Ten years ago, the Gibbes Museum of Art did something bold: It invited artists Juan Logan and Susan Harbage Page to scrutinize the museum’s holdings and mount a unique exhibition of works drawn from the collection that examined the institution’s neglect and bias as well as the city’s troubled history of race and class.
Among the discoveries exposed to all by the “Prop Master” show was the fact that, of the museum’s 10,000 collected works, only 40 were by black artists.
Gibbes Museum officials, including board and collections committee members, quickly reprioritized some of the museum’s practices, stating a new goal to better represent the full range of Southern art.
“After ‘Prop Master,’ we started redoing the collections profile,” museum Director Angela Mack said. “We plot a course for future acquisitions with a priority on diversity. That’s been the guiding force ever since.”
In the years since the 2009 show, the museum has purchased or received as gifts 28 works by black artists, including nine stunning abstract pieces by David Driskell and four ink drawings by Kara Walker, as well as a pristine model of the wagon installed last year in New Orleans for the “Prospect.4” show.
Other works include an abstracted portrait of Denmark Vesey by Juan Logan; a assemblage sculpture by Lonnie Holley called “Changing Power,” which was made from materials retrieved from construction debris at Emanuel AME Church in 2015, just before the mass shooting; an iron skillet with a portrait burnished into its bottom by Alison Saar; new sweetgrass baskets by master weaver Mary Jackson; a Naive painting by the late Sam Doyle called “Onk Sam”; a riveting mixed-media picture by Amalia Amaki called “Two Step Moulin Rouge"; a portrait of two boys by Charles Williams made with oil, acrylic and crayon called “And Still I Love”; and the third in the series of Emanuel AME Church batik paintings by Leo Twiggs.
These works are on display at the museum in a small show called “New Acquisitions” through June 16. It’s a run-up to an even bigger exhibition called “Black Refractions: Highlights from The Studio Museum in Harlem” set for May 24-Aug. 18, whose opening coincides with the start of the Spoleto Festival.
In deciding what to acquire, museum officials tend to consider the work of artists with a connection of some kind to Charleston or to the South in general. The Society 1858 Contemporary Art Prize can be a good source, according to curator Sara Arnold. The competition also is 10 years old, and has drawn attention to a number of talented black artists, some of whom have been finalists or winners.
Another source is the Gibbes’ guest artist program, which makes space at the museum for working artists to become temporary residents, to show their work and to conduct workshops.
The efforts have been paying off, Mack said. Even before “Prop Master,” the museum had organized provocative exhibitions that feature black artists and confront difficult issues. The museum’s purchase of Charles White’s portrait of Denmark Vesey was controversial at the time, but today it is a highly valued, and very valuable, part of the collection.
Recently, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City organized a retrospective of White’s work that received rave reviews and now is touring the country.
Arnold and Mack said the museum will not let up on its efforts to diversify its collection and draw attention to talented black artists.