HARLEM ON MY MIND, 50 years later would Reginald Gammon still be protesting the American art establishment?
Harlem On My Mind, the Metropolitan Art Museum exhibit in 1969, caused the art world to shake from within and from the outside. Director Thomas P.F. Hoving and Allon Schoener the Curator were modernizing the way the museum system exhibited art. As a result, they caused an uproar in the black art community. Now they would have to deal with Negros demanding to be included in the show.
In the late 60’s BLACK POWER was replacing FREEDOM NOW as the mantra of the rank and file black activist. Reginald Gammon’s intellect and art, favored radical activism to effect change in America. The BLACK POWER movement became the force that moved the Museums to change their modus operandi. How did Reginald Gammon come to play a small but crucial role in moving things forward?
1963: Reginald Gammon joined the artist collective in Harlem called Spiral — a group of African American artists that included Romare Bearden, Richard Mayhew, Hale Woodruff, Alvin Hollingsworth and others. The purpose of Spiral was to stimulate an on-going exchange of evolving ideas to address how the arts community could play a role in the civil rights movement.
1965: Spiral held its only group exhibition at Cinque the Christopher Street art gallery in New York City. The title of the exhibit was Black and White. This show was a pointed statement about the civil rights movement. Since the issues of the 60’s were black and white, all the exhibition pieces were black and white too. Included in that show was Gammon’s Freedom Now and Bearden’s Mysteries.
Gammon’s political slant is revealed in his art. The difference in the styles and message of Freedom Now by Gammond and Mysteries by Bearden was evidence of two different mindsets. Gammon’s art showed a willingness to confront the issues head on. This would become evident later in his decision to leave Spiral and support Benny Andrews in forming Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC).
Reginald Gammon’s work has always been impactful.
Holy Family (left), was created in 1964 by Gammon. It is an important representation of his work created during the height of the civil rights movement. He made you look into the faces of the people and feel how they were affected by racism in America.
The Dreamer (below), was also created in 1964 and shows a romantic element in his rendering of Martin Luther King. King’s eyes were closed to focus on the vision that helped him to move past the harsh realities he faced during his fight for freedom.
Scottsboro (circa 1970’s) (above)
Gammon captures the pain and sorrow of the time, but not at the cost of the dignity of the people. There is strength and resolve in his figurative work — the same strength and resolve he showed in his personal life.
de Facto segregation in NYC Museums
As the Civil Rights movement was morphing into the Black Power movement, the Metropolitan Museum of Art organized Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900–1968. The Director, Thomas Hoving and Allon Schoener, the Curator wanted to exploit the history and value of the predominantly Black community of Harlem, New York. They excluded Harlemites from participating in the planning of the exhibition and also excluded artwork by Harlem’s thriving artist community from the exhibition. Reginald Gammon condemned the choice of Allon Schoener as the Curator, saying “they always pick someone else to tell your story”.
(Above: Metropolitan Museum of Art Façade (1969). Lloyd Yearwood, photographer. All rights reserved, Lloyd Yearwood).
Schoener’s mind was set on using multimedia and photography rather than the traditional visual art to tell the story of Harlem. Hoving wanted to use the Harlem On My Mind exhibition to merchandise the show and open the doors of the museum to the masses, thinking this would solve the money problems the museum was having. But they did not know they were residing over a perfect storm that would later be known as a landmark event.
November 1969, Romare Bearden, Jean Blackwell Hutson and Harlem-based artist Benny Andrews, organized a demonstration against the exhibition. Unfazed by their protests, Schoener stood firm in his determination. Equally determined, the Harlem artists continued their struggle for representation at the Met.
The Spiral group – Bearden and Charles Alston – wanted to continue letter writing, making contact with the museum directly and having meetings with them. Many of these meetings never happened.
Frustrated with the lack of progress, Reginald Gammon decided along with Benny Andrews, to form the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC) at Benny’s studio on January 9, 1969. The BECC was very radical for it’s time.
Gammon was a working class Social Realism artist who felt a sense of responsibility toward community – not a sense of entitlement. In trueness to his character, he turned down scholarships so that he could work and support his family. This also harmonized with his decision to break away from the civil rights movement ideology of negotiation and cooperation.
“Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will” – Fredrick Douglas
The BECC demanded a change in the structure of the museum. They moved on the Met and then took on the Whitney and Museum of Modern Art.
What happens next, a change was gonna come.
In our next article:
HARLEM ON MY MIND – The Blockbuster Vision That Changed American Art and the Black Arts Movement
We will look at Thomas Hoving, the Director of the Met and the role he played in changing not only the way Museums operated but the cultural footprint of white American art. We will also look at how Allon Schoener’s vision of using multimedia presentations as craft to present art opened the field of art to include emerging technology. We will also examine how the political and social climate helped to create the Black Arts Movement and propelled NYC to be the cultural capital of the world.
Black Art In America™ (BAIA) will feature works by Reginald Gammon at the Faison Firehouse Theater in Harlem which span 50 years — drawing attention to his contribution to the visual arts.
(Left: Harlem On My Mind by Reginald Gammon, 1969)