As Landmark: An Introduction to "Harlem on My Mind" by Matthew Israel

Posted August 05, 2010 by admin

As Landmark: An Introduction to "Harlem on My Mind"

by Matthew Israel

"Harlem on My Mind" is a landmark."(1)

Landmark, n. (In mod. use.) An object which marks or is associated with some event or stage in a process; esp. a characteristic, a modification, etc., or an event, which marks a period or turning-point in
the history of a thing.(2)


For many reasons, "Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900-1968," an exhibition mounted at the Metropolitan
Museum of Art from January 18th through April 6th, 1969, can be considered a landmark.

First and foremost, until "Harlem on My Mind," the interpretation of minority American culture was consistently relegated to
ethnographic museums. The Met was the first American art museum to "schedule a major exhibition devoted to the accomplishments of the living
people of a non-Anglo, so-called minority culture."(3)

Secondly, "Harlem on My Mind" was one of the first exhibitions at an art museum to openly challenge contemporary injustice. In the
late 1960s, most of the country, yet specifically New York City, consistently saw itself on the brink of a race war. For example, in the year
preceding "Harlem on My Mind," Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, the Black Power movement had reached an international audience,
black students had immobilized Northwestern and Columbia, and two days before "Harlem on My Mind" opened, a special committee formed by
the mayor of New York reported "an appalling amount of racial prejudice" in the city. The mayor warned: if "lines of communication and
understanding were not formed quickly, this city will suffer severe traumas of successive racial and major confrontations."(4) As a result, in 1969,
the Met saw itself with a social responsibility. In the words of the then director of the Met, Thomas P.F. Hoving:

To me "Harlem on My Mind" is a discussion. It is a confrontation. It is education. It is a dialogue. And today we better
have these things. Today there is a growing gap between people, and particularly between black and white people. And this
despite the efforts to do otherwise. There is little communication. "Harlem on My Mind" will change that.(5)

Thirdly, "Harlem on My Mind" was a new solution to the problem museums were experiencing in the 1960s and 1970s: a severe lack
of money caused by "the erosion of endowment support as a proportion of museum budgets."6 According to Neil Harris, as an exhibition,
"Harlem on My Mind" was part of what became a "sustained bout of merchandising" by major museums that included "museum store
expansion…flamboyant membership drives, mail order catalogs, domestic study tours and foreign site visits, and a range of other activities which
have now become familiar to museum goers."(7) Accordingly, "Harlem on My Mind," became a template for what we now generally regard as
"blockbuster"(8) exhibitions, or those in which a major cultural institution opens its doors to a mass audience (or "everyone"(9) in the words of its
curator Allon Schoener) through the use of a highly accessible, highly comprehensible multimedia form.(10)

Additionally, "Harlem on My Mind" is a landmark because, in many respects, it was "the most controversial American exhibition ever
mounted"(11)—The New York Post Magazine even "credited it with sparking the largest such public flap since Marcel Duchamp's Nude
Descending a Staircase
shocked visitors to the 1913 Armory show."(12) In this respect, according to Steven Dubin, "Harlem on My Mind,"

Provides a template for museum-centered controversies that followed in its wake, many of them surging over the social
landscape tsunami-like a quarter-century or so later…"Harlem on My Mind" pushed upon an array of civic pressure points,
inducing cries of pain in several quarters.(13)

In general, the following issues famously stirred up national controversy:

First, Schoener and the Met alienated almost all of their Harlem-based support before the exhibition opened, which was highly
problematic because the show was supposed to have been "created with the direct participation of members of the Harlem community of all
levels and all ages."(14) The Harlem Cultural Council (HCC), the major and only Harlem cultural organization involved in the show, cited
a "breakdown in communication"(15)and withdrew their endorsement in November 1968. Also, Schoener's research team for the show, which was
allied with the HCC, withdrew in November 1968 as well, complaining that their recommendations "had been bypassed for a stress on
'entertainment'"(16) As a result, "Harlem on My Mind," became the sole product of Schoener, a white Jew, and two African American assistants
who helped primarily with matters of form—Reginald McGhee, a photographer, and Donald Harper, an electrical engineer—both of whom were,
importantly, not from Harlem. Immediately, as a result, before the exhibition opened, some of the most powerful segments of the black
community expressed their dissatisfaction with the way the show had been produced, primarily due to the sentiment that whites (on their own)
could not even begin to know the African American experience.

