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From Grand Rapids to Muskegon and across the state, art museums find common ground

Charles Henry Alston, Untitled (Couple), 1945-50, oil on canvas, Kalamazoo Institute of Arts

A major African-American art event at a local museum is about to begin -- and it isn't even February yet? That snarky dig -- based on the impression that the only time black art is featured at museums is during Black History Month -- is beginning to look like an unfair one. Michigan art museums are making an effort to reflect the diversity of their communities year-round.
A major African-American art event at a local museum is about to begin -- and it isn't even February yet?
That snarky dig -- based on the impression that the only time black art is featured at museums is during Black History Month -- is beginning to look like an unfair one. Michigan art museums are making an effort to reflect the diversity of their communities year-round.
"Common Ground: African-American Art from the Flint Institute of Arts, the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts and the Muskegon Museum of Art" has been touring its source museums through the past year.
It arrives at the Muskegon Museum of Art Dec. 10. But the MMA is making it the core of an over a five-month period focused on African-American art, "Finding Common Ground." The series of events began Nov. 5 with a talk by Chicago sculptor Richard Hunt to open "The Public Life of Richard Hunt." Numerous other smaller exhibits, films, lectures, and community events based on the main "Common Ground" tour will continue on through April.
It all blossomed from a plan by the MMA and FIA to highlight their African-American collections. 
Karsten Creightney, Crossroads, 2010, collage, water, acrylic, oil and wax on wood panel, Flint Institute of ArtsMMA executive director Judith Hayner and her Flint counterpart John Henry started talking about this subject in 2012. "We both have significant collections and important communities that we want to be relative to," she says. 
Then Kalamazoo joined in on the planning. The KIA's new director, Belinda Tate, "very much wanted to be part of this," Hayner says.
E. Jane Connell, MMA director of collections and exhibitions, says that in spite of being smaller regional museums, "We find that we have, just between Flint, Kalamazoo and Muskegon, a phenomenal amount of African-American works."
It's more than a random collection of works that three museums just happened to have on hand, "It's an exceptional celebration and insightful commentary on American history and culture," Tate says from Kalamazoo, where "Common Ground" was in its final month before being packed up to head north. 
Over 60 pieces from 1815 to today tell the story of artists and a people finding their voice, and revealing that it's made up of many voices.
It spans from an 1815 portrait (from the MMA collection) by Joshua Johnson, considered the first American person of color to earn a living as an artist, to iconic Civil Rights era photos (KIA) by Ernest C. Withers and Gordon Parks, to one of contemporary Brooklyn artist Kehinde Wiley's hip-hop/classical mashups (FIA).
Connell lists a few highlights from the Muskegon collection:
William A. Harper, French Landscape, 1905-9, oil on canvas, Flint Institute of ArtsElizabeth Catlett's 1981 life-size bronze "Glory," "a very very beautiful portrait bust," Connell says. It's of an African-American woman, in a social realism style. Her style also reflects her later home of Mexico, where she lived as an ex-pat. 
Whitfield Lovell's 2008 "At Home and Abroad,” which shows black World War One soldiers drawn on boards from an old barn; a target has been nailed over the heart of one. Lovell's drawing, in crayon, of the soldiers "makes them almost ghostly coming forward through the old barn wood. Definitely a work to look at closely," Connell says.
Henry Ossowa Tanner's 1910 oil "The Holy Family." A turn of the century painter, he spent most of his time in Paris, and his work reflected European styles and subject matter.
The MMA added Tanner's painting to its beginning collection in 1910, "even before this museum opened in 1912," Connell says.
The Tanner was the MMA's first piece by an African-American artist. They may have the other two museums beat -- Kalamazoo's first was a Richard Hunt piece in 1970, and Flint's was added sometime in the '60s -- but Connell says "the main crux of our (African-American art) collecting also began in the '60s, and I'd say that some of that influence was the Civil Rights movement. It brought a number of things to the surface." 
Hayner adds that a wealthy patron helped to shape their collection, and shaped "some of the thinking of the directors of this institution in the earlier times."
Flint curator Glab says that diverse collections only happen "when you have the people there who are interested in giving money to purchase it." What is needed are "both institutional leadership and a community who's actually buying or giving a work of art," she says.
To put things in perspective, Glab points to the early days of American art museums in the late 1800s. Then, railroad barons and other captains of industry of the Gilded Age were filling museums' collections. Not only were they blind to African-American art, they rarely considered any American art. 
