA and the Walters Gallery of Art comes so infrequently that many are tempted to ignore the sting of being labeled cultural tokens.

"It's hard for a black artist to turn down an exhibit, even if it is in February, because the art world is tough for everyone," says Columbia painter and sculptor Clarence Page. "It just becomes clear that you have to have your own venues to show your work all year `round."

Page and other local artists are active members at The Artist Gallery, a small artist cooperative in downtown Columbia. Art cooperatives are a popular alternative to juried exhibitions and the gaze of critical museum curators and gallery owners.

Look to alternatives

Black artists -- especially emerging artists -- have to look to alternative venues to show their work, says Brown, who advises up-and-coming artists to submit their work to art fairs and expos, as well as juried museum and gallery shows.

"A lot of African-American art venues are open -- more than ever before," he says. "You have to be on the road and travel. Most of the artists that are in Baltimore haven't ventured beyond the city."

But the fact remains that the works of only a handful of the best-known black artists, such as Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence and Horace Pippin, are chosen to anchor important shows at major museums any time of year.

`The good fight'

Joyce Scott's show at the BMA, which runs until May, happens to overlap Black History Month.

Doreen Bolger, director of the BMA, says the decision to open Scott's show in January was "not just about Black History Month; it was about her excellence as an artist."

Curators, adds Scott, "have to look for artists who aren't friends from college, who are not the ones everyone else chooses."

Black artists must ask themselves whether they should do a show in February just because they're asked, says Logan, adding, "It's a tough question, because artists have to eat just like everyone else."

Until then, says the Maryland Institute's King-Hammond, "we have to keep fighting the good fight like we've always done."

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