Edmund Barry Gaither and the MFA

Adjunct Curator for African American Art

By: - Feb 26, 2015


Charles Giuliano I am pursuing an oral history of contemporary art in Boston with a focus on events at the MFA and ICA from the late 1960s through the present. You are a key player in that narrative starting with the special exhibition "African American Artists from New York and Boston." That also initiated your appointment as adjunct curator of the MFA while also serving as director of the National Center for African American Artists. Let's begin by discussing how these elements fell into place.

I just interviewed Dana C. Chandler, Jr. and he told me that the exhibition came about because of his petition to the MFA charging them with institutional racism. From other research it is my understanding that there were shows planned for the centennial year that fell through. So at the last minute there were gaps in the exhibition schedule. Another thread is that Barney Rubenstein, an artist at the Museum School, had started planning a show of African American artists.

Edmund Barry Gaither Barney was friendly with a group of African American artists of his own age who spend a lot of time at the Chelsea (Hotel in Manhattan). He had the idea to do a small show in the exhibition space of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. This was when Bill Bagnell was running the Museum School. That's one piece.

The second piece involves Elma Lewis going back several years before I came saying from time to time to Perry (T. Rathbone director of the MFA) that she wanted his help to start a museum of fine arts which she saw as a part of the National Center which did not formally incorporate until 1968.

(Elma Ina Lewis, September 15, 1921 – January 1, 2004, was an American arts educator and the founder of the National Center of Afro-American Artists and The Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts. She was one of the first recipients of a MacArthur Fellows Grant, in 1981, and received a Presidential Medal for the Arts by President Ronald Reagan in 1983. She was also an honorary member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. Lewis was born in Barbados and raised in Boston.)

Perry had exhibited a certain enthusiasm all the while feeling that it wasn't going to come to anything.

There was a conference in Chicago convened by Columbia College of creative black intellectuals. Miss Lewis was an attendee there. They spent a lot of time bellyaching that they had no place to be somebody. The National Negro Theatre was being born. There were dance things. There was no place that was for all of the arts and teaching. Miss Lewis came back to Boston with that at the front of her mind.

This coincides with another set of conversations she was having with Eli Golston. They had gone to school together. He was the head of Eastern Gas Company. He and Miss Lewis were friends since school days. Miss Lewis had been running the school for some time since 1950. We are talking now of the period 1967 to 1968. The school never had a home. It kept moving from time to time. She had most recently been at the Lewis School but the Boston School Committee was very unhappy and basically they were ousting her from there.

When she shared this with Eli he came up with a solution.

He was considering that one, the Jewish population in Roxbury was plummeting. So there was the property where Mishkan Tefila had been. It's a synagogue now in Brookline. The property we got was the property they had been in.

Eli put together a group of ten Jewish men and they got together a piece of money which they gave to Combined Jewish Philanthropies. At that time they were in Mattapan. CJP basically used this money to buy the property which had been the temple. This allowed the dwindling congregation to have money to move to Brookline.

Then in what he thought was a gesture of good will they gave the property to Miss Lewis. So when she got the property, and it coincided with the idea for a National Center as a professional entity with teaching, performing and visual arts, she saw the opportunity to give that concreteness as the National Center.

She came up with the idea of how to do this while not having a lot of money. She created relationships with cultural organizations that had long histories of doing excellent work. She used those to foster getting her pieces to work out.

From time to time she was saying to Perry that she was going to need his help. When this stuff falls in place in early 1969 she went back to him and said now he needs to follow through on promises which he had made. Perry initially balked. He said that there weren't any African American artists. That sort of got pushed back because John Wilson was a graduate of the Museum School and even at that point was well respected.

What came out of it was him saying we will help you if you find someone who we expect. That's how I got into the picture. In the summer of 1969 I was asked to come and interview by the MFA. I didn't meet Miss Lewis until I had come. Previously I had not know of the Center which was very new.

David Pickman was the publicist at the MFA. He was from the Pickman family in Belmont. He was the one who met me. He took me to meet Miss Lewis and John Francis who was the administrator for the Center. I met Bill Bagnell on that trip and of course I had a real conversation with Perry. I was very excited with Miss Lewis's idea. I was untempered enough to think that you could actually pull it off. Just by working at it. So I said yes.

In September of 1969 I came to an appointment that was without a model. On the National Center side when I actually got here I discovered that I actually had two jobs in one. I was going to be developing the museum and I was also going to be teaching in the art portion of the Elma Lewis School.

On the MFA side of it they were already feeling pressed by the controversy that was hitting large museums in their class. You will recall that just the year before the Metropolitan Museum had done "Harlem on My Mind" which had just gotten it into more hot water. Dana (Chandler) was in fact a voice of angry black artists at the time. So when I came the MFA also wanted me to do exhibitions there. I wanted to do them and tie them to the National Center so we began a process that ultimately produced eleven exhibitions. They were joint exhibitions but technically paid for by the MFA. For which I bore curatorial responsibility.

The 1970 show had multiple elements in its genesis. One element was the pressure that Dana (C. Chandler, Jr.) was essentializing. He was putting forward his published thesis on institutional racism.

(I asked Chandler if the document exists in his files. It is apparently lost.)

I was stepping in and was immediately expected to do something about it. Both by the artist (Chandler) and the MFA. The MFA was not quite sure what to expect because I was a very new and unknown quantity. The relationship which got structured between the MFA and the National Center was never written. There is no document and nothing was ever signed. So if it went south it could just be dropped.

Here's all this pressure coming from the artist pressing the MFA to do something. It wanted to respond in some way and they asked me what could be done. I wanted to do a national show that would be contemporary. It would have taken a year to a year and a half to organize.

The artists were afraid that if it took too long the MFA would find a way to repress it. So the artists were pressing me. Then I had to find a way to figure out what in fact could be done. I decided that the only way this could go forward was if a couple of things had to be done. One is that it would have to be limited to only New York and Boston. That's how it got to be only those two places.

The second thing was because I had met and started a friendship with Bill Bagnell, and he had introduced me to Barney (Rubenstein), I suggested to Barney that we roll together the effort that he had already begun to do something quite small at the Museum School and flesh it out.

I formed a relationship and we did what should have been a year of work in three months. We were going to New York every week. He and I were going together because he had this cluster of friends at the Chelsea (Hotel). We started with some of those people and I had my own list beyond that which was a broader list. We talked to those people as we were going along. We put the show together in this very compressed timetable.

CG Give me a sense of the Chelsea people.

BG If I had the list before me I could tell you who they are. Because in the end we had about 70 people who were in the show. That's how it came about.

CG At that point you were pursuing a master's degree at Brown.

BG Yes.

CG Did you go on to get a PhD?

BG No.

CG Were you getting a degree in African American art?

BG No. The work that I did at Brown was American Art. In fact I was in the process of changing from Brown to NYU for the reason that at Brown most of my two years had been in European art. The modern material there was all European.

I had been very interested in the work of Milton Brown.

(Milton Brown, 1911 to 1988, Marxist-methodology Americanist art historian. At NYU for his M.A., he studied under Walter Friedlaender, Erwin Panofsky and Meyer Schapiro. His intent was to study American art, however, NYU gave no courses in that area. Walter W. S. Cook of the Institute encouraged him to continue an interest. After a summer at the Courtauld Institute, London, funded by a Carnegie Scholarship in 1935 and a summer at University of Brussels in 1937, he completed a master's thesis, his French Revolutionary Painting, which he published the following year. He continued study at Harvard University's Fogg Art Museum between 1938 and 1939 in the museum course of Paul J. Sachs. His Ph. D. at the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU, in 1949, was titled "American Art from the Armory Show to the Depression." In 1974 he and Louise A. Parks curated the Jacob Lawrence show at the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 1979 his American Art to 1900 and the 1972 book American Art of the Twentieth Century by Sam Hunter were combined into American Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Decorative Arts, Photography. Brown was deeply affected by the political Marxism of the 1930s in the United States and was one of the early exponents of its application to art history.)

At the time Brown was at Brooklyn College. He wrote a wonderful book "Art Between the War Years" that I was very taken with. In it he had given lots of space to Jacob Lawrence. He had been interested in African American art as part of what had been artists to the left. I had been down to see him and he had agreed to become an adviser if I got based in New York. I had an acceptance to NYU from before I came to Rhode Island. But I didn't have any money to go there.

CG When you say NYU do you mean the Institute of Fine Arts or NYU?

BG NYU. So I was going to get based in NY and work with him. That was my plan. Boston was at the time a way to get around a particular problem. When I would go to talk to particular artists like Norman Lewis (1909–1979) they were all bitter about their experience at large. They were a little bitter that people kept coming and talking to them. Those people all ended up getting something out of it but they got nothing.

People were coming and getting their thesis finished and moving their career along. Interviewing and talking to them. They weren't selling for that reason. They weren't yet getting the visibility. They felt they were being used by people who had an agenda that didn't move them forward.

CG Are we assuming that these are white graduate students?

BG I'm assuming that the graduate students might have been a mix of both. I do know there were a few people at Howard who were interested in this kind of work as well.

The bottom line of it was if I could create exhibitions which give the artists something I could use the experience to collect the kind of information that I thought I would need. It wouldn't be a one way exchange. It would be a kind of mutual exchange. So I didn't intend to be in Boston for more than a year or two. I thought I would collect plenty of stuff then exit. That was my own plan it's just that it didn't work out at all that way.

CG You describe graduate work in the late 1960s. My question is what was the state of studies of African American art at that time? When we started to interact in the 1970s you would mention artists that I knew nothing about. Very little of that history was mainstream.

BG Here's where that difference comes in. There were a couple of books and quite a number of earlier catalogues. There were a number of essays on African American art that you really wouldn't know about. Lest you were involved with others who had the same interest. I had had a lot of help in my early thinking about this field from James Amos Porter. He was the head of the department of art at Howard. He was the author of "Modern Negro Art" published in 1942. He was the foremost art historian of this area. David Driscoll, who's a half generation older than I, I also knew. John Davis Hatch who had worked with the exhibition "Negro Artist Come of Age" which had been at the Albright Knox Museum in 1942. He had been in Atlanta at the same time I was a student there. I had access to him. Plus, when I came to college at Morehouse in 1962 I found myself immediately studying under the works of African American artists.

Hale Woodruff (1900–1980) had been commissioned to do his most important cycle of murals for Atlanta University in 1948-49. Finished in 1952 actually. They were in the rotunda of the library where I studied. Woodruff had founded the Atlanta University Annual in 1942. It was where artists from all across the country sent works for an annual exhibition. The university policy was to buy the prize winners from the annual. They comprised the Atlanta University Collection. That's now the Clark Atlanta Collection. Those works were distributed through the entire set of campuses of the two undergraduate colleges that were gender based Spelman and Morehouse. So I was always under those works.

My first acquaintance with art was with black visual artists. So before I got to graduate school my thinking was grounded in these key works. There was Dr. Porter who did the primary work for the discussion in the 20th century and to a lesser degree James Lewis at Morgan. You're well on the road to getting a framework for how these issues were shaping out. What I was bringing to this experience was a perspective grounded in an entirely different body of work. None of that work was a part of my graduate study. Graduate study had to do with methodology. And broader ideas around art and art criticism but not very specific to African American.

CG You had a firm academic base to pursue these studies once you found your field.

BG I think I had what at the time was as rich a grounding as was generally available. Because there were no departments for which African American art was a major. It was a concentration for study at Howard. To a lesser degree there were courses available at Fisk. In Atlanta there was a very active art scene to get a good grounding you would have to grow out of a lot of independent work.

CG Can you talk about Perry and the MFA?

BG I had a good personal relationship with Perry. The way things shook out at the MFA had to do with the following elements. I'm not sure I can rank these.

There was no real curator of paintings. Perry had that portfolio. It was pretty much Perry's decision that I would get this first opportunity to do that show in 1970.

CG Where does George Seybolt come into this?

BG He was chairman of the board of trustees. Frankly, George Seybolt was to me kind of like a Dutch uncle. He was a mentor. He liked me. George was a largely self made man. His early life had been rooted through a military academy. He didn't belong to the social strata that you might have most quickly thought of for a man who was chair of the board of the MFA. Because he had made himself and the great success that Underwood Deviled products was, and because he did have a genuine interest in museums, he had a great respect for going against the odds.

He and Miss Lewis held enormous respect for each other. But frankly they couldn't stay in the same room for very long. They both were enormously willful personalities. Disrespect from some for her was because she made the school, the center, and pushed a place for herself in the arts environment through her will. That kind of willful self making was something he admired. When she said she wanted a relationship, and would find somebody who would qualify for what the MFA required, then he was quite willing to go along with her. So he was a steadfast supporter.

CG In doing this research it takes us ever deeper into complex events and issues. This morning I was looking in the MFA section of my library for the catalogue that promoted the protest from Dana Chandler and others. I came across a pamphlet from 1970.

(Ad Hoc Policy Review Committee Report to the Trustees; Erwin D. Canham, Chairman, John Coolidge, Vice Chairman, Nelson W. Aldrich. James N. Ames, Mrs. Paul Bernat, Lewis P. Cabot, William A. Coolidge, John L. Gardner, Perry T. Rathbone, George C. Seybolt, Jeptha H. Wade, Walter M. Whitehill. "It has met no less than 24 times...)

In Section D. "Summary" there are interesting points. Under "An Overview" 2. it states that "The attitude of the museum both within the walls and in the community should be that of openness, helping individuals and ethnic groups in their search for meaning and identity."

Another interesting item under "Specific Recommendations" 5. states that " Curator of Contemporary Arts should be appointed and appropriate provision made for pre-Columbian and 'primitive' art."

So there it is in the language of the board room. The report reflects upon the MFA's image and how it was being regarded by concerned individuals and communities. There was an awareness from within of a need for change. I received my copy of the report as a member of the media.

BG I served on two working groups for the American Association of Museums on equity and diversity in the 1980s. Then I served on Museums for a New Century. It was a blueprint for 2000. At that time Seybolt was chair of the subgroup of trustees of the American Association of Museums. He had been instrumental in getting the National Museum Bill passed. I testified in Congress for that to happen. From my view George had been a very progressive guy.

Perry lined up for this to be able to happen because from the top he wanted that to happen. I think that George was joined on the trustees by a couple of other people Esther Anderson was a strong supporter of the relationship. She was a great admirer of Miss Lewis as well.

CG She was thought of as the mother of the museum school.

BG Yes. Esther Anderson, Cathy White. They were both supportive of this new kind of relationship. The 1970 show, from the inside, had the great plus. Well, here are the distinctions of that show.

No museum in the class of the MFA had done such a show before ours. The closest to that had been the Met's "Harlem on My Mind." Which, as you know, was not a fine arts show. It had come in for a lot of criticism.

The big pubic issues that were playing out at the time were that these very large public institutions had ignored and continued to ignore the presence and contribution of African American artists. So that summarizes the institutional racism argument.

The other discussion was that these institutions refused to give critical voice to thinking from within the tradition itself. That the curators were not black. That issue had risen to a very high level in the case of Allon Schoener and "Harlem on My Mind." So when I did the show here in Boston it was a kind of hearty response to that. As you recall from some of the stuff that transpired in The New York Times with my response (to "Harlem on My Mind") and the Benny Andrews response to the issue of curatorial voice. In New York the Harlem Emergency Cultural Coalition was formalized to continue that argument forward.

In the moment Boston was actually faring a little better. Because we were actually doing a whole series of shows. For which I was the curatorial voice.

CG Can we describe that programming?

BG It happened on two levels. On the strictly art historical side of it in the 1970s show it was all contemporary with around 100 to 180 pieces and 70 artists. The next year I did a 19th century show. It included the artists Bannister (Edward Mitchell Bannister, 1828–1901) and Duncanson (Robert Scott Duncanson, 1821–1872) It was the occasion of acquiring "Dog's Head of Scotland," 1870, by Duncanson. It brought forward new attention to Bannister who had been a New Englander. He was active in Providence. He had won a bronze medal at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876. He was a part of the circle of people who ultimately created the Rhode Island School of Design. So I did the show on him.

Then I did the show on Lois Jones (Lois Mailou Jones, 1905–1998). There had not been a one woman show of an African American artist in a major museum. So that was new ground.

CG Wasn't there a recent show of her work at the MFA?

BG Yes a year and a half ago. The family gave work to the MFA. The anchor work in that show was "Ubi Girl of the Tai Region" which the MFA purchased from the show I did at the MFA in the 1970s. That's a region in Liberia. As I recall the work was executed in 1972. She was a graduate of the Museum School.

CG So there were people at the Museum School. Obviously Alan Crite (1910–2007), and John Wilson (1922-2015).

BG The early black figures who went to the Museum School include Edwin Augustus Halston who went there around 1905. He was a portrait painter from Charleston with a wonderfully romantic touch. He died in 1931. He took back to Charleston the portrait style which was well established at the Museum School. Sargent Johnson (1888–1967), a sculptor who worked mainly on the West Coast went briefly to the Museum School. They both went there before Lois who enters in 1923 or 1924. Allan (Crite) enters in the very beginning of the 1930s and John Wilson goes there in 1940. Others who studied but didn't complete the program include James Reuben Reed and Calvin Burnett (1921–2007). Calvin is more associated with the Mass College of Art. Just as Richard Yarde is more associated with BU. We are already now well after WWII.

Gaither  Interview Part Two.

Interview with Dana C. Chandler, Jr..