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Reflections of a Curator: Black History Month and Accountability

Early American Art Gallery, Crystal Bridges

In this blog, Mindy Besaw, curator, American art and director of fellowships and research at Crystal Bridges, reflects on Black History Month and how to stay accountable for promoting and reflecting on Black art throughout the year.

Black History Month is an annual celebration of achievements of African Americans and recognition of their central role in US history and life. The roots of Black History Month stretch back to 1915 when Carter G. Woodson established the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). Originally planned as a week, the month-long format was formalized in 1976 when President Gerald Ford recognized Black History Month to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

As February comes to a close, it allows for a moment of reflection. If we focus on Black artists for one month a year, how can we ensure that does not absolve us from paying attention the other 11 months? How can we prioritize Black history in our everyday practices?

Early American Art Gallery, Crystal Bridges
Early American Art Gallery, Crystal Bridges

At Crystal Bridges, I am responsible for the early American collection—artwork dating from the earliest painting in our collection through about 1900. In my role as a curator, I care for our existing collection and make recommendations for new acquisitions; think about how the collection is installed in the galleries; and research and share information through labels, talks, and lengthier publications.

In collaboration with our exhibitions and education teams, I guide the stories we tell through art. While we have added significant artworks by Black artists to the collection in recent years, the early American collection (and indeed the collection up to 1960), has relatively few artworks by African American artists. In fact, there are only three paintings and one sculpture dating before 1900.

By expanding the scope to 1960, there are only nine more. This number is disheartening. Acquiring and exhibiting new artworks by Black artists is one of our goals, but it can be slow-going. It can take time to identify historic artworks of high quality to pursue—either through gift or purchase. When paintings are held by other museums and collectors, for example, the availability of work can be minimal, making other works rare and expensive.

Shepherd with flock of sheep and donkey carrying supplies
Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Good Shepherd, 1917, oil on canvas, 25 1/2 × 32 in., Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas. Photography by Edward C. Robison III.

The Good Shepherd (1917) by Henry Ossawa Tanner was one exciting recent acquisition, acquired in 2019. Crystal Bridges had been looking for a Tanner for years. When we consider a painting, we take many things into account—foremost the quality, but also where it fits within the artist’s career and how it relates to other objects in our collection. This painting exemplified Tanner’s engagement with religious themes and focused on one of his favorite subjects: the biblical story of the Good Shepherd.

Also in 2019, we acquired Pink and Red Roses in Clear Vase by Charles Ethan Porter as a gift from Juan Rodriguez. Porter was a still-life painter and the first African American student at the National Academy of Design in New York when he enrolled in 1869. This watercolor will be installed in the early American galleries later this spring.

Charles Ethan Porter, Pink and Red Roses in Clear Vase
Charles Ethan Porter, Pink and Red Roses in Clear Vase, ca. 1880, watercolor, 13 5/8 × 10 in. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, Gift of Juan Rodriguez, in honor of Mrs. Bobbie Loyce Watson, 2019.33.

In the meantime, drawing upon the collection broadly to tell more complex stories of US history, and honoring accomplishments of Black Americans, is essential. For example: Winter Scene in Brooklyn. Francis Guy painted his Brooklyn neighborhood from the window of his two-story studio on Front Street in 1820. In this remarkable snapshot of daily life, Guy included nearly as many Black people as white. We have choices to make about what to highlight in our interpretation—the biography of the white artist? The identity of the white neighbors? Or, instead, perhaps, the very mixed cultural attitudes toward Black people at the time—pointing out the problematic depiction of the caricatured man who slipped on the ice in the foreground, but also the careful depiction of Jeff, a man the artist identified in a key as a free Black man who worked for Abiel Titus (he is in the center of the painting holding a pail). Brooklyn was home to enslaved people as well as a relatively large free Black population. Using this painting to explore multiple histories keeps Black history present in the galleries.

Early 1800s town in snow with several people in the streets
Francis Guy, Winter Scene in Brooklyn, 1820, oil on canvas, 58 x 106 in. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2006.98.

Woodson, who died in 1950, never viewed Black history as a one-week or one-month affair, but rather envisioned the focused week as a demonstration of what could be learned and celebrated all year long on a daily basis. Woodson looked forward to a time when an annual recognition would no longer be necessary. Are we there yet? The reality of the under-representation of African American artists in our early American collection tells me that we’re not. We must be attuned and accountable to the stories we tell year-round. Featuring artwork by Black artists on view in the galleries, telling complex stories of our history, inviting community voices and multiple perspectives, and featuring Black artists and stories in our programs are all ways we can deepen our knowledge and understanding of American history and culture.

Written by Mindy N. Besaw, curator, American art and director of fellowships and research, Crystal Bridges.