The sheer size of the “30 Americans” exhibition at the Columbia Museum of Art is stunning.
The touring exhibit that opens at the city’s marquee museum on Oct. 9 includes 54 pieces in multiple artistic mediums by 30 different African American artists. The art ranges from mixed-media collages to fiberglass and metal sculptures to portraiture to abstract paintings. It deals with sexual, racial and historical identity through the prism of the different artists.
“There is not a monolithic Black experience,” said the Columbia Museum of Art’s Catherine Walworth, who curated the exhibit. “Even though all of the artists are African American they are so different in their perspectives. There are several gay and lesbian artists, there are artists who came from upper middle class or wealthy backgrounds and those who came from working class backgrounds. There are different geographics, different ages…. other artists were influenced by those older artists in the show, so there’s this beautiful throughline.”
The exhibition, which includes work by Nina Chanel Abney, John Bankston, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Mark Bradford, Robert Colescott, Nick Cave, Noah Davis, Leonardo Drew, Renée Green and many more, is something of a dream project for Walworth and lands in Columbia at a pivotal point for the exhibit.
“It’s been on the road for the last ten years in different iterations,” she said. “As far as I know right now, we are the last venue on the tour. Someone could take it after us, but right now we’re sort of the period at the end of the sentence.”
The exhibit started at the Rubell Museum in Miami and allows each curator to pick what art to include in each respective iteration of it. For Walworth, she took a two-year process of choosing the pieces and preparing the museum space for them.
It began when she flew to Omaha, Nebraska, and toured it there. The exhibit also featured artists like Glenn Ligon and Hank Willis Thomas, whom Walworth hoped to feature as solo exhibits.
The process was a task that Walworth relished.
“Sometimes there are difficult choices, sometimes they’re based on something as practical as space; is your wall tall enough for that painting?” she said. “But I always think of these works in conversation with each other. You’re making choices that are admittedly subjective, but in the end, you hope that there’s this grand sweep and everything is sort of working together.”
In fact, “30 Americans” is so sprawling that the version of the exhibition that opens on Oct. 9 isn’t the one that Walworth first envisioned. The museum's layout will open in its third version, with it being tweaked to better accommodate the space once the various works arrived in its last version.
Walworth says she hopes people walk away from the exhibition with a greater sense of America’s artistic Black voices.
“I think it just helps to hear individual voices, to see that there’s not just one perspective.” Walworth said. “It’s almost like having been at a great dinner party where people are talking about important things and just having this conversation. I think there are difficult works in this exhibition that make us think about history, and there’s also a lot about the history of art. The topics these artists walk through and how they do it is really important.”
Oct. 9. Tue. - Sun. 10 a.m.- 5 p.m., Thur. 10 a.m. - 8 p.m. $10 or less. Columbia Museum of Art. 1515 Main St. columbiamuseum.org ("30 Americans" opening day lecture with Xaviera Simmons on Oct. 9 at 11 a.m.)