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“Harlem on Whose Mind?”: The Met and Civil Rights

Kelly Baum, Maricelle Robles, and Sylvia Yount
February 17, 2021

Editor's note: The first half of this article is adapted from contributions by Kelly Baum and Maricelle Robles to the exhibition catalogue Making The Met, 1870–2020. The second half, by Sylvia Yount, considers the complicated legacy of the special exhibition “Harlem on My Mind”: The Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900–1968 (1969).

Installation view of the 1969 special exhibition “Harlem on My Mind”: The Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900–1968.

When The Met mounted its special exhibition “Harlem on My Mind”: The Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900–1968, in 1969, the Museum was preparing for its one hundredth anniversary. It was part of a suite of programming that Director Thomas Hoving had launched to celebrate the landmark year. A press release in 1967 announced the ambition to present Harlem’s “achievements and contribution into American life and to the City.” Soon after, guest curator Allon Schoener assembled a Community Advisory Committee of officials and advisors from Harlem that convened for regular meetings at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library.

The exhibition was also an attempt to respond to the Civil Rights movement, which had reached a fever pitch with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Act of 1968. It was a contentious moment, and there were signs of controversy long before the show opened to the public. As early as a year in advance of the opening, various committee members and prominent Black artists withdrew their support for the exhibition. One of the central complaints was the exclusion of work by Black artists, such as Romare Bearden, Faith Ringgold, and Jacob Lawrence—all of whom were living in Harlem at the time, creating works that would have easily fit the exhibition’s narrative. In fact, the Museum’s collection already included works by Bearden and Lawrence. [1]

The exhibition catalogue for Harlem on My Mind, edited by guest curator Allon Schoener.

These warnings went largely unheeded, and when the exhibition opened on January 16, 1969, there were no paintings, drawings, or sculpture on display. Instead, viewers encountered a social narrative of Harlem told through reproductions of newspaper clippings, timelines, a soundscape of street noises, and photographs of prominent leaders and anonymous Harlem residents—among them, images by James Van Der Zee and Gordon Parks, whose photographs were reproduced as design elements. A week before the opening, a group of artists including Benny Andrews, Romare Bearden, Henri Ghent, Norman Lewis, Cliff Joseph, and Ed Taylor formed the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC) to organize protests against The Met. Several of their signs read, “Harlem on Whose Mind?”

Negative press continued over the show’s sixteen-week run, though the attention seemed to only attract visitors. In a statement, the BECC laid out their grievances with the exhibition: “[Schoener and Hoving] omitted painters and sculptors who also contributed to the cultural development of Harlem, misused or otherwise ignored the body of black advisors to the exhibition… imported people from outside the Harlem community to work on the exhibition and ended up producing an audio-visual exposition with neither logical sequence nor adequate explanatory information.”

The protests brought sustained attention to the need for greater diversity and inclusion in museums, both on display and behind the scenes. Harlem on My Mind was far from an isolated incident: of all the exhibitions presented as part of the Museum’s centennial, not a single one included work by a Black artist. This spurred the Artist Workers’ Coalition (AWC), a left-leaning, antiestablishment group of artists, critics, and filmmakers, to distribute hundreds of modified one-dollar bills that paint an unflattering portrait of the prejudices underwriting “The United States Art World.” They feature Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller’s face instead of George Washington’s, and proclaim: “Not valid for black, Puerto Rican or female artists.” Significantly, it was also in 1969 that The Met announced the acceptance of Rockefeller’s collection of sub-Saharan African, Oceanic, and ancient American art, which it had resisted for many years; the new forty-thousand-square-foot wing constructed to house these works opened at the Museum in 1982. [2]

Side by side images of the layout of the show.

One of the main critiques of Harlem on My Mind was that it did not contain a single work of fine art by a Black artist and was instead, according to the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, “an audio-visual exposition with neither logical sequence nor adequate explanatory information.”

Reflecting on Harlem on My Mind’s Legacy at The Met

The afterlife of Harlem on My Mind (HOMM) is a complicated one that continues to reverberate across the museum field, and no less so at The Met itself. [3] In the decades since, there has been a greater commitment at the Museum to more intentionally acquire work by Black artists in multiple collecting areas, largely due to the interests of successive generations of curators. This effort dates to the 1972 hiring and later promotion of Lowery Stokes Sims—first by the Department of Community Programs, then by the Department of Twentieth-Century Art, as assistant curator, in 1975. [4] Sims’s arrival at The Met may be understood in response to the withering criticism of the whiteness of the Museum’s staff, collections, and programming that crescendoed during the HOMM debacle. She successfully lobbied for a curatorial position, believing that it was the best way at the time to effect change and introduce diversity into the Museum’s collection and programs. [5] During Sims’s twenty-seven-year career at The Met—she left in 1999 to direct the Studio Museum in Harlem—she did more than any other curator to transform the holdings, acquiring dozens of important works by Black, Latinx, and Indigenous American artists, including many by women—foundational art that continues to provide a framework for collection development today.

While the challenging history of building, shaping, and diversifying The Met’s Department of Twentieth-Century Art is well documented, less attention has been paid to HOMM’s impact on other parts of the Museum, specifically the American Wing. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the historic department of mid-seventeenth to early twentieth-century “fine” and “decorative” works was still defined by its founding collections of Euro-American art. Heated criticism of HOMM—particularly in a tumultuous America rocked by assassinations, war, and ceaseless protest—may have discouraged curators from actively pursuing historical works by African American artists for the collection. [6] Institutionally, though, there were glimmers of progress.

After The Met failed to include work by Black artists in any of its centenary efforts, leadership recognized the need to not repeat that mistake when it came to planning for the United States Bicentennial in 1976. Again, the guest-curator model was applied, but this time a relevant expert was sought. Dr. Regenia A. Perry, the first African American woman to receive a PhD in art history (Case Western Reserve University, 1966), was hired to develop a project that Met director Thomas Hoving would later describe as a “fitting” examination of an “important aspect of our national heritage,” viewed in the “broader context of the history of American art as represented in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.” The result was the special exhibition Selections of Nineteenth-Century Afro-American Art, on view at the Museum between June 19 and August 1, 1976.

Installation view of the 1976 special exhibition Selections from Nineteenth-Century Afro-American Art, featuring works by Edmonia Lewis, Robert S. Duncanson, and Edward M. Bannister, among others.

This little-known effort, which did not travel, has received practically no attention in the art-historical literature when compared to HOMM and other early surveys of historical work by Black artists. [7] Yet it deserves to be seen as a landmark undertaking in its own right, opening several months before the epic Two Centuries of Black American Art, guest curated by David Driskell (long considered a leading authority, then teaching at Fisk University) for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. That celebrated exhibition— featuring over two hundred works by sixty-three artists—is viewed as the first comprehensive survey of art by Black Americans in this country. Following its run in Los Angeles, the exhibition traveled to the High Museum of Art, in Atlanta; the Dallas Museum of Art; and the Brooklyn Museum, where it was on view from June 25 to August 21, 1977—thus, not arriving in New York until one full year after The Met effort. Although Driskell’s exhibition covered a broader timeframe (1750 through 1950), the object framework echoed that of Perry’s, featuring painting, sculpture, drawing, and prints alongside so-called “crafts” and decorative arts. [8]

At the time she was engaged by The Met, Perry was teaching at the School of the Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University, in Richmond, and would receive a fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to develop the project at the Museum between 1975 and 1976. Perry, who went on to have an esteemed career as a professor, museum curator, and gallery owner, was then best known for her scholarship on the work of photographer James Van Der Zee—significantly, one of the only artists to be highlighted in Harlem on My Mind—as well as for her studies of African American “folk” art. In 1969, the year of that controversial exhibition, she held a Ford Foundation teaching and research grant at Yale University to write a comprehensive history of African American art. [9]

That both The Met and LACMA had to find their guest curators in academia, notably in the South, reveals the paucity of professional Black curators in those years, especially of historical production. Significantly, Sims curated the Museum’s other Bicentennial focus on African American art—Black Artists from The Metropolitan Museum of Art—a permanent-collection show organized for a Brooklyn cultural center that she has discussed as marking her introduction to “institutional politics.” [10]

Seemingly with little assistance, Perry was able to assemble an impressive range of ninety-seven objects by some twenty artists. Most were loans from both public and private collections, as the American Wing held very few works by African American artists at that time. (Only one painting from the department was included, Robert S. Duncanson’s Landscape with Cows Watering in a Stream, which had been donated to the Museum, in 1974, by leading patrons Lawrence and Barbara Fleischman.) Evidently, the exhibition was not considered an American Wing project—it was held in the second-floor special exhibitions gallery, in the center of the Museum—though, Perry has credited Berry Tracy, then head of the Wing, as the most supportive of Met colleagues during her fellowship year.