Secondly, the exhibition itself was widely thought to be inappropriate for the Met. John Canaday, then the senior art critic at The
New York Times
, called "Harlem on My Mind" a sociology exhibition rather than an art exhibition and believed he had no responsibility to
review it. Because he believed it wrongly politicized the museum, Hilton Kramer, also in The New York Times, said the appearance of
"Harlem on My Mind" signaled a crisis for art, and in his review called the show "an amateur exercise in social evangelism," Hoving "impatient
with the…often unmeasurable benefactions that a deep attachment to the art experience bestows on our spirit and on our emotions," and

"There can be no doubt that in mounting the "Harlem on my Mind" exhibition, Mr. Hoving has for the first time politicized
the Metropolitan and thereby cast doubt on its future integrity as an institution consecrated above all to the task of
preserving our artistic heritage from the fickle encroachments of history."(17)

In The Nation, Lawrence Alloway added that the Met (with the appearance of "Harlem") was now becoming vulnerable to any special
interests that decided to apply pressure; thus he made recommendations for other shows. He wrote, "How about: "Salon de Backlash," an annual
poor whites' art show, "Swing with the Tongs," a new look at old Chinatown; "The Mafia as Art Collectors;" "Ten Abstract Expressionist
Teamsters;" and "Cop Art," arranged for the museum by the Police Athletic League."(18)15

And in terms of the exhibition, there were more issues that stirred up controversy. In general, many believed that Schoener's
multimedia techniques ironically sapped the excitement from the subject. According to Grace Glueck, "There is something terribly American
about "Harlem." It panders to our penchant for instant history, packaged culture, the kind of photojournalistic "experience" that puts you at a
distance from the experience itself. Instead of the full, rich, Harlem brew, it presents a freeze-dried Harlem that does not even hint at flavor."(19)
Additionally, other critiques were made, encapsulated well in an Art News review by Amy Goldin. According to Goldin, the context of
the title made the show an insult; the idea that Harlem was a major center of African American culture was "extremely dubious;"(20)its conception
of culture was unfocused; its format suggested "the March of Time in blackface," as if American history, the war and the Depression, affected us
all alike;"(21) its display of family photographs implied a somewhat nonexistent homogeneity; its use of newspaper clippings to narrate the history
of Harlem implied a false notion that the history of Harlem and of African Americans was readily accessible; and finally, its lack of photographs
containing whites presented a "highly deceptive impression of Harlem life."(22)

Thirdly—and this was the most publicized part of the controversy—its catalogue essay, written by a 17 year-old Harlem high school
student, Candice Van Ellison, contained anti-Semitic, anti-Irish and anti-Puerto-Rican sentiments and was so criticized that it was eventually
pulled from the shelves and relegated to the Met basement.

And to make matters worse, 10 European paintings were defaced (with small H's carved into the bottom corners) two days before the
exhibition began.

The last major reason "Harlem on My Mind" became controversial was that it contained no visual art (paintings or sculpture) by any
black artists, nor almost any proof (23) that contributions had been made since 1900 by a black visual arts community. Photographs were admitted—
they comprised most of the show (and the work of James Van Der Zee was one of the major finds of the exhibition)—yet they were included only
as documentation; an "objective" "communications technique," not, importantly, as works of art by artists. Schoener rationalized the omission of
black art because he believed generally that paintings (by anyone) contradicted his multimedia techniques. In his words, paintings have "stopped
being a vehicle for valid expression in the 20th century."(24)

Yet because "Harlem on My Mind" was supposed to exhibit the cultural contributions made by the black community, and was at the
Met, the bastion of fine art, this situation enraged black artists. It also created an unprecedented protest—the first time black artists had
collectively mobilized against a major museum.

