Mounting Frustration

The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power

Mounting Frustration

Art History Publication Initiative

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Book Pages: 360 Illustrations: 113 illustrations (incl. 20 in Published: February 2016

Author: Susan E. Cahan

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, American Studies, Art and Visual Culture > Art Criticism and Theory

Prior to 1967 fewer than a dozen museum exhibitions had featured the work of African American artists. And by the time the civil rights movement reached the American art museum, it had already crested: the first public demonstrations to integrate museums occurred in late 1968, twenty years after the desegregation of the military and fourteen years after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision. In Mounting Frustration Susan E. Cahan investigates the strategies African American artists and museum professionals employed as they wrangled over access to and the direction of New York City's elite museums. Drawing on numerous interviews with artists and analyses of internal museum documents, Cahan gives a detailed and at times surprising picture of the institutional and social forces that both drove and inhibited racial justice in New York's museums.

Cahan focuses on high-profile and wildly contested exhibitions that attempted to integrate African American culture and art into museums, each of which ignited debate, dissension, and protest. The Metropolitan Museum's 1969 exhibition Harlem on My Mind was supposed to represent the neighborhood, but it failed to include the work of the black artists living and working there. While the Whitney's 1971 exhibition Contemporary Black Artists in America featured black artists, it was heavily criticized for being haphazard and not representative. The Whitney show revealed the consequences of museums' failure to hire African American curators, or even white curators who possessed knowledge of black art. Cahan also recounts the long history of the Museum of Modern Art's institutional ambivalence toward contemporary artists of color, which reached its zenith in its 1984 exhibition "Primitivism" in Twentieth Century Art. Representing modern art as a white European and American creation that was influenced by the "primitive" art of people of color, the show only served to further devalue and cordon off African American art.

In addressing the racial politics of New York's art world, Cahan shows how aesthetic ideas reflected the underlying structural racism and inequalities that African American artists faced. These inequalities are still felt in America's museums, as many fundamental racial hierarchies remain intact: art by people of color is still often shown in marginal spaces; one-person exhibitions are the preferred method of showing the work of minority artists, as they provide curators a way to avoid engaging with the problems of complicated, interlocking histories; and whiteness is still often viewed as the norm. The ongoing process of integrating museums, Cahan demonstrates, is far broader than overcoming past exclusions.


"Using a number of interviews with artists and an analysis of internal museum documents, Cahan perfectly renders the tenor of those volatile times. The elites of the art museum world are brought to task for their misguided attempts at inclusiveness and subtle (and not-so-subtle) attempts to preserve the status quo. Anyone interested in American art and society will find plenty to ponder in this thoughtful work." — Carolyn Mulac, Booklist

"Cahan should be lauded for her meticulous investigations, starting her research in 1990, and conducting numerous interviews with the artists and administrators in question. She relays a taxonomical breadth of information that is as nauseating as it is intoxicating."  — Terence Trouillot, BOMB

(Starred Review) "This essential publication, focusing exclusively on New York City’s art museums in the wake of the civil rights movement, shines a revealing light on the artists, museum staff, and activists who were involved in the effort to force large art institutions to 'face artists’ demands for justice and equality.' . . . This thorough and unrelenting examination gives invaluable history as well as context for the present struggle to create and maintain diversity in art museums." — Publishers Weekly

"... [W]e owe Cahan a debt. American museums in the late 1960s and early '70s were suffused with the same racist assumptions and practices as other major social institutions. Many individuals within the cultural realm-curators, artists, critics, trustees and directors—acted disingenuously, even scandalously at times. While the prospect of a 'post-racial' society clearly continues to elude us in the era of Black Lives Matter, reexamining a selection of the exhibitions from a time of significant social upheaval can help us understand the ways in which we have changed, and how much further we have to go to achieve equality of opportunity and just representation."  — Steven C. Dubin, Art in America