Robert S. Duncanson (American, 1821–1872). Landscape with Cows Watering in a Stream, 1871. Oil on canvas, 21 1/8 x 34 1/2 in. (53.7 x 87.6 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence A. Fleischman, 1974 (1974.359)

Perry’s primary goal for the exhibition was to highlight the extraordinary resilience of African Americans and their ability to create art under horrifically adverse conditions of displacement, enslavement, and systemic racism; as she began her catalogue essay, “One of the most remarkable facts about Afro-American art is that it exists at all.” For the exhibition, she selected a range of better- and lesser-known painting, sculpture, and decorative arts—including quilts, walking sticks, stoneware face vessels, and baskets to emphasize the African roots of applied diasporic arts, a few juxtaposed with relevant source material. Perry’s choice of “fine” arts, instead, reflected her desire to connect African American and Euro-American visual expression. From today’s vantage point, the inclusion of works by portraitist Joshua Johnson, the first Black American to earn a living from his painting; sculptor Edmonia Lewis, of both African and Native American descent; landscapists Robert S. Duncanson, Edward M. Bannister, and Grafton Tyler Brown; and figure painter Henry Ossawa Tanner—all major names in the canon of nineteenth-century African American art—is unsurprising.

More unusual was the addition of graphics by the overlooked Jules Lion, a multiracial artist from New Orleans who is credited with introducing the daguerreotype to the city. Apparently, Perry argued for Lion’s “masterpiece”—Portrait of Ashur Moses Nathan and Son, a mid-nineteenth-century pastel that eloquently depicts a white father embracing his biracial son, on loan from descendants of the Louisiana sitters—to be the cover of the catalogue, instead of an Edgefield, South Carolina, face vessel with exaggerated features. This canny choice of an image that emphasizes complex and entangled histories points to Perry’s desire to challenge expectations of what was perceived as “Afro-American” art in 1976.

The exhibition was well received by the press, especially in comparison to Harlem on My Mind. Only one reviewer, Henri Ghent—a founding member of the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition—drew a connection between the two efforts, criticizing what he termed The Met’s half-hearted attempt to rectify past oversights, while applauding Perry’s desire to introduce a broader public to these understudied historical artists. [11]

Looking back at Perry’s catalogue, what is particularly striking is how recent additions of strong work by Black artists to the American Wing’s collection echo many of her earlier choices—from Edgefield pottery to paintings by Johnson, Bannister, Brown, and Tanner, as well as a pair of marble busts (HiawathaandMinnehaha) by Lewis, versions of which also appeared in the Bicentennial exhibition.

Joshua Johnson (American, ca. 1763–ca. 1824). Emma Van Name, ca. Oil on canvas, 29 x 23 in. (73.7 × 58.4 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Nancy Dunn Revocable Trust Gift, 2016 (2016.116)

While the 1976 project had little visible impact on the American Wing in the short term, Perry’s work was ultimately validated. Over the past few years, the department has deliberately prioritized a more diverse representation of artists in order to offer visitors more expansive narratives in both permanent-collection installations as well as special exhibitions. And our work is ongoing.

One of the most positive outcomes of the Harlem on My Mind fiasco was a dawning recognition on the part of Met leadership in the 1970s that more voices and stories needed to be heard in its Fifth Avenue building. While art historians and critics have justifiably focused on the shortcomings and failings of HOMM—locating its most significant and lasting impact in galvanizing artist protests—actual visitors to the 1969 exhibition have shared different perspectives. For example, the leading photography historian Deborah Willis (mother of artist Hank Willis Thomas) credited the exhibition as an early shaping influence on her groundbreaking scholarship on Black photographers, especially James Van Der Zee, the subject of one of her early monographs. [12] Similarly, contemporary photographer Dawoud Bey has identified the show as the key source of inspiration for his own creative practice. As related in his 2015 TEDxMet talk, “Art Begins with an Idea,” he went to The Met as a curious teenager, drawn by the protests, and left with a passionate vocation.