This is the major reason why "Harlem on My Mind" should be seen as a landmark.


"Harlem on My Mind" came first in a time during which black artists were not taken seriously in the
museum world. And "Harlem on My Mind" would have been all there ever would have been without
artists of color protesting major museums, a protest in part launched by this exhibition, and a protest
which in turn prepared the ground for the black art historians, critics and curators (as well as their diverse
supporters) who have changed the criteria of what will be included in the canon of Western art (I hope)

According to Edmund Barry Gaither, "Harlem on My Mind" expressed a clear message. "The message was that no African American
fine arts merited attention within the format for which the museum was famous."(26) Black artists considered Schoener's aesthetic choice a familiar
slap in the face, reflective of "a painfully long history of closed doors in the art world"(27) in which any exposure was extremely difficult to

Schoener's decision was also painful because in 1969, there were many accomplished African American artists, and their numbers
were only expanding. 1969 had already seen the definition and recognition of the Black Arts Movement; groups like Spiral and
OBAC/COBRA/AfriCobra had been formed; black art had already been championed by the university museums of CCNY, UCLA, and Howard;
galleries like the American Greeting Gallery in New York and smaller museums like the Minneapolis Institute of Art had staged shows of
contemporary black art; and new black museums "committed to visual arts expression"(28) like the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Museum of the
National Center of Afro-American Art in Boston, and the Community Gallery at the Brooklyn Museum had already opened their doors. Cliff
Joseph, explained at the time:

It just seems ridiculous for someone to say, 'We are going to set up an exhibit which will show the cultural contributions
made by a body of people,' and then for that exhibit not to include any paintings or any sculpture is just fantastic. Certainly
I don't think I need to tell you…there are many, many fine works of art to be seen done by black painters and

Importantly, black artists weren't alone in their reaction to "Harlem on My Mind," since the exhibition, according to Gaither, also
"denied the existence of black scholarship or curatorial expertise."(30) This was also highly problematic, because in 1969, black curators and critics,
like David Driskell, Samella Lewis, Mary Jane Hewitt, Evangeline Montgomery, Floyd Coleman, Henry Ghent, and Edward Taylor, were
numerous, knowledgeable and capable. "Harlem on My Mind" importantly pushed them to want to make their frustrations—concerning "the
chronic failure of museums to hire African Americans to work in anything other than custodial positions, such as janitors or guardians of the
colonial legacy in art"(31)—public, with their fellow artists.

As a result, black artists, curators and critics decided to fight the Met. At first, those who had already achieved some measure of
success spoke up. For example, Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden (who met with Schoener during the early conceptual stages of "Harlem on
My Mind" and personally expressed his dissatisfaction with the lack of black art in the exhibition) publicly denounced the show. Bearden was
quoted in the December 1968 Times profile of Hoving to promote the show, in opposition to it, asking "What's the show doing at the
Met, if it's not an art exhibition?" (32)

January 9th, 1969 marked a great step forward, for it was then that Benny Andrews, an artist, and two curators—Henry Ghent and
Edward Taylor—founded one of the first organizations to collectively represent the interests of black artists, curators and critics against major
museums: The Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC). The BECC, in many respects, through its future work, would greatly encourage the
slow, painful (and still currently necessary) mobilization of the following decades, in which black artists, curators and critics disputed their place
in major museums, through protests, negotiations, and exhibitions.(33) Originally a loose group of 30 artists and critics brought together by the lack
of black artists (and "total erasure of the Harlem Renaissance" (34) in the Whitney Museum of American Art's 1968 exhibition, The 1930s:
Painting and Sculpture in America,
the BECC formed as a result of failed negotiations with the Met concerning "Harlem on My Mind."
Specifically, on January 8th, Andrews, Ghent and Taylor had spoken at the Met with Hoving, Schoener, and John Hightower (the executive
director of the NYSCA) and demanded that the show be "co-curated by an African American; that there be more input from the black cultural
community, and that the exhibition feature contemporary African American art."(35) When their requests went unheeded, it, in essence, created an
emergency. And as a result the BECC was born.

