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MFA book highlights African American artists

Common Wealth features 100 works

Susan Saccoccia
Susan Saccoccia
MFA book highlights African American artists
Cover image from Common Wealth: Art by African Americans in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (Photo: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

African American artists loom large in Greater Boston this winter. Last month, Kara Walker, whose 35-ton figure of a mammy recently reigned in the former Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn, lectured to a standing-room crowd at the Radcliffe Institute. A major Lorna Simpson retrospective just closed at the Addison Gallery of American Art. A new show at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston from the Studio Museum in Harlem features 35 artists who explore the South as both a real and fabled region.

And just in time for its annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Open House, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston introduced its spectacular new book, Common Wealth: Art by African Americans in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Celebrating the growth of its holdings in art by African Americans, now one of the most significant collections of its kind in the nation, the MFA presents 100 of these works by 85 artists in the book. The MFA collection represents almost every major African-American artist from the nineteenth century to the present, as well as many others deserving greater recognition, including artists of the African Diaspora in South America and the Caribbean.

Until the last quarter of the 20th century, most art museums, including the MFA, had only a few works by African American artists. Artists of color were off the grid of mainstream museums, galleries and educational institutions. But in the late 60s, in Boston and elsewhere, pioneering curators, collectors and gallery owners began bringing artists of color into the forefront.

A turning point was the MFA’s 2011 acquisition of 67 works by African American artists from the John Axelrod Collection, which placed its holdings of African American art in the first rank among museums in the United States.

Axelrod, a Boston native and long time supporter of art by African Americans as well as the MFA, also provided funds to support production of the book.

“Now that the MFA has one of best collections of African American works in the world,” says Axelrod, on the phone from his Back Bay home, “it was time to do a book. The power of a book is that it can reach beyond Boston to the world.”

Seeking an expert in artists of color to develop the book, the MFA chose Lowery Stokes Sims, William and Mildred Lasdon Chief Curator at the Museum of Arts and Design and former president of the Studio Museum in Harlem.

Sims orchestrated a process of research and writing that engaged curators within and beyond the MFA’s Art of the Americas Department, as well as a broad swath of staff and interns. This collaborative process deepened and broadened the MFA’s embrace of these works and artists.

The book combines stunning color reproductions with highly readable text about the works and the artists, who include enslaved and freed African Americans as well as both academically trained and self-taught artists and artisans.

Multiple contributors

Sims and her contributors have created a richly layered exploration of the collection as well as the individual works and artists. Sims wrote the introductory essay on the “twoness” of being both African and American, as well as essays on each of the 11 themes that she uses to organize the works: Vessels of Memory; Interiors; Landscape and Place; Men; Women; Family and Community; Street Life; Dance, Music and Song; Spirituality; Masks and Symbols; and Abstraction.

MFA curators authored texts on each work, and a team of interns crafted biographies for every artist. The book also provides an extensive bibliography for further study.

Further enriching the volume are essays by individuals who led the growth of the MFA’s collection of African American works.

With the arrival of Malcolm Rogers as museum director in 1994, acquisitions by artists of color gained momentum. In his foreword, Rogers credits “a coalition of curators, collectors, and donors as well as art historians, critics, and gallery owners” for the growing presence of works by African Americans in institutions nationwide over the past four decades.

Essayists include eminent curator Edmund Barry Gaither, director of the museum at Boston’s National Center of Afro-American Artists. In 1969, the MFA began its long-term and fruitful collaboration with Gaither, who has organized a series of landmark exhibitions of works by artists of color at the MFA.

Other contributors include Elliot Bostwick Davis, chair of the Art of the Americas Department. Hired by Rogers in 2001, Davis led the planning of the Art of the Americas Wing, which opened in 2010, guided by a broader definition of American art that encompasses many under-represented groups — including Native American, Latin American, women, folk, outsider and African American artists.

Expanding curatorial vistas

In 2005, inspired by Rogers, the MFA Trustee and Overseer Diversity Advisory Committee established the Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection with contributions from more than 200 donors and a three-to-one challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Fund has supported the purchase of more than 80 works by American artists of color, including sculptures and paintings collected by jazz impresario George Wein as well as the 67 works from the John Axelrod Collection.

Also enhancing the MFA’s collection of African American art was a major gift of works by renowned artist Lois Maillou Jones, an alumna of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts.

Common Wealth includes an interview by Sims with Michael Rosenfeld, whose Manhattan gallery pioneered a decade-long series of exhibitions entitled, African American Art, 20th Century Masterworks. In 1993, Axelrod dropped in on the first show and was hooked.

“It was love at first sight,” says Axelrod. “I knew if I wanted to have a great collection of American artists, I had to have these artists. How can a museum claim to be great without these artists?”

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