Staff at the storied Charleston institution has been focused on improving diversity and accessibility
Special to the Philanthropy Journal
By Adam Parker
It was a turning point.
In 1992, the Maryland Historical Society opened an exhibition called “Mining the Museum” by Fred Wilson. The conceptual artist had created a work in an institution that was about that institution and the ways it presented its favored narratives. Wilson was challenging the museum’s assumptions, practices and biases. He was revealing the ways in which alternative experiences and perspectives are sidelined or ignored.
The museum world took notice.
Angela Mack, a curator at the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, S.C., was fascinated by Wilson’s project. She was working at a legacy institution whose collection reflected the conservativism of the Old South and the reluctance of privileged White people to confront the sins of the past and present.
By the 1990s, the Gibbes was in fact no longer living up to its reputation as a staid and proper establishment where portraits of Charleston’s elite and inoffensive cityscapes or marsh views dominated the walls.
Mack had something to do with that.
The Spartanburg native had joined the Gibbes in 1981 as an assistant curator and brought with her a certain expertise in Renaissance art of northern Europe that became immediately useless.
“Everything I learned about American art I learned on the job,” she said.
The job soon revealed its potential.
“I just saw how amazing museums could be in terms of telling stories and expanding people’s horizons,” Mack said.
About a decade later, she became chief curator and started to shake things up.
“The first thing I wanted to do is insert the South into the overall story of art, especially the city of Charleston,” she said.
At the time, the South and its myriad artists were generally ignored by museums — unless those artists went to New York to make some kind of post-modern, abstract or conceptual work — and misrepresented in art schools.
The professional art world in the U.S. was eurocentric, and discourse was centered in the northeast region, with some attention paid to the landscapes inspired by western expansion. The idea back then was to solidify a unique American artistic identity, Mack said. The Southern landscape, though, was inseparable from the institution of slavery, a morally reprehensible part of American history the art world preferred to avoid.
“When you look at the evolution of American art as a distinct invention, the South isn’t there,” she said. Its toxic associations obscured all the rest. “That was the reason for ‘In Pursuit of Refinement: Charlestonians Abroad’—to put Charleston on the map.”
In so doing, she did a lot of research and learned about how the old rice and cotton plantations worked, and about the privileged lifestyle of the White planters.
If you are going to present the South honestly in an artistic context, you can’t ignore the cruelties of white supremacy and the experiences of the enslaved.
So in 2008, the Gibbes Museum presented a show called “Landscape of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art.”
Diversifying the collection
In a sense, it was inspired by Fred Wilson and his mandate of institutional self-examination, except the institution being examined in this case was slavery and the so-called Southern way of life. The exhibition, which turned a critical eye on plantation imagery, was accompanied by a noteworthy catalog and lots of productive engagement.
“That show probably still is at the top of the list in terms of the people it attracted to the museum,” Mack said. “We had as many African Americans attend that show as we did Caucasians.”
Next, in 2009, the Gibbes took a page directly from Wilson’s playbook and decided to scrutinize itself with the show “Prop Master.”
Two artists working in collaboration were given full access to the museum’s collection and encouraged to do whatever they wanted with it. Juan Logan and Susan Harbage Page referenced a history of sexual deviation, racist violence, and anti-Black propaganda. They emphasized a Southern preference for staid portraits of wealthy White people by displaying large portraits of Black people who shared a last name with a famous planter family. And they shed light on the museum’s woeful lack of diversity in its collection.
The centerpiece of the installation was a foundation made from small white and black cardboard boxes, perfect cubes whose quantity equaled the total number of works in the Gibbes’ holdings. Of the 10,000 boxes, just 40 were Black.
The Gibbes Museum had in years past mounted exhibits of works by Black artists (it presented its first solo show of an African American artist, William H. Johnson, in 1973), but it hadn’t bothered to add any of their paintings to its collection.
That suddenly changed. Within 10 years, the Gibbes would acquire 25 works by African American artists. Today, it has 93. Among recent acquisitions are works by David Driskell, Kara Walker, Juan Logan, Lonnie Holley, Alison Saar, Mary Jackson, Sam Doyle, Charles Williams and Leo Twiggs.
For Mack, the effort to broaden the museum’s holdings and offer a bigger variety of artistic perspectives on the world is a way to build bridges and foster empathy and understanding. In this way, art museums provide a vital social function, especially now, during this protracted period of division and partisanship: they bring people together.
A good ‘IDEA’
But they also need to improve the way they function, she said. They need to find ways not only to diversify their collections and patronage, but to conduct what Mack calls “purposeful introspection.”
Museums need to contemplate their eurocentricity, both in how they are structured and how they express aesthetic values. They need to reconsider their mission, taking into account the proliferation of institutions that feature a single individual’s collection.
Museums need to examine how they present their art and to what degree the art is available to the public. They need to make room for experimentation and error, and develop a more forgiving and supportive environment for their leaders. They need to show why art is important and how people can engage with it—inside the building, to be sure, but also in schools and other community spaces.
And museums need to embrace their role as instigators and agitators, Mack said. They must present work that makes you think. Otherwise, what’s the point?
The Gibbes Museum has set up an IDEA committee, whose acronym stands for “inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility,” in an effort to be more purposeful in its approach, she said. It’s also striving to create new pathways that “help young people of all races understand that this is a potential place for you.” That effort includes developing school curricula and setting up a paid internship program for minority students.
This kind of approach tends to appeal to donors, Mack said. It presents them with a good investment, a place that reflects the complications and messiness of real life rather than some austere or romanticized version of the past.
“Beginning in 2021, independent donors specifically asked me about our attitudes toward diversity,” Mack said. “More and more philanthropists of color are speaking out about what they want, and that’s extremely helpful.”
The COVID pandemic forced the Gibbes to shut its doors to the public temporarily, then ease back into a regular schedule. The annual budget of $3 million was trimmed and this impacted nearly every aspect of the operation. It was painful and disruptive, and it generated anger and uncertainty, Mack said. But it included a silver lining.
It got the staff and board thinking hard about what the museum should do to expand its reach and become more inclusive. It got them thinking about the museum’s very purpose, and how it can best be realized.
It got Mack and her colleagues focused on the future.
It put everyone on their toes.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Adam Parker earned degrees in music, then spent a decade in the business world before going back to school for a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University. At The Post and Courier, he has worked on several beats over the years, most recently race and history. A long-time student of the civil rights movement and race in America, he has written extensively about the African-American experience. He is the author of the biography “Outside Agitator: The Civil Rights Struggle of Cleveland Sellers Jr.,” published by Hub City Press, and “Us: A Journalist’s Look at the Culture, Conflict, and Creativity of the South,” forthcoming in the fall of 2022 from Evening Post Books.
Exhibit Image: The Gibbes Museum currently is featuring the powerful works of William H. Johnson, an African American artist born in Florence, S.C., in 1901, who spent time in Europe before becoming part of the New York art scene. He died in 1970. Photo by Adam Parker