After seeing Faith Ringgold’s monumental, harrowing painting, American People Series #20: Die (1967), currently installed in the Museum and reading Thomas J. Lax’s incredibly thoughtful and moving post (as well as this recent notice from ARTnews, I was inspired to reflect upon this new acquisition. For while the painting has only recently arrived at the Museum, the artist was actively engaging with the institution on issues of race and exclusion during the same period of its making, the late 1960s. She painted the mural-size work in summer 1967 (known as the Long Hot Summer due to the more than 50 significant riots that erupted in American cities), while her mother and daughters were traveling in Europe, using the vacant space of the cooperative Spectrum Gallery on 57th Street, not far from MoMA where just two years later she would protest.
In my role as Chief of Archives, I often find myself figuratively walking the halls of the Museum of years gone by. In a sort of modern archaeology, I turn to the letters, memoranda, and other ephemera found in contemporary business records as the sediment and evidence of past actions, much as one does with the analysis of clay tablets and pot shards from ancient times. In the papers of senior leaders from that period, including founding director Alfred H. Barr, Jr. (retired 1967), and directors Bates Lowry (1968–69) [no relation to the Museum’s current director, Glenn D. Lowry] and John B. Hightower (1970–72), we find materials documenting this tumultuous moment, both at the Museum and in the rest of the world. It was a time when artists agitated for change, for more control and inclusion in cultural institutions, as well as addressing related social and political issues. [See this photo of Ringgold (alongside daughter Michele Faith Wallace and Yvonne Rainer) protesting at MoMA in 1971.]
One such group was the Art Workers Coalition (AWC), in which Ringgold was active, and she, along with Tom Lloyd, co-led a black coalition within the group. The AWC was born out of an action at MoMA on January 3, 1969, when the artist Takis removed his sculpture (which was owned by the Museum) from an exhibition on the grounds that an artist had the right to control the exhibition and treatment of his work regardless of whether he had sold it. This provided the catalyst for a group of artists, architects, filmmakers, critics, and museum and gallery personnel to coalesce into the AWC. Throughout the course of the year, the AWC staged demonstrations, organized an open hearing, and attended meetings with MoMA staff to further their cause.
The AWC’s famous “13 Demands,” submitted to Lowry on January 28, 1969, included point #2: “A section of the Museum, under the direction of black artists, should be devoted to showing the accomplishments of black artists.” And item #3: “The Museum’s activities should be extended into the Black, Spanish and other communities. It should also encourage exhibits with which these groups can identify.” Other AWC demands included free admission and the Museum’s convening of a public hearing on the topic of “The Museum’s Relationship to Artists and to Society.” [Barr Papers, 1.489]
On April 3, 1969, Ringgold and Lloyd penned a letter to Lowry informing him of their intention to bring a group to visit the Museum on April 16, in order to evaluate its program in terms of meeting and serving the needs of minority populations. They wrote, “The glaring shortcomings of the Museum vis-à-vis the black and Puerto Rican communities clearly require the setting up of a special Black Wing to enable the Museum to present a harmonized portrayal of black culture in America.” [reprinted in AWC “Open Hearing,” John B. Hightower Papers, III.1.10.]
They proposed naming the section the Martin Luther King, Jr., Wing for Black and Puerto Rican Art at The Museum of Modern Art. Not simply a way to honor the slain civil rights leader, the proposed title was also to be a rebuke to the institution. For on October 31–November 3 1968, the Museum hosted a tribute exhibition titled In Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It consisted of important and major works donated by approximately 80 leading American artists, all of which were to be sold to benefit the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and concluded with a literary evening with readings by Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Robert Penn Warren, and Allen Ginsberg in the Museum auditorium.
The AWC alleged the exhibition included work by a nominal number of African American artists and it chastised the Museum for grouping them together in the last room of the show, leading to accusations of segregation. [The exhibition actually included work by over 20 black artists installed in more than one gallery.]
Hightower assumed the directorship of the Museum in May 1970, and he proved sympathetic to the concerns previously foregrounded by the AWC and other artist protest groups, such as Guerilla Art Action Group (GAAG). At Hightower’s urging, the Museum’s Board of Trustees convened a special subcommittee. A memo of June 29, 1970, with the subject line “Black, Puerto Rican and Other Ethnic Studies Program,” indicated that the committee was charged “to study the role of the Museum of Modern Art with respect to the works of various ethnic groups and to recommend to the Board of Trustees any changes in the operations of the Museum which it may find appropriate and desirable in order to increase its usefulness in this area.” [Barr Papers, 1.489.] J. Frederick (Jeff) Byers III was appointed Chairman of the Committee, and Carroll Greene, Jr., who was then Curator of the Afro-American History Project at the Smithsonian Institution, was retained as a consultant.
Byers issued his report in June of 1971, recommending more emphasis on inclusion with acquisitions, exhibitions, and community programs. Two such outcomes of this initiative were the concurrent exhibitions: Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual and The Sculpture of Richard Hunt, both March 25–June 9, 1971.
But with the firing of Hightower just six months later, the momentum from this moment was diminished.
As stated by Ringgold and Lloyd in the letter of April 3, 1969, mentioned above, “Yet, there is little to be accomplished by remonstrating over the sins of omission and commission in this area visited upon generations of the past. What is important is that the Museum has now the opportunity to accomplish something in the way remedying those injustices in the present and the future.” [reprinted in AWC “Open Hearing,” John B. Hightower Papers, III.1.10.]
The words of Ringgold and Lloyd still prevail upon us, and their actions and activism continue to ring true, affect, and inform us today. Even if the shortcomings of our past do not exemplify our aspirations or expectations, it is important to understand and narrate that past to help us shape a future of progress, inclusion, and hope.
You can learn more about the stories of Faith Ringgold, the Art Workers Coalition, and other episodes in the Museum’s long and diverse engagement with the art and artists of yesterday and today, from New York and from afar, in the some 6.5 million documents that comprise the MoMA Archives.