Andrews, Ghent and Taylor (who were elected co-chairmen of the organization) decided the first activity of the BECC would be a
demonstration in front of the Met on January 12th. At the demonstration, 15 or so members held signs that read "Tricky Tom at it Again?" and
"That's White of Hoving!;" wore placards (Andrews wore one that read, "Visit the Metropolitan Museum of Photography") and handed out
leaflets headed "Soul's Been Sold Again!!!" The leaflets called attention to the lack of black artists in the show and demanded the museum
appoint blacks to policy-making and curatorial positions and seek a more viable relationship with the total black community.(36)

As a result of the protest, Andrews' felt they'd taken a revolutionary step forward. His journal entry for that day reads:

At 1:00 P.M. we started our demonstration at the Metropolitan Museum of Art against the "Harlem on My Mind" show.
The police were waiting for us with barricades and very stern looks. A line of the museum's staff were right inside the
Museum with their noses pressed against the glass doors peering out at us. We formed a long oval line and started to walk
slowly around and around the police barricades with our placards denouncing the exhibition. The passing pedestrians and
street traffic practically came to a halt when they spotted this small slow line of Black people in front of this massive,
angry, forbidding, endless façade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art…After the demonstration, we met at my place to go
over our day. We felt good, we'd broken the ice."(37)

In the next week, the BECC was a visible presence in front of the Met. And for a brief period of time, it seemed as if the Met was moved. At one
point, it was reported that the Met asked James Sneed, the director of the Harlem Art Gallery, to curate a show of African American artists to go
up in February at the Met to accompany "Harlem on My Mind."(38) Yet the exhibition never materialized—though The Amsterdam News
ran an article at one point announcing "A Black Show Is At The Museum," with a roster of eight Harlem artists who would present their

The BECC's action against "Harlem on My Mind" led to a series of unprecedented meetings in the spring of 1969 at the Whitney
between Ghent and Andrews and director John I.H. Baur—which later materialized into a six-month round of meetings between a BECC
negotiating committee and Whitney administrators—in which the BECC demanded the following of the museum: Organize a major group
exhibition of African American art with an African American guest curator; invite more African American artists to participate in the Whitney
annuals; hire African American curatorial staff to coordinate these endeavors; and stage five or more solo exhibitions of African American artists
during the year. These meetings were a major accomplishment, both because the BECC and African American artists in general were given the
time and space to negotiate rather than protest, but also because a major New York museum show was becoming a reality.

And eventually it did. As a result of their negotiations with the BECC, the Whitney announced they would do the following: increase
the number of purchases of African American art for the permanent collection; stage five or more solo exhibitions in their first floor gallery;
"consult" with African American experts in putting exhibitions together; and finally, that they would mount a "black show," Contemporary
Black Artists in America.
Yet the Whitney did not make any African American appointments to the curatorial staff and Contemporary
Black Artists in America
was solely organized by Robert Doty, a white man. In the spring of 1971, BECC members mobilized a nationwide
boycott of the exhibition, and planned the protest exhibition, Black Artists in Rebuttal for the Acts of Art Gallery (April 6-May 10,

In many ways, the black mobilization encouraged by the BECC helped create an environment where "segregated" "black" shows—
meant to promote the individual achievements of the African American artistic community—became common. In late February 1969, Grace
Glueck wrote an article for The New York Times entitled "Negroes' Art Is What's In Just Now."(39) She explained:

