Mounting Frustration: Art Museums in the Age of Black Power by Susan E. Cahan (review)
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Mounting Frustration: Art Museums in the Age of Black Power. By Susan E. Cahan. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016. 360 pages. Hardcover, $34.95.

Art museums were among the very last social institutions in America to be touched by the Second Reconstruction. Prior to 1968, Jim Crow logic kept African American artists and patrons virtually shut out from museums nationwide, except those associated with historically black colleges and universities. The author of this book explains, "The first public demonstrations to integrate museums occurred in late 1968 and early 1969," long after crucial steps toward racial justice and equal opportunity had been logged in the realms of military service, public education, and voting rights (1). From Cahan's perspective, "The museum establishment's failure to integrate during the prime of the civil rights movement meant that by the time artists began confronting arts institutions in the late 1960s, a liberal retreat from integration was already under way" (2).

Mounting Frustration is an engaging, thoroughly researched account of how that liberal retreat from integration mediated the New York art world's experience of a movement to eradicate its governing practices of white supremacy. The book is a robust, fundamentally narrative work, divided into four basically self-contained chapters: "The Studio Museum in Harlem," "The Metropolitan Museum of Art," "The Whitney Museum of American Art," and "The Museum of Modern Art." Each chapter presents the story of how a particular exhibition became the flash point for that museum's entry into the debates about racial integration in the art world. Internal subheadings would have made the chapters easier to digest, but this is a minor point of criticism.

Cahan is a straightforward storyteller, grounding her writing in the actions and words of significant individuals and social institutions who drive her plot. She asks little from her reader in the way of familiarity with art history, though she does assume some conceptual understanding of modernism. Cahan's epilogue [End Page 397] summarizes a subtler pattern of racial segregation, persistent today, that emerged in the museum world following the events of her final chapter. In essence, the major museums reframed demands for cultural equity and accessibility as "issues of audience development," creating community education programs and supporting the development of culturally specific museums separate from their own. This practice, "a perverse collision of black power and white supremacy," she writes, developed as "an unspoken alibi for neglecting significant biases in other parts of the museums' operations and in their underlying conceptions of art" (255).

Cahan's collection of twenty-three interviews with artists and museum professionals consistently provides the narrative's most illuminating pieces of evidence. But Mounting Frustration is not, nor does it claim to be, a work of oral history. Aside from a brief remark in her acknowledgements, noting that some interviewees bared all while others maintained old promises to keep certain things secret, Cahan offers no reflections on her fieldwork. From the introduction onwards, she writes in a traditional academic register, handling the interviews as a journalist or social scientist would. She introduces quotations from her interviewees with the same constructions that introduce quotations from other archival and secondary sources—"X has described," "as Y put it," "Z recalls"—thereby eliminating all traces of intersubjectivity from the content of the evidence furnished by her interviews. One must consult the book's endnotes to see if a given subject's words are being drawn from an interview the author conducted or some other source, such as an archived interview, personal correspondence, or published writings. It does not appear that the interviews are archived or otherwise publicly accessible.

Even so, Cahan's prefatory acknowledgements—the only part of the volume written in the first-person—imply that Mounting Frustration's foundations are oral historical in nature. Cahan explains that the book's research began with her personal experience of gradually comprehending an unwritten history that helped her understand and navigate her current situation. Beginning as a high school intern at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) in 1978, and then as a staff member at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the New Museum for Contemporary...


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