Despite an off-beat residential location, one Boston arts
museum has continued to serve the local, area and national
Afro-American community while recently overseeing a strong
rise in attendance.
in the predominantly black neighborhood of Roxbury, The Museum
of the National Center of Afro-American Artists attracted
nearly 12,000 visitors in 1987, up from 7,000 only a few years
ago, according to museum assistant director/registrar Harriet
numbers are growing. Were working on getting new audiences,
and thats very important for the museum any museum,
Kennedy said during an interview in her office. Were
not on the main road so we dont get people to come in
as often off the street as they would in a museum thats
more visible to the general public.
amid a well-kept middle class district at 300 Walnut Avenue,
the museum since 1980 has been housed in a dark 1870s Victorian
mansion with neo-Gothic details. The hilltop estate is encircled
by a stone fence within which are a score of huge, ancient
oaks. Even in the early spring, the trees obscure the three-story
edifice from a streetside view.
of the easier means to reach the facility by public transportation
also points out its relative isolation. Taking a Forest Hills
bus from Ruggles or Dudley Station travel out Washington
Street to Cobden, a small cross street. Walk several blocks
up Cobden until it ends at Walnut Avenue. Turn left from there
and continue on to the David Ellis School. The museum grounds
are just behind the school. Other routes may be more convenient
and directions are available from the museum at (617) 442-8614.
arrived at the site, one of the first things that stood out
was a massive bust of a black man at the left of the front
entrance. Eternal Presence by Roxbury-native sculptor
John Wilson is on permanent display, dedicated in November
1987. An identification plaque plainly states its theme: Celebrating
Black Creativity Since the Birth of Civilization.
exact figures were not immediately available, museum attendance
reportedly has been increasing since the first of the year.
Kennedy attributes much of that growth to the Wilson bust:
Theyre coming in now to see the wonderful John
Wilson sculpture we have on our lawn. Thats getting
a lot of play. We understand they just did an article, I think
in Essence magazine.
getting out even nationally so that people will come and visit,
and a lot of local people are coming to see it.
addition to the Wilson sculpture the museum has another outdoor
work, a modern avant-garde composition entitled Rosie
by Roxbury artist Robert Tinch. Unfortunately, the white and
orange synthetic compilation, originally part of a Tinch exhibition
two years ago, has been defaced by graffiti. And unlike the
Wilson piece, Rosie has no readily identifiable
plaque or marker.
April the museum had two public exhibitions. Within The Boston
Gallery space were 17 authentic African tribal masks. Entitled
The African Mask, the display of museum-owned
pieces ranged from one with seashells woven into colored cloth
to a six-foot creation designed to envelope head, torso and
otherwise attractive exhibit of mid-19th to early 20th century
works was hampered by a complete lack of identification labels.
Kennedy explained that the labels were ready but had not yet
Boston gallery is normally reserved for greater Boston and
New England artists. Funded by the National Endowment for
the Arts, the gallery annually houses seven locally-based
shows booked twelve months in advance. The African mask display
was a last-minute replacement for a cancelled photography
selected for the gallery tend to be long-time New England
residents who have not enjoyed widespread exposure. Generally
the artists that apply for The Boston Gallery have to be living
in the New England area for at least ten years but who have
not had the opportunity to exhibit widely in appropriate spaces,
noted Kennedy, curator of the gallery. So it gives them
the opportunity to be seen, to have a one-person show, although
we have shown as many as three people at any one time.
exhibit of Haitian art is scheduled for the gallery in June
and July. Thereafter, planned shows include Henry DeLeon,
sculptor; Ben Peterson, prints and drawings; and Girma Belachew,
than forty works of paintings, prints and construction art
comprised the other mid-April exhibitions. On loan from and
organized by the Afro-American Museum of Los Angeles, the
traveling exhibit The Portrayal of the Black Musician
in America Art offered a view of the ways in which black
musicians, and by implication blacks as a whole, have been
characterized in America since its earliest days.
