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Exhibiting Blackness

African Americans and the American Art Museum

Bridget R. Cooks

Publication Year: 2011

In 1927, the Chicago Art Institute presented the first major museum exhibition of art by African Americans. Designed to demonstrate the artists’ abilities and to promote racial equality, the exhibition also revealed the art world’s anxieties about the participation of African Americans in the exclusive venue of art museums—places where blacks had historically been barred from visiting let alone exhibiting. Since then, America’s major art museums have served as crucial locations for African Americans to protest against their exclusion and attest to their contributions in the visual arts. In Exhibiting Blackness, art historian Bridget R. Cooks analyzes the curatorial strategies, challenges, and critical receptions of the most significant museum exhibitions of African American art. Tracing two dominant methodologies used to exhibit art by African Americans—an ethnographic approach that focuses more on artists than their art, and a recovery narrative aimed at correcting past omissions—Cooks exposes the issues involved in exhibiting cultural difference that continue to challenge art history, historiography, and American museum exhibition practices. By further examining the unequal and often contested relationship between African American artists, curators, and visitors, she provides insight into the complex role of art museums and their accountability to the cultures they represent.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press


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Front matter

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p. vii

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pp. ix-xiii

The publication of this book is as much the product of the generosity of time, spirit, and resources of many people as it is the result of years of solitary research and self-determination. I am grateful to have a formal space to thank those people here. Some of the core ideas for this book were conceived during my years as ...

A Note on Terminology

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pp. xv-19

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INTRODUCTION: African Americans Enter the Art Museum

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pp. 1-16

In Exhibiting Blackness I offer a critical exploration of the discourse of African American art and culture in American art museums. The exhibition strategies for representation vary as the narratives of each exhibition strive for their claims on the historical and contemporary representation of ...

Chapter 1. Negro Art in the Modern Art Museum

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pp. 17-52

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Chapter 2. Black Artists and Activism: Harlem on My Mind, 1969

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pp. 53-86

In 1969, the Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900–1968, an exhibition that sought to explore the cultural history of the predominantly Black community of Harlem, New York (figure 15).1 At the center of one of ...

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chapter 3. Filling the Void: Two Centuries of Black American Art, 1976

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pp. 87-109

Two Centuries of Black American Art6 was the only historically comprehensive exhibition of art by Black Americans ever to be presented by a major American art museum (figure 22). Organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in 1976, the exhibition ...

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Chapter 4. New York to L.A.: Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art, 1994 -1995

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pp. 110-134

In 1976, Driskell and LACMA got it right with Two Centuries by showing that communities of people who do not regularly constitute the art museum audience could be made to feel welcome if their artistic contributions were recognized and people of their racial group were ...

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Chapter 5. Back to the Future:The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, 2002

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pp. 135-154

Transgressing normalized boundaries of gender, class, race, and elitist investments in high versus low art, The Quilts of Gee’s Bend was bound to be one of the most talked about exhibitions in American museum history. The exhibition featured seventy-one quilts made between ...

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Conclusion: African Americans after the Art Museum

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pp. 155-160

The history of the relationship between African Americans and the American art museum is a study of American race relations, nationalist ideals, and contested investments in definitions of quality, beauty, and art. In light of the analysis of exhibitions discussed in the ...

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Epilogue: Harlem on My Mind

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pp. 161-164

In January 2008, a friend and fellow art historian sent me an e-mail telling me that Harlem on My Mind was currently on view. Confused, I read the forwarded information about the exhibition being remounted at South Carolina State University, the historically Black ...


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pp. 165-192


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pp. 193-205


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pp. 206-221

E-ISBN-13: 9781613760062
E-ISBN-10: 161376006X
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558498754
Print-ISBN-10: 1558498753

Page Count: 240
Illustrations: 60
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 794700486
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Exhibiting Blackness

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • African American art -- Exhibitions -- Social aspects.
  • Art and society -- United States.
  • Art museums -- Social aspects -- United States.
  • Art and race.
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