Only a few years ago, "segregated" black exhibitions were as scarce on the white art circuit as a group of shows of work by
Hungarians. But with the rise of black consciousness—and whites' recognition of it—such shows have become de riguer
with museums, galleries and even corporations, all of whom are rushing to mount them. The Metropolitan Museum of Art,
for instance, currently presenting the controversial ethnic-environmental show "Harlem on My Mind" is exploring the
possibility of a major survey in 1971 of Negro art in America.(40)

"Now" was the operative term though, and Benny Andrews, who is quoted in the article, explained, "We're a trend like Pop and Op…we're the
latest movement. Of course, like the others, we may be over in a year or two."(41)

At that point, Andrews and many other African American artists were looking beyond the necessity for segregated museum
exhibitions to, simply, museum exhibitions. Andrews explained, "After all, there shouldn't be two art worlds. It's time for us to get into the


Viewing "Harlem on My Mind" as a landmark because it created the BECC and the resulting mobilization of black artists, curators
and critics is important for two major reasons.

First, and most importantly, because the BECC's grievances are still relevant. We still need to ask: What is the status of African
American artists, curators and critics in major museums? And accordingly, is it true that, according to Lucy Lippard, "the same monocultural and
market-oriented values we were battling then remain in place, altered only slightly by the events and scholarship of the past forty

Secondly, this perspective (and the more difficult, wide-ranging research one needs to accomplish it) helps us to avoid the scholarly
inaccuracies that can result from a fascination and/or alliance with large institutions. For example, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in his foreword to the
1995 re-issue of the "Harlem on My Mind" catalogue, praises Hoving for:

Mounting a different sort of show, a show not devoted primarily to the high art of such great artists as Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence, but
rather a virtual documentary history of the arts, letters, and social and cultural institutions, through which African Americans defined themselves
between the turn of the century and 1968.(44)

Unfortunately for Gates, as Michele Wallace points out, "retrospectives for Bearden and Lawrence weren't even remotely among the range of
possibilities at the Met, MoMA, or the Whitney in 1968.(45)

Gates's is a major mistake in a highly visible location, yet our time should not be spent blaming him for his ignorance of art history.
Instead, we should use it as yet another excuse to increase our research into New York City's (and America's) alternative art culture of the late
1960s and 1970s, whose documentation, according to Julie Ault, "is ephemeral, and its circulation…restricted."(46)Hopefully, as a result, this type
of uninformed interpretation will happen less frequently and we will "ensure that alternative activities are not written out of the cultural histories
of the recent past."(47)


1. Steven C. Dubin, "With the Best of Intentions: The Proto-Culture Wars Over the Metropolitan's 1969 "Harlem on
My Mind" Exhibition," New Art Examiner, 25 (1997) 39.

2. Definition from The Oxford English Dictionary.

3. Allon Schoener, "Introduction to the New Edition," in Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America,
, ed. Allon Schoener (New York, NY: Random House, 1995), 1.

4. Steven Marcus, "Report to Lindsay Finds 'Appalling Sings of Bias," The New York Post, 17 Jan 1969, 3.

5. Thomas P.F. Hoving, "Preface," in "Harlem on My Mind": Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900-1968,
ed. Allon Schoener (New York, NY: Random House, 1995), 2.

6. Neil Harris, "Museums and Controversy: Some Introductory Reflections," Journal of American History, vol.
82 no. 3 (December 1995) 1108.

7. Ibid.

8. Dubin, 40.

9. Allon Schoener: "I said to myself, if blacks are interested in the history of the Lower East Side, everyone will
certainly be interested in the history of Harlem…and it should happen at the Met."

