Opportunity for Jewish Artists: Authenticity and Identity Exhibition

THE SUBMISSION PLATFORM FOR THE EXHIBITION IS NOW LIVE – CLICK TO ACCESS.

Application is live for artists to submit for inclusion in a visual arts exhibition considering the issue of Jewish Authenticity and Identity. What makes a work of art Jewish? What makes an artist Jewish? Any artwork relevant to the topic may be included. The exhibition will be held at Adas Israel Congregation, curated by Ori Soltes. View the online submission form [link to come] here.

Curator Ori Z. Soltes is a professor of Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University. The former director and curator of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum he is co-founder of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project and author of numerous books and articles including Tradition and Transformation: Three Millennia of Jewish Art & Architecture; Fixing the World: Jewish American Painters in the Twentieth Century; and The Ashen Rainbow: the Arts and the Holocaust.

  • The exhibition will be on display May 6 – June 2, 2020
  • Submission is free.
  • Artwork of any type may be submitted for consideration, including paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, digital media, sculpture, and more.
  • Artists may submit more than one item for inclusion, up to 4 pieces.
  • Artwork does not have to be newly created to be submitted; Artists, collectors, gallerists, and estates, may submit artwork for consideration.
  • Selected artwork must be delivered to the site ready for hang.
  • The exhibition will occur at Adas Israel Congregation in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington D.C., 2850 Quebec Street NW DC.
  • The application period opens February 10 and will close March 25, 2020.
  • Selected artists/artwork will be notified by April 10, 2020.

The exhibition is produced in a partnership between Adas Israel Congregation and the Jewish Artists of the National Capital Region and through funding from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Adas Israel Congregation is the nation’s largest conservative synagogue, a vibrant, dynamic, multi-generational community that offers access to Jewish life for people of all backgrounds. For almost 150 years Adas Israel Congregation has been a flagship synagogue in American Jewish life and that tradition of leadership and excellence continues. The Jewish Artists of the National Capital Region is a community of area artists working to enhance the capacity of Jewish artwork to inform, inspire, and educate, and supported in part by Hazon’s Hakhel Intentional Community incubator program.

To facilitate activities and events related to the exhibition the project partners have created an exhibition committee and if you’re interested to participate in that, or learn more about the exhibition, please email exhibition director Robert Bettmann at Robert <at> Day Eight.org or Naomi Malka at Naomi.Malka <at> AdasIsrael.org.

Celebrated artist Robin Bell helps Corcoran look back on tumultuous time

This article was written for The DC Line and you can read it on that site here.

Sitting in the rotunda of the Corcoran School of the Arts & Design’s renovated Flagg Building across from the White House hours before the highly anticipated opening of artist Robin Bell’s exhibition Open, Corcoran director and curator Sanjit Sethi reflected on the show’s inspiration. “I think it’s important for us to have dialogues about what happens when cultural institutions get something wrong,” he said.

Sethi was commenting both on Bell’s artworks in Open, which reflect on themes of transparency and dialogue, and the stimulus for the exhibit: a troubling episode of censorship at the Corcoran back in 1989, long before its transformation from an independent institution to a school within The George Washington University.

Unusually for a fine art exhibition, Open is described as a “prelude” to another show. The upcoming 6.13.89, curated by Sethi, will encourage investigation of the Corcoran’s fateful decision on June 13, 1989, to cancel its planned display of The Perfect Moment, a traveling exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs. The Perfect Moment’s first stops — in Philadelphia and then Chicago — spurred growing protest from people who decried the exhibition as an example of government funding for artwork they deemed immoral. The show included gay-themed works that socially conservative politicians and “family values” advocacy groups lambasted as pornography masquerading as art.

Open is Bell’s first solo museum show, and it includes more than the political text-based artwork the artist is best known for. With its scrolling text and blinking lights, the exhibition is engaging and self-aware — like a massive resistance group selfie. Bell’s works float in and balance through the various atrium and first-floor gallery spaces. In one section of the atrium, lights that blink and change colors hang on either side of a black video screen with white text that reads, “It is happening here.” The statement might be interpreted as the artist’s opinion about the Corcoran, and the District, or as an ironic reference to the canceled 1989 exhibition that did not happen.

One section of the atrium features lights that blink and change colors alongside the video screen with text that reads, “It is happening here.” (Photo by Robert Bettmann)

Bell’s art works, several of which have gone viral since President Donald Trump’s election, are equal parts humor and anger. His best-known works are guerilla outdoor projections of text, which he and others capture in short videos distributed on social media. One of his early viral works projected the words “INSERT EMOLUMENTS HERE” on the side of the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, with a large arrow under the words pointing at the doorway into the hotel.

While Bell’s well-known guerrilla displays are sometimes 50 feