Art Matters by Donnetta Johnson, Executive Director, Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum

I grew up in an African American and Caribbean community just four blocks from the Brooklyn Museum. As a child I spent endless hours wandering through museum halls filled with strange faces and stories that seemed to have little to do with me. In public school, we were regularly treated to visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, Carnegie Hall, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Later, while in college, I had an exciting opportunity to work at the American Craft Museum and experienced innovative textiles, ceramics, and woodworking. I took full advantage of my museum ID to gain free entry to museums across the city. I will forever be grateful for the seemingly unlimited and enriching creative indulgences that I absorbed from some of the world’s greatest artists and institutions. Unbeknownst to me, however, I was also absorbing important messages about my place in the world. My reflection was completely absent from these environments. In these spaces, my culture’s contributions were invisible. Thus, the message I received was that I did not matter in the world of art and culture.

As a young adult, I started to question the absence of Black artists and their work in the prominent spaces I visited. I started to search for places where I belonged. My first exposure to Black artists came when I learned about the Harlem Renaissance. Afterward, I gravitated to the street artists, galleries, and cultural centers of Harlem, where I discovered the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. I knew that Black culture profoundly impacted the musical and culinary cultures of America. Now I became aware that brilliant African American visual artists have helped shape the visual culture of the United States and that African artists have been influencing the art world—from the arts of ancient Egypt and the great West and Central African kingdoms to the expropriated aesthetics that became a source of profound inspiration for the European modernists and my Brooklyn homeboy Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Yet despite these great influences, in the United States and beyond, artists of color have not been recognized for their talents, achievements, and contributions. I observed that when we thought of the important currents in art history, the names and images that surfaced were overwhelmingly those of white artists. Within the highly segregated rooms where decisions were made, BIPOC creatives had been almost entirely disregarded. This lack of recognition culminated in a world seen through the lens of white curators, artists, and arts professionals and in a popular view of art that almost exclusively acknowledged the talents of white artists. People of color were seen only through the white gaze.

I wondered: what happens to individuals and the viewing public when they are denied the full and diverse scope of artistic beauty and accomplishment as well as the larger landscape of stories and points of view? I began to view cultural organizations with mistrust and resentment, as I felt the denial of art that reflected my story was a denial of my very self.

Art expresses the soul of the human by expressing our struggles, joys, whimsies, relationships, and all that is essential. Art serves as a vessel of expression that depicts the social, political, and economic realities of the artist’s lived experiences and imagination, but it also acts as a form of powerful cultural protest. I am inspired every day by groundbreaking artists such as Basquiat, Kara Walker, Wangechi Mutu, Simone Leigh, Romare Bearden, and so many others.

If we are ever going to expand our ability to know and understand one another’s experiences and truth, we need to expand our ability to experience one another’s art, whether it is visual, literary, theatrical, or musical.

In an environment in which BIPOC, women, and LGBTQ+ artists are demanding representation and seats at tables where representation is decided, more artists are leaving the margins and becoming recognized in the mainstream—boldly and unapologetically illustrating their truths.

Fortunately, contemporary audiences are becoming increasingly interested in diversity in the arts—prompting museums, libraries, theaters, and other cultural institutions to shine a spotlight on the work of artists from around the world whose representation is long overdue.

The most important lesson that I have learned is that marginalized communities cannot wait for larger and more powerful institutions to tell our stories. In order to accurately capture our experiences, we must be in charge of telling our stories by creating our own institutions and missions and then creating synergistic partnerships to share the unique cultures, experiences, and contributions of our beautiful and diverse communities.

Donnetta Johnson
Executive Director, Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum