Up until the sixties, the gallery system would have X number of artists,
established artists— like, ten. Those artists very often decided who the one
or two young artists would be to come in, like protégés, and then they would
be nourished and they would become the next group. And for the average
person— average artist— there was no way to enter unless they got, literally,
what the slaves got: a note from the master to come in. You’d go to a gallery
and if you didn’t know some famous artist, they’d wonder: Why are you
there? . . .  The art criticism was just as impossible to deal with. You just
sat there like you sat waiting for the morning paper to come. . . .  And those
criticisms were either devastating or they made you; the gallery dealers and
curators just looked to what the critics were saying.
Benny Andrews, artist
The institutions that make up the art establishment determine what constitutes
high art through a pro cess of selective acquisition and display. Until the late twen-
tieth century, African Americans were virtually absent from this circuit as cultural
producers and cultural consumers. Prior to 1967 one could count fewer than a dozen
museum exhibitions that had featured the work of African American artists, with
the exception of museums at historically black colleges and universities. On rare
occasions when the work of African American artists was shown, it was typically
in segregated contexts, as in Contemporary Negro Art at the Baltimore Museum of Art
in 1939 and The Negro Artist Comes of Age at the Brooklyn Museum in 1945. In the late
1960s and early ’70s, several large- scale exhibitions focusing on African American
culture were mounted by major museums in the United States, including the Met-
ropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum
of American Art. The invisible yet very real boundary separating “African Ameri-
can art” from the universal notion of “art” had been pierced. Yet these shows did
not bring about a seamless transition to integration. Each was a wildly contested
event, a spark that ignited debate, dissention, and often protest, revealing diver-
gent visions of progress.
This book excavates the moment when museums were forced to face artists’
demands for justice and equality. What strategies did African American artists use
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