The photographer Dawoud Bey’s 2015 TEDxMet talk, “Art Begins with an Idea,” in which he discusses seeing Harlem on My Mind as a teenager.

Many past projects as well as those now in development—including Adrienne Spinozzi’s landmark Edgefield Pottery exhibition (2022) and Denise Murrell’s various initiatives—may be seen as constituting the afterlives of The Met’s hugely consequential misstep with Black cultural expression. They also reveal the Museum’s newfound reckoning with righting the wrongs of the past by centering more inclusive art histories in our mission—manifest in staffing, collecting, and programming—a genuine, if long overdue commitment.

[1] Both Bearden and Lawrence also participated in “The Black Artist in America” roundtable discussion, convened by The Met in late 1968 to counter the tensions around the development of HOMM, but not published in the Museum’s Bulletin until January 1969.

[2] Joanne Pillsbury, “Recovering the Missing Chapters.” In Making The Met, 1870–2020, edited by Andrea Bayer and Laura D. Corey, 209–215. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2020.

[3] For more comprehensive discussions of the Harlem on My Mind controversy and its consequences, see Susan Cahan, Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016) and Bridget R. Cooks, Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011).

[4] Kelly Baum, “A Seat at the Table.” In Making The Met, 1870–2020, edited by Andrea Bayer and Laura D. Corey, 216–222. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2020.

[5] Ibid, 222.

[6] Today, in addition to its strong Euro-American holdings, the American Wing features a greater concentration of work by Black artists as well as newer collecting areas of Latin and Native American art. But at the time of HOMM, representation by historical African American artists was scant, with only three decorative objects and one painting, by Joshua Johnson, works that were likely acquired without a clear awareness of the race of the makers.

[7] Regenia A. Perry, Selections of Nineteenth-Century Afro-American Art. The exhibition and its accompanying catalogue were brought to my attention by former Met guide, Karole Dill Barkley, soon after I arrived in the American Wing in 2014.

[8] David C. Driskell, Two Centuries of Black American Art, exh cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1976.

[9] As an emeritus professor at VCU, Dr. Perry was a legend in Richmond during my tenure at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. However, I did not have the pleasure of meeting her until after I had moved on to head The Met’s American Wing, as she was spending more time at her home in Louisiana. We began corresponding about the Bicentennial exhibition, which led to a 2019 meeting in New Orleans. Some of my information about the project comes from our conversations.

[10] Brenda R. Cooks, “Black Artists and Activism: Harlem on My Mind (1969),” American Studies, 48 (Spring 2007): 39.

[11] Henri Ghent, “Met show documents Black artists’ contributions to America,” Amsterdam News, June 26, 1976 and “The Met Meets Afro-American Art Halfway,” Village Voice, July 19, 1976. John Russell, art critic of the New York Times, noted, “The Metropolitan Museum treads on tender ground with this exhibition,” without mentioning Harlem on My Mind; see “Discovering Afro-American Art from the 19th Century,” New York Times, June 27, 1976.

[12] Ibid, 28-29. According to Cooks, Van Der Zee also credited the exhibition as “the pivotal event of his career”—resuscitating his reputation outside of Harlem and leading to a major gift of original prints to The Met in 1970. The Museum’s interest in his photography is ongoing.

Kelly Baum

Kelly Baum is the Cynthia Hazen Polsky and Leon Polsky Curator in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art.

Maricelle Robles

Maricelle Robles is Former Educator in Charge, Public Programs and Engagement, Education Department.

Sylvia Yount

Lawrence A. Fleischman Curator in Charge Sylvia Yount joined the American Wing in September 2014, after holding curatorial leadership positions at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the High Museum of Art, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. In addition to completing pivotal collection reinstallations, she has organized major exhibitions with accompanying publications on Cecilia Beaux, Maxfield Parrish, and American modernism, among other late 19th- and 20th-century topics. She received her PhD and MA in the History of Art from the University of Pennsylvania and her BA in Italian from New York University.