"[A] fascinating monograph. [Cahan's] carefully researched study documents a largely unknown chapter in the history of New York’s most prominent art museums and sets it within a broader account of the museums’ histories, social history, and evolving civil rights activities." — Andrea Kirsch, Art Blog

"Mounting Frustration is likely a report more relevant than any CNN production. . . . Aside from simply telling a story, Cahan spent five years working as a senior curator and arts program director for the Collection of Eileen and Peter Norton and Peter Norton Family Foundation. There, she assisted the Nortons in their mission to support emerging black artists. She has also done more written work and service related to social inequalities in the art community."  — Zuri Ward, Blavity

"[M]eticulously researched. . . . As Mounting Frustration persuasively establishes, major museums in the US have historically done a deplorable job of representing black artists, other artists of color, and women artists, who are tokenized by ever-churning cycles of celebration and dismissal—what Cahan calls 'waves'—in part because large art institutions are not only dependent on but impregnated with the ideology of the ruling class that funds them." — Julia Bryan-Wilson, Artforum

"Mounting Frustration comprises well-researched, elegantly crafted case studies of the museum world in New York City during the rise of the Black Power movement.  Telling the stories from the perspective of someone who worked in the trenches, Cahan offers the kind of insights and perspectives available to only those who understand the inner workings of institutions. . . . this book is vital for any inquiry into US museums and how those museums continue to take shape.  Her pointed and precise use of archival material makes this book not just a history but also a model for scholarly inquiry. Highly recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty and professionals; general readers." — K. P. Buick, Choice

"With an extensive bibliography and list of notes, Cahan does a thorough job of providing a detailed historical overview and analyses of the struggles African Americans faced with exhibiting their work in New York City museums. Highly recommended for students and faculty studying, and anyone interested in, museum studies, art history, and ethnic studies." — Tina Chan, ARLIS/NA Reviews

"Mounting Frustration is a welcome addition to the growing literature interrogating blacks and museums.... It offers scholars, as well as practitioners, a much-needed historical perspective on diversity and museums." — Patricia A. Banks, Ethnic and Racial Studies

"Mounting Frustration powerfully zeroes in on the moment museums were forced to address the neglect of artists of color, mapping artists’ ways of fighting the establishment and the ways in which artists and administrators chose to take action. . . . [W]hile critique can often read as a sermon, or laundry list, of how things should be, Cahan has instead researched and presented a chronology of museums’ misguided practices that have helped maintain the art world as a place for racially privileged elites and the methods that curators and administrators used to do so—despite heavy resistance from artists and the public since the ’60s."
  — Alexandra Fowle, The Brooklyn Rail

"Cahan’s work will be a useful map to practitioners and students thinking about contemporary aesthetic segregation, and how to continue to rupture the divisions in place. It’s a field guide in many ways, of what has been said and done, what was momentarily successful and surprising—so that those dedicated and those newly interested might imagine new ways to attack, transform." — Eunsong Kim, Contemp+orary

"Mounting Frustration is a crucial read for anyone who is interested in understanding why the New York art world looks the way it does. The book also furthers an understanding of how activism and negotiation can be used to change institutions going forward." — Isaac Kaplan, Artsy

"[Mounting Frustration] contributes welcome new material to our understanding and critical study of twentieth-century museum history and to the contexts within which artists, particularly Black artists, operated. With or without good intentions, institutions fought mightily against change, accepted it grudgingly, executed it badly, and/or abandoned it quickly. In so doing, if only unintentionally, they spurred successive generations of artists to politically astute, critically informed, and inventive work." — Rebecca Zorach, Critical Inquiry

"Cahan’s meticulously researched book makes an important contribution to understanding the strategies that the art world used to maintain prerogatives of power and position— a shameful story dispassionately and insightfully told." — Peter M. Rutkoff, Journal of American History

"[A] finely grained history of the New York art establishment’s attempts circa 1970 to reckon with African American representation. . . . By focusing on institutional politics, Mounting Frustration illuminates the sub rosa negotiations—conceptual, ideological, and actual—shaping museological practice, a valuable perspective on the mechanisms of hegemony that complements scholarship on art production and reception in the period. . . ." — Anne Monahan, CAA Reviews