work was an enlarged photograph of an early 19th century gravestone
topped by a carved violin. Accompanying information describes
the marker as one illustration of how talents of the
slaves or itinerant black musicians were viewed in the nineteenth
century and his importance in some communities. The
grave for Anthony Hannibal Clapp (1749-1819) reads in part:
Upon the violin, few played as Toney playd, His
artless music was a language universal and its Effect
rather benign oil on canvas A Virginny Breakdown
circa 1889 by John Adams Elder shows a young man dancing and
another playing a type of mouthpiece while two women look
on as they tend to children and chores. The whole scene has
an aura of hazy pastoral homestead life within which the stereotyped
black poor are somehow pleasantly satisfied.
a modern piece of acidic sarcasm prominently illustrates the
phrase Ive got rhythm on the cover of a
metronome next to a dated caricature of a black tamborine
man. Inside the device is a black skeleton fixed to the timing
rod above a small US flag. The skeleton hangs in front of
an early to mid-1960s photo of whites some looking
to the side, some up and others straight ahead. Intended or
not, the shadow of the skeleton makes a hideously sharp image
on the unaware audience. At the side of the metronome controlling
the winding key is a hooded, rifle carrying klansman.
assistant director made it very clear that while the museum
regularly notifies the media about shows and programs, they
are not, according to her, given much attention:
media has not given us enough, they dont give us enough
publicity especially for exhibitions and reviews. They dont
like to come out and do that kind of thing for our artists.
thats a constant source of discontent among the (black)
artists here in Boston. I think theyre fairly justified
in feeling that way. None of them gets the kind of attention
of Bostons two major daily newspapers, however, replied
they had given appropriate coverage to the NCAAA museum based
on its size and focus.
managing editor for arts and entertainment at The Boston
Herald, Bill Weber commented via telephone, Its
certainly not true that were ignoring them. Youre
forced as a matter of space to provide coverage according
to how things fall within various levels. The Museum of Fine
Arts is in the first level. And then theres a secondary
level. They (the NCAAA) certainly fall into that level. I
wish we could cover more.
Globe arts editor John Koch in a telephone interview agreed
that it was probably true the NCAAA museum did
not get the kind of coverage it deserved. And I am particularly
aware that we need to do more as far as the visual arts are
concerned. But we probably do as much as we can.
added that his staff had only two reporters on the arts beat
as museum shows are concerned. And those two only cover that
beat on a part-time basis, he noted. We need more space,
on Kennedys comment about a lack of local media coverage
on black artists, Koch replied, To suggest there is
some kind of agenda (at The Globe) just isnt
of the NCAAA museums agenda includes ongoing and special
programs for education of elementary to university-level students.
We train fifth-graders to be docents (knowledgeable
exhibit guides). And we also have an adult program for docents,
Kennedy gave as examples of special museum efforts. I
believe we are the only program in the country doing it for
museum also sets aside available space for outside agencies
doing educational arts for children. Twice a week during the
school term a group sponsored by the locally based Arts in
Progress organization has multimedia arts instruction classes
at the NCAAA.
of our programs deal with story telling, some of them with
music, drama, poetry and writing, class instructor Rafiki
Franklin explained as her groups of six third- and fourth-grade
boys from the nearby Ellis School romped to dance and music
exercises. Beneath all of that we deal with some behavioral
problem children, different types of children, and we introduce
them to the arts and how to complete class, get along with
groups and how to have better social skills.
Lewis, founder and artistic director of the NCAAA and the
Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts, began the museum in 1969 at
her school. The museum is one component of the NCAAA along
with institutions promoting music, drama, dance and costume
National Center has been a model for all cultural institutions
in the United States, Kennedy proudly asserted in describing
the museums role within the blanket organization. And,
as a matter of fact, abroad. We have an international focus
because we have had a great many exchanges with African countries,
Caribbean countries, China, Russia. I mean we have from its
earliest times in the 1950s.
the present, The Museum of the National Center of Afro-American
Artists still serves its New England and Hub constituencies
well. The best example of that commitment can be found in
the Wilson bust. Said Kennedy, Its called the
Eternal Presence, which means that, it means a
lot of things. Mainly that the African presence has been here
for many years and will continue to be, especially in the
Roxbury section of Boston.
in Quimby Magazine, Summer 1988.
Photo by LJM.