Dallas — Well I’d be remiss if during Black History Month I didn’t write something that relates to this topic, so here goes.
As a black artist who navigates within a white art world, I am often reminded of why I persist despite often being disillusioned about the representation of black artists in cultural institutions. I guess I know that so many came before me who never said “die” so I don’t have the right to give up simply because my life in the arts has been a continuous battle for recognition and respect.
I sometimes think about my earliest interaction with white supremacy in the arts when I decided I was going to go to art school and was admitted to Rhode Island School of Design as the only black female in the school (notice I didn’t say in my class!) and how ridiculous it struck me that there weren’t more of me attending this “prestigious” academy. I didn’t last very long there primarily because by 1968, the spring semester of my freshman year, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and the isolation I felt in that environment, one that not only was extremely white but also extremely wealthy, wasn’t conducive to my stable mental health!
So, even though I had no black faculty members to relate to and only one black fellow student who was a male (and who, by the way, I couldn’t stand!), I had somehow thought my multicultural, multi-racial experience growing up had prepared me to attend RISD. I couldn’t have been more wrong!
At a meeting the administration had at the behest of a group of black “militant” Brown University students (the university up the hill from RISD) to discuss the school being more responsive to the needs of black students (all two of us!) the question was asked, and I think in earnest, who was out there who could be considered either to join the faculty or be a visiting artist? To my disgust, none of the demanding Brown students (and the one RISD student) had an answer. So, although I knew I was skedaddling out of Providence as soon as I could get my bags packed, I stood up and rattled off a list of names of prominent black artists who they should approach.
It was at that moment that I realized how fortunate I was that my parents had seen fit to equip me with the knowledge about artists like Elizabeth Catlett, Selma Burke, Jacob Lawrence, Gwen, Knight, Laura Waring, Samella Lewis, Charles White, Romare Bearden, Paul Keene, John Biggers, Barbara Chase and a host of other black artists living and deceased, in their quest to affirm my choice to become an artist. I also made sure the RISD folks knew that a black artist Edward Bannister was one of the founders of the academy that they loved so much and that one would never guess this was true given how white everything was in 1968.
So, moving on from this experience, I transferred to Tyler School of Fine Arts in Elkins Park, Penn., to finish my BFA degree and I must say, although there weren’t tons of black art students, I found myself less isolated and certainly less marginalized. But even at Tyler, which is a school I loved, I had a white painting instructor who immediately questioned my sense of aesthetics when he asked why I thought I could use certain colors to create my still life painting? His remarks stuck with me for years and although I was always a sculpture major, given that Elizabeth Catlett was my idol, I could easily have seen myself also painting since I also admired John Biggers, who was a buddy of my dad’s. However, my confidence was shaken and I found myself shying away from painting thenceforth.
Graduate school provided and an even more isolating and marginalizing experience since I chose to do work that was firmly rooted in my personal experiences that, in the 1960s, were particularly political and racial in nature. This was not embraced with enthusiasm by my all white faculty at the University of Wisconsin but since I stuck it out and produced a MFA exhibition, I ended up walking away with my degree. I should add that this accomplishment was not without several challenges from faculty who thought I should consider just getting a MA since that would be easier and less expensive (and would effectively rule me out from competing for any coveted university positions, all of which required a MFA degree).
Now, let me move on to the world of art post-graduate school and my attempt at getting gallery representation. Lucky for me, I never had any illusions about being a gallery artist, I think largely because I’d never seen many black artists in commercial white galleries. I knew that Jake Lawrence had such representation and so did Romie Bearden but beyond them, I hadn’t seen too many others who had cracked that nut.
So I knew I had to make a living doing something else besides making sculptures. I taught on the university level for a few years but realized that my energy was better spent making art since no university was going to give me tenure. Arts administration became the savior because I could work in a job that paid a decent wage but that didn’t milk the creative energy needed to produce art.
So that is the path I took until I moved to Dallas in 1980 when I decided to become a fulltime artist. My new home allowed me to become an artist in residence for the City Arts Program (now Office of Cultural Affairs). I loved this phase of my life, albeit a short one, because I had a chance to comingle with so many other artists in varied disciplines and I think it’s also this period of my Dallas life that led me towards championing the underserved communities and artists here. Of course, I also had the experience of having no one in Dallas pay any attention to my work until some years had passed and I was included in a major show at The Museum of Fine Arts Houston. But by this time, I no longer worried about representation in the white art world per se because I had found a vehicle for showing vis-à-vis the alternative arts space world.
So as Black History Month draws to a close, I am more keenly aware of how important my grounding in Black Art History was to my sustainability in an art world that never meant for me to sustain. The shoulders I stand on are broad and varied but mostly, black and proud! Happy Black History Month everybody!
» Vicki Meek is a former arts manager, a practicing artist and activist splitting her time between Dallas and Costa Rica. ART-iculate explores issues around race, politics and the arts. You can also keep up with Meek's musings in her blog Art & Racenotes.
» ART-iculate runs on the fourth Wednesday of the month.
- Vicki Meek ART-iculates (April 2016)
- On Dallas and Cultural Equity (May 2016)
- Equity vs. Diversity (June 2016)
- An Arts Super PAC? (July 2016)
- Too Big to Fail? (August 2016)
- It Isn't Us Against Them (September 2016)
- Another Missed Opportunity (October 2016)
- Neighborhood Arts Center: Not a New Idea (November 2016)
- Save Our Summer Programs (Decemeber 2016)
- The Creative Community in the Trump Era (January 2016)