10. In this respect, in the 1960s, museums had become deeply ironic. Harris explains: "The museum industry, if you
will, seeking to tap an expanding leisure market, found itself challenging just those traditions of aloof transcendence
that had been employed to protect it from the mundane controversies surrounding other institutions of
authority…"Harlem on My Mind" signaled not simply museum willingness to become more inclusive and
more critical of existing establishments, or at least to call attention to paradoxes and contradictions, but a desire for
greater commercial and intellectual relevance."

11.Dubin, 41.

12. bid.

13. Ibid.

14. Metropolitan Museum of Art, News For Release: Harlem's Rich, Varied Sixty-Year History As Cultural Capital
of Black America to Be Presented In Major Exhibition By Harlem Community at Metropolitan Museum
York, NY, Metropolitan Museum, 1967), 1.

15. Grace Glueck, "Harlem Cultural Council Drops Support for Metropolitan Show," The New York Times, 23
Nov. 1968, 62

16. Ibid.

17. Hilton Kramer, "Politicizing the Metropolitan Museum," The New York Times, 26 Jan. 1969, D31

18. Lawrence Alloway, "Harlem on My Mind," The Nation, 3 Feb. 1969, 157.

19. Grace Glueck, "Harlem on My Mind" in Slides, Tapes and Photos," The New York Times, 17 Jan. 1969, 28.

20. Goldin, 53

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid.

23. In the lengthy collection of news articles that accompanied the exhibition, there is this brief, brief mention of
artistic accomplishments: "in painting: Tanner and Scott; in sculpture Meta Warrick and Mae Jackson."

24. Grace Glueck, Adam C., Mother Brown, Malcolm X," The New York Times, 12 Jan. 1969, 5.

25. Michele Wallace, "Signifying Nothing," The Village Voice, 29 Aug. 1995, 84.

26. Edmund Barry Gaither, "Social Art," The International Review of African American Art, vol. 15, no. 1, 60.

27. Steven C. Dubin, "With the Best of Intentions: The Proto-Culture Wars Over the Metropolitan's 1969 "Harlem
on My Mind"
Exhibition," New Art Examiner, 25 (1997) 39-46.

28. Gaither, 61.

29. Cliff Joseph, interview by Doloris Holmes, 1972, oral history transcript of a tape-recorded interview, Archives of
American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.

30. Gaither, 61.

31. David Deitcher, "Polarity Rules," in Alternative Art New York, 1965-1985: A Cultural Politics Book
for the Social Text Collective
, ed. Julie Ault (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 208.

32. Grace Glueck, "The Total Involvement Of Thomas Hoving," The New York Times, 8 Dec. 1968. p. 324.

33. Notably, in "Biting the Hand," in Alternative Art New York, 1965-1985: A Cultural Politics Book for
the Social Text Collective
, ed. Julie Ault (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 84, Lippard
believes in some ways that the Art Worker's Coalition was motivated to form after this event. She explains: "Artists
meetings ensued around the two events [Takis' removal of his work from MoMA's Machine show and the
BECC's protest at the Met]. A name was adopted: the Art Worker's Coalition."

34. Lippard, 89.

35. Deitcher, 208.

36. "Museum Pickets Assail Hoving Over Coming Harlem Exhibition," The New York Times, 15 Jan. 1969,

37. Journal entry by Benny Andrews, dated January 12th, 1969.

38. "Show of Negro Art Being Considered By the Metropolitan," The New York Times, 14 Feb. 1969, 33

39. Grace Glueck, "Negroes' Art Is What's In Just Now," The New York Times, 15 Jun. 1969, D24

40. Ibid.

41. Glueck, D24.

42. Glueck, D24

43. Lippard, "Biting the Hand," 109.

44. Henry Louis Gates Jr., "Foreword," in Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900-
, ed. Allon Schoener (New York, NY: Random House, 1995), 1.

45. Wallace, 85.

46. Julie Ault, "For the Record," in Alternative Art New York, 1965-1985: A Cultural Politics Book for the
Social Text Collective
, ed. Julie Ault (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 1.

47. Ibid, 3.