"What were they interested in buying? They were interested in going to Europe and buying French art," Glab says.
In this century, in the Grand Rapids area, "there are some positive things happening --  it's a slow process, but that's because of museum politics more than anything," George Bayard says.
Bayard has operated in Grand Rapids as a gallery owner, art consultant and advocate for African-American art for nearly 28 years. For him, it's a complicated subject, but comes down to a simple fact: People tend to pre-judge work based on the artist's fame, which depends on who's shown their work. This why he's long advocated for museums to show African-American work, especially up and coming artists.
"Museums, like a lot of institutions, have had a hard time validating African-American artists for the longest time." Black-run art institutions and galleries did their part in the 20th century. But, "sooner or later, artists realized, they need to get into museums, get their work shown and to get their reputations built." 
Reginald Gammon, Marked for Life, 1981, lithograph, Kalamazoo Institute of Arts
Bayard, who works with a diversity group at Grand Rapids Art Museum, says of GRAM, "they've been slow to give shows to African-American artists, and they've been slow to purchase works. They pride themselves on supporting local artists, but a lot of local artists here haven't had works purchased by the museum." 
But, he points out that new GRAM chief curator, Ron Platt, is facilitating progress. From Birmingham, Al., where he was curator at the Birmingham Museum of Art, Platt "had worked with a number of African-American artists there, and is duplicating that here." 
Platt gave local photographer Monroe O'Bryant a GRAM exhibit for ArtPrize this year. His graphic photos recreating violence in the community, "The Fearless Brother Project Presents: Realistic Neglects," won in the two-dimensional category of the ArtPrize juried awards Oct. 9.
"They rarely give shows to African-American artists, and they rarely give them to young artists…." Also, artists who are "a little controversial" are too hot for some museums. "They're not going to go with something that might make them uncomfortable."
As "Finding Common Ground" shows, African-American artists have worked with a wide variety of inspirations, some cultural and political, but also scenes of every-day life, landscapes and abstracts. "A lot of folks think that it's mainly genre paintings, black lifestyle, and while a lot of African-American artists lean that way, recently I've seen a lot more abstracts," Bayard says.
For example, Richard Hunt, whose swooping and soaring metallic sculptures should be familiar sights to locals. His public art, like "Muskegon, Together Rising" which dominates a traffic circle at Western Avenue and Third Street, will be the focus of the MMA's Nov. 5 exhibit, launching "Finding Common Ground." 
"His work is not stereotypically African-American -- you know, I hate saying it like that, because art is art, and each artist has their own way of communicating," Bayard says. 
He points to Kehinde Wiley, whose "Bust of St. Francis of St. Adelaide" is part of "Common Ground," as part of a new generation of artists who mess with stereotypes.
Wiley's sculpture and paintings place contemporary hip-hop-style African-Americans in very European classical styles and settings. Bayard says that GRAM is hoping to land a Wiley exhibit, "but he's booked five years in advance." Wiley has become an art superstar among new artists who are "almost lampooning the stereotype" with "a new kind of retro-revolutionary" movement. 
"It's a great time for museums to be a little bold and take chances," he says. But, still, he stands by a statement he's made over the years, that local museums tend to focus on African-American art only in February. 
"I think that Black History Month kind of gives museums an 'out,' they can then relax for a month and put up some of this work that they don't normally show during the year. It's one of the reasons a lot of artists kind of balk at putting shows together during February. In the long run, they realize, well, if I'm only going to get one time of the year, I guess I better take advantage of it… but if they can't have it in March or August or September, I don't want to put my work in there," Bayard says.
Connell counters, "All three of our institutions, at all times, have parts of their African-American collections on view. It's not a Black History Month thing."
And what they have displayed in Muskegon "are our best works," Hayner adds. "It's not a challenge, it's not hard to do this." 
To make sure people know, the museum adds an "African-American Heritage" logo near to their pieces.
Art is not always obviously African-American art. There will be no one style/school/tradition highlighted this fall and winter at the MMA. 
Therefore, the title "Finding Common Ground" -- the common ground where, over the past two centuries, artists have been finding identities and voices.
Mark Wedel is a freelance writer who’s covered arts and entertainment in Southwest Michigan since 1992. He can be reached at markwedel@sbcglobal.net
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