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.

Situated 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 F. Kennedy.

“The numbers are growing. We’re working on getting new audiences, and that’s very important for the museum — any museum,” Kennedy said during an interview in her office. “We’re not on the main road so we don’t get people to come in as often off the street as they would in a museum that’s more visible to the general public.”

Nestled 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.

One 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.

Having 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.”

Although 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: “They’re coming in now to see the wonderful John Wilson sculpture we have on our lawn. That’s getting a lot of play. We understand they just did an article, I think in Essence magazine.

“It’s getting out even nationally so that people will come and visit, and a lot of local people are coming to see it.”

In 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.

During 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 arms.

The 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 been installed.

The 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 exhibit.

Artists 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.”

An 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, silk painting.

More 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.

One 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 play’d, His artless music was a language universal and its Effect — most Irrestable!”

One 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.

And a modern piece of acidic sarcasm prominently illustrates the phrase “I’ve 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.

The 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:

“The media has not given us enough, they don’t give us enough publicity especially for exhibitions and reviews. They don’t like to come out and do that kind of thing for our artists.

“And that’s a constant source of discontent among the (black) artists here in Boston. I think they’re fairly justified in feeling that way. None of them gets the kind of attention they should.”

Representatives of Boston’s two major daily newspapers, however, replied they had given appropriate coverage to the NCAAA museum based on its size and focus.

Assistant managing editor for arts and entertainment at The Boston Herald, Bill Weber commented via telephone, “It’s certainly not true that we’re ignoring them. You’re 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 there’s a secondary level. They (the NCAAA) certainly fall into that level. I wish we could cover more.”

Boston 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.”

Koch 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, more resources.”

Touching on Kennedy’s 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 isn’t so.”

Part of the NCAAA museum’s 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 children.”

The 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.

“Some 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.”

Elma 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 design.

“The National Center has been a model for all cultural institutions in the United States,” Kennedy proudly asserted in describing the museum’s 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.”

For 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, “It’s 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.”

Appeared in Quimby Magazine, Summer 1988.
Photo by LJM.