The most obvious first step for all the museums recently devoted to improving the diversity of their audiences is displaying more art representing diverse faces. It’s both a simple and difficult action to take.
Simple, in that achieving this, all which need be done is putting out more items – paintings, sculpture, video – representing diverse people. Showcasing more works featuring Black and brown faces signals to Black and brown guests that they are welcomed and valued.
That’s where it’s also difficult.
Difficult, in that if an institution hasn’t been collecting this material through the years, how is it going to acquire it now? Most museums aren’t financed to go on a spending spree to buy up artwork showing diverse faces. If they haven’t been interested in this material previously, they also don’t likely have the contacts to bring in emergency loans to diversify their galleries.
The power of representation occurred to me on a recent visit to the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville, Florida where the diversity of faces staring back at me from the artwork was proof positive that the institution had not been caught flat-footed by 2020’s demands for museum’s to be more welcoming for all members of the communities they serve. The volume of diverse faces on display in the galleries would be the envy of many much larger institutions.
At the Cummer Museum, representation of diverse faces begins with hometown hero Augusta Savage (1892-1962). Her sculpture, Gamin (above), signifies a treasure of the collection and a signpost for Black guests that they are welcome here. Here are a more – but certainly not all – of the artworks on view now at the Cummer Museum representing diverse faces which caught my eye.
Ben Durham (American, b. 1982), Don, 2009. Ink on handmade paper.
A newer addition to the Cummer’s galleries, the power of this portrait is its ordinariness. This is a Black face. A typical Black face. Not a Black face experiencing trauma or a famous Black face, but an ordinary, everyday Black face. The power comes from its statement that ordinary Black faces belong in art museums, just like ordinary white faces.
At the Cummer, look up close and you’ll find that the image is composed of text.
Whitfield Lovell (American, b. 1959), Pago Pago (detail), 2008. Conte on wood with radios and sound.
A consistent stalwart of the Cummer’s contemporary art gallery, this picture not only serves to welcome the area’s Black population, but also its large military population as well. This installation includes floor mounted radios playing Billie Holiday’s “I Cover the Waterfront” adding a haunting longing to the piece.
Oswaldo Guayasamin (Ecuadorian, 1919-1999), Cartuchos (Lillies), 1949, oil on burlap.
A recent loan to the museum, the burlap surface gives this painting a rich texture. The bold pops of color in the woman’s blouse contrast the white garment, white flowers and her morose expression.
William Artis (American, 1914-1977), Portrait of a Woman, 1960. Terracotta.
Artis was a student of Augusta Savage whose work as an instructor and mentor to Black artists, including Jacob Lawrence, was even more influential than the artwork she created. You can see Gamin in the background to the right of this sculpture.
Joseph Stella (American, 1877-1946), Barbados, 1938. Oil on Canvas.
The wild colors are ultra modern for 1938 and those colors, along with the beautiful, proud, Black face, foreshadow the 1960s and 1970s Black Power and AfriCOBRA movements.
This is another recent loan to the Cummer.
Marie Victoire Lemoine (French, 1754-1820), Portrait of a Youth in an Embroidered Vest, 1785. Oil on canvas.
A shockingly early depiction of a Black face in fine art. I challenge you to find a dark skinned person affectionately and sensitively portrayed in a painting prior to the 1785 completion of this picture on subsequent visits to art museums anywhere in the country.
The artist’s treatment of the fabric demonstrates her high level of skill. Oh yeah, this painting was done by a woman, another rarity for the 18th century.
Lest it be overlooked, the most dynamic representation of a diverse face at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens presently can be found in the museum’s knockout Zanele Muholi photography exhibition.