"Mounting Frustration is an engaging, thoroughly researched account of how that liberal retreat from integration mediated the New York art world’s experience of a movement to eradicate its governing practices of white supremacy.... Cahan’s collection of twenty-three interviews with artists and museum professionals consistently provides the narrative’s most illuminating pieces of evidence." — Benji de la Piedra, Oral History Review

"Calling on meticulous archival research alongside twenty years of individual interviews with combatants from both sides, Susan Cahan has produced a major contribution to the institutional and intellectual history of American art museums.... A must-read book for anyone who wants to understand the issues of race in the art world system, both then and now." — Fath Davis Ruffins, Winterthur Portfolio

"Mounting Frustration enriches knowledge of the institutional histories of museums in New York City that responded to race and protest. Cahan’s literary and intersectional approach suits the archival material, which she unpacks and places in tension coded messages, problematic viewpoints, and outright racist commentary. For this reason Mounting Frustration is relevant to the fields of African American, US, and modernist art histories and museum studies." — Julia Elizabeth Neal, Nka

"Mounting Frustration is essential reading for anyone who is considering becoming a curator or seeking a career related to museums. While not every person with a casual interest in the history of art or museums will make time to read the entire book, anyone who sincerely cares about the role of museums in society absolutely should." — Anthony D. Stepter, Fwd: Museums

"In this book, Susan E. Cahan illuminates a discourse over inclusion that took place all over the country, and not just in visual art, but even in opera and ballet where the very presence of the black body became an issue. Her analysis reveals the museums' duplicity, confusion, and attempts to serve only their own interests. The names of excluded artists repeated in this book are shocking, as are the indications that curators claimed to have not known of people like Jacob Lawrence. Mounting Frustration is a most welcome means of cracking the silence and complacency around the retrenchment since activists opened the discourse on who owns culture." — Thulani Davis, author of My Confederate Kinfolk: A Twenty-First Century Freedwoman Discovers Her Roots

"A long overdue, well-researched history, citing heroes and villains, of the struggle waged by artists of color to get their work recognized by the white art establishment. Naming names, recounting specific battles, and giving an accurate picture of the inner workings of a dismissive museum bureaucracy determined to guard its Eurocentric heritage, Susan E. Cahan has done a remarkable job of reporting on a conflict that, despite some hard-won victories for artists, still simmers." — Grace Glueck, art writer and critic

"The history of cultural politics in America is one both of individual insights and collective initiatives, of attempts to grasp the meaning of deeply embedded social and economic inequalities, and the equally profound misunderstandings that have bedeviled most attempts to translate painfully slow changes in attitudes toward race and class into enduring changes in institutional structures. Susan E. Cahan's study of how American museums tried and largely failed to break this pattern in the 1960s and 1970s is a major contribution to the field of institutional critique. Unlike many, though, it is informed by a close analysis of personalities and events. It will be a touchstone both for scholars and those trying hard to avoid repeating mistakes of the past—especially those who were 'well-intentioned' but woefully inattentive to the harsh realities they sought to address."  — Robert Storr, artist, critic, curator, and Professor of Painting at the Yale School of Art


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Susan E. Cahan is Dean, Tyler School of Art at Temple University, the editor of I Remember Heaven: Jim Hodges and Andy Warhol, and the coeditor of Contemporary Art and Multicultural Education. She has directed programs at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Peter Norton Family Foundation.

Art History Publication Initiative

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Illustrations  vii

Acknowledgments  xiii

Introduction  1

1. Electronic Refractions II at the Studio Museum in Harlem  13

2. Harlem on My Mind at the Metropolitan Museum of Art  31

3. Contemporary Back Artists in America at the Whitney Museum of American Art  109

4. Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual and The Sculpture of Richard Hunt at the Museum of Modern Art  171

Epilogue  253

Notes  269

Bibliography  319

Index  335
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