Director reckons with Art Museum’s ugly past

Graham Boettcher, The R. Hugh Daniel Director of the Birmingham Museum of Art
Graham Boettcher, The R. Hugh Daniel Director of the Birmingham Museum of Art

ComebackTown is published by David Sher to begin a discussion on a more prosperous Birmingham.

Today’s guest blogger is Graham Boettcher.  If you’d like to be a guest blogger, please click here.

The Birmingham Museum of Art is proud to serve the people of our city.

Through the generosity of our community, we’ve built an exceptional collection of more than 27,000 works of art, and last year, welcomed 123,000 visitors through our doors.

It wasn’t so long ago, however, when we failed many of our citizens, writing a shameful chapter in the Museum’s history that we are still striving to overcome.

Founded in 1951 as a department of the City of Birmingham, the Museum of Art was subject to the same Jim Crow laws that variously established “separate but equal” accommodations for blacks, or excluded them entirely. During the 1950’s and early 1960’s, African Americans were only allowed to visit the Museum on Tuesdays, the “Colored Only” visiting day.

Artist Denied Entry

One individual who was turned away from the Museum was the artist David C. Driskell, who lived in Alabama from 1955 to 1962, serving as assistant professor of art at Talladega College. In August of 2009, at an event honoring Dr. Driskell at the Birmingham Museum of Art, he memorably described the experience of arriving at the Museum with a group of his art students on the “wrong” day, and how a nervous guard summoned founding director Richard Howard, who apologetically offered to give Driskell and his students a personal tour if they would return on a Tuesday. They never did.

The irony of accepting an award at the very institution that had once turned him away was not lost on Driskell. While Dr. Driskell gave the Museum a second chance, I fear that for others, the Museum continues to recall that racist exclusion.

Segregation comes to an end, but…

In November 1962, Birmingham voters changed from a city commission government to an elected city council, ousting Bull Connor—Jim Crow’s staunchest enforcer—from his position as Commissioner of Public Safety.  The following summer, on July 23, 1963, the Birmingham City Council repealed all of the city’s segregation ordinance. While blacks were now permitted to visit the Museum without limitation, its galleries were far from representing all of Birmingham’s citizens.

A new mayor and a change of direction

In 1971, Richard Arrington became the first African American elected to the Birmingham City Council (Arthur Shores had been appointed to an empty seat in 1968), pledging to make Birmingham “a city of which all her people can be proud.”

That same year, the Museum accessioned its first work by an African American artist, the celebrated painter Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937), which was a gift from the estate of Madah Redin Kniffin (1902–1953), a Birmingham-born art collector who once lived in Paris, where she may have encountered the artist personally.

The following year, the Museum made its first purchase of a work by an African American artist, a significant painting by none other than David Driskell, with funds from businessman A. G. Gaston. In the decades that followed, the Museum has strived to do its part to fulfill Richard Arrington’s promise by creating a collection of which all of Birmingham’s people can be proud.

African American Art

Driskell’s painting—Ghetto Wall #1is presently hanging in the Museum’s Third Space exhibition, which was named by Holland Cotter of The New York Times to “The Best Art of 2017,” writing:

“Third Space,” at the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama, is technically an installation of contemporary art from the collection. But it’s more than that: It’s at least partly a nuanced look at what it means to be black in America, and specifically in the South.

Some of the artists (Kerry James Marshall, Lonnie Holley) are Birmingham natives. At least one work, Dawoud Bey’s “Birmingham Project,” from 2013, is directly related to the city: It commemorates the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist church by white supremacists, in which four young girls were killed.

The show would be moving in any setting, but nowhere else would it feel the way it does in this museum, just a few blocks away from where the church still stands.

Cotter’s words convey a sense of some of the progress the Museum has made in creating a collection that embraces African American artists—and visitors—instead of turning them away at the door. And yet, I am all too aware that art museums—ours included—are among the least diverse workplaces in America.

We must keep working toward becoming a greater, more inclusive institution in every way. Failure to do so could jeopardize the Museum’s future, leaving us on the periphery of a dynamic and changing city, rather than at its heart.

Art, people, and ideas

As the Museum’s seventh director, I am committed to ensuring that this progress continues, not only in the makeup of our collections, but also in the innovative exhibitions and programs we offer to engage the community we serve.

One current example is the exhibition For Freedoms: Civil and Human Rights (open through November 18), which challenges visitors to consider who has access to basic freedoms, and encourages everyone to be part of the democratic process with onsite voter registration.

It’s only through the coming together of art, people, and ideas that we will fully realize our true potential and become a museum “of which all her people can be proud.”

Graham C. Boettcher is The R. Hugh Daniel Director of the Birmingham Museum of Art, where he has served in various curatorial and administrative roles since 2006. A native of Bellingham, Washington, Boettcher received his B.A. and Ph.D. from Yale University, and an M.A. from the University of Washington.

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David Sher is Co-Founder of AmSher Compassionate Collections.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

Invite David to speak to your group about a better Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com

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5 thoughts on “Director reckons with Art Museum’s ugly past”

  1. I remember going to the art museum in Birmingham when I first lived here in 1979. It was very depressing, with one room of ships tossing at sea, which made me sea sick, and many wonderful Remington statues on the top of cases. Also, there were so many wedgewood pieces on the top of cases. Having grown up in Toledo, Ohio which had an incredible museum of art which I went to every week for art lessons and to the symphony for music lessons, Birmingham was a huge disappointment. It has improved so much in the nearly fifty years that we have lived here. In fact, we will have our celebration of our fiftieth anniversary at the Birmingham Museum of Art! Yeah Birmingham. Also, have totally enjoyed the emergence of the Birmingham Symphony. I never would have believed I would love living in the Deep South, but I do.

  2. Thanks for catching us up on the history and the mention of black Birmingham artists Kerry James Marshall and Lonnie Holley. I wanted to add that artist Jack Whitten (Black Table Setting, Homage to Duke Ellington) was from Bessemer, AL and played the tenor sax in the Dunbar high school marching band. BMA is indeed a museum “of which all her people can be proud”. Thank you.

  3. Thank you so much for this blog post! I am currently teaching an undergraduate course on African-American Art and I recently brought my students to the BMA to do an “ArtBlitz” project modeled after BioBlitz science projects. Students were divided into teams to sent to specific galleries to find work by African-Americans and/or representations of African-Americans or people of African descent. Some teams were overwhelmed by what they found and others sorely disappointed. It was important for them to have these experiences. The teams then came together to walk through the museum and share their findings with the group. One of the things I discussed with them is how works of art become a part of public collections and how the history of collecting within an institution affects the nature of it current collection. I framed ThirdSpace as an exhibition that counters the lack of diversity in other areas of the museum’s collection. My students LOVE the energy and diversity present in ThirdSpace (both in terms of the artist and they type of work presented) and they hope to see more exhibitions like it in the future. Thank you, Graham and everyone else at the museum. for all that you do!

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