The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Art and Culture is an evolution of Charlotte's Afro-American Cultural Center, which was founded in 1974. The Gantt Center opened in 2009 with three galleries, a permanent collection, and more than 46,000 square feet devoted to African-American art.
Michael D. Harris is the Gantt Center's consulting curator. He's also a professor at Emory University. We asked him about the distinction of curating African-American art, and his opportunity to provide a context that's different from what you'd find at a comprehensive museum.
Michael D. Harris: Elsewhere, there's a lot of effort to give lip service to integrating African-American art into American art. But the price can be a loss of some of the focus, some of the nuances that really inform the creation of this art. The Gantt Center can explore some of those things in ways that another museum may not be able to do or cannot do as often with the depth an intensity that we're able to. You can create a context that more adequately and accurately frames a lot of the work.
When the Mint did a show during the city-wide celebration of Romare Bearden's centennial anniversary, we put together another Bearden show and made it three dimensional. We had a show of the photographs of Bearden's life and another show called "Beyond Bearden" that allowed artists who were his contemporaries or successors to respond to him, to reflect on his inspiration, or to show his legacy, his impact. So we were able to look at him during his life, his life itself, and some of the after-effects in the art world.
In the beginning the community was most excited by what they've already known and seen. The idea was to start there and then begin to bring in some new things that edged out a little further, but were still not so far out that people couldn't connect. Then we could gradually add to their visual vocabulary. Because we have three galleries, I try to have the exhibitions relate to one another in some kind of way, so that it's not only an exhibition that has a dialogue going on, but they begin to have a dialogue among themselves. So the entire experience has coherence.
Being a curator is not as easy as it looks if you're doing it well. There's a selection process, a conceptualization. But there's also arranging the works in the galleries so they make sense in their relationships with each other so they create a flow for the audience. There's a certain authorship to it, but not in the sense that it's somehow equal to the art. There can be art without curators or historians, but there can't be curators or historians without the art.
We still define African-American art racially. Part of what I try to bring to my curatorial approach and outlook is a recognition of those cultural aspects that are embedded or referenced within the art of certain African-American artists. By highlighting those kinds of things, I try to add this cultural element that gives some distinction.
Embedded within jazz is the way the music becomes a carrier of the cultural patrimony as you go back to field songs and hollers. You go back to blues, back to the progression of the music that comes out of this cultural experiential existence that is called "black." If we start looking at art in these ways, perhaps we can find some things that allow it to exist in the same way as the music exists—framed in an experience.
“I was trying to open some doors to some of these nooks and crannies that maybe were not as much in the forefront of curatorial minds.”
Previous to the Gantt Center, I recommended the work of John Scott as my first purchases for the High Museum's collection. He wasn't often noted in mainstream curatorial circles. But we understood who he was and the references in his art. I was trying to open some doors to some of these nooks and crannies that maybe were not as much in the forefront of curatorial minds. There are people who do amazing work, but maybe the themes or the references are not the same as Rauschenberg or Donald Judd or whoever they're considering. I just hope to expand the curatorial lexicon.
I've been advocating for a number of years that African American art should be this and that. It's justified to have a gallery devoted to African-American art because then you can create a context that more adequately and accurately frames a lot of the art.
You can look at Faith Ringgold's story quilts, and you can put them in contemporary art. But then if you exhibit them in a context of contemporary quilts, traditional quilts, slave quilts, and so on, it gives you a different understanding of what she's done and where she's coming from and why she might have chosen that media as a form. It's important to see. It should be this and that.