In a sense, one could say that the United States’ greatest contribution to the history of art is the development of popular culture—movies, rock and roll, and the like. Next summer, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures will open in Los Angeles on the Miracle Mile, in the legendary May Company Building and in an impressive addition designed by Renzo Piano, right next door to LACMA.
One of the first exhibitions that will be mounted there, “Regeneration: Black Cinema 1900-1970” (co-curated with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture), will make visible a virtually unknown rich—and loaded—history of black cinema and the ways in which African Americans have been portrayed in film.
This exhibition will not only rewrite our understanding of the history of film, but also of American social culture, mostly fueled by discrimination, segregation, and stereotypes, that should inevitably lay bare ruptures and traumas that this country has still not fully acknowledged or dealt with. This show has the potential to do nothing less than rewrite our understanding of American history through the history of entertainment.
“Regeneration” is the winner of this year’s $250,000 Sotheby’s Prize. There were so many great applications that it was incredibly difficult deciding who the winner should be, but ultimately the jury was unanimous that, of all those trailblazing ideas, the potential impact of an exhibition of this sort doesn’t come around very often.
Obviously, the quality of a prize depends on its jury and their thoughtfulness. Ours consisted of Connie Butler, Donna De Salvo, Okwui Enwezor, Emilie Gordenker and Sir Nicholas Serota (and myself). They are a dream team of great museum directors and curators with a wide range of viewpoints and histories. Many of us have intersected with one another before, but never as a group.
I find the days that the jurors meet (after countless hours each individually reviewing the applications) to be two of the richest and most fulfilling of the year. Several of the jurors said that during our discussions they engage in the kind of thought-provoking dialog that should be the life force of a curator, but for which they rarely have time.
The goal of the prize is to support the kinds of creative and groundbreaking exhibitions that have become increasingly difficult to fund, and that are therefore disappearing in favor of safe blockbuster exhibitions and monographic shows of proven artistic giants—to, in a sense, protect curatorial freedom. (For more on the trends revealed in the applications—and the jury’s take on them—read “Sex is down, spirituality is up”)
We felt strongly about so many of the applicants that we decided to commend five other exhibitions, awarding each a $10,000 prize. What we have come to realize in the very brief history of the prize is that even acknowledging an exhibition with a commendation often plays a critical role in the ability of an institution to fund the exhibition.
Each commendee was selected for the strength of its project. At the same time, when we reviewed the list of shows we had chosen to commend, we realized that it covers an extraordinary international and contextual range that addresses all different kinds of institutions, concepts and audiences.
“Jackson Hlungwani: Alt and Omega”
Norval Foundation, Cape Town, February-July 2020
This is a survey of the work of South African artist Jackson Hlungwani (1923-2010), who combined traditions including Tsonga-Shangaan woodcarving, South African spirituality, popular culture and Biblical narratives with a consciousness of the Modern. He was highly revered in South African but little known outside.
“For Today I Am a Boy: Contemporary Queer Abstraction”
Des Moines Art Center, 1 June-8 September 2019
Queer abstraction supports the work of a leading younger curator and looks at how the language of abstraction, which we have historically viewed as a universal one, has been used in both direct and covert ways to explore issues of sexuality and gender.
“Henry Moore: The Helmet Heads”
Wallace Collection, London, 6 March-23 June 2019
This show brings fresh insight to an artist we thought we knew very well. Juxtaposing the Wallace Collection’s great collection of helmets with sculptures and drawings by Moore, which is intended to demonstrate the strong yet underexamined relationship between Moore’s sculpture and medieval and Renaissance armor, which Moore studied and sketched from early on and extensively during his life.
“Zumu: A Museum on the Move”
Next stop Hura, Israel, Summer 2019
Zumu is a mobile museum and educational project that travels through Israel, bringing art to people who may not have had access to it before, focusing next specifically on Bedouin communities. We were all very impressed with how this grassroots project rethinks what a museum can be.
“Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott”
Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinatti, September 2019-February 2020
Readers of this newsletter will know my personal admiration for the work of Robert Colescott. Long overdue, this major retrospective is dedicated to one of the most important African American artists and is curated by Lowery Stokes Sims, who is the great expert on Colescott’s work. Given the growing current interest in the work of contemporary African American artists, this exhibition could not be more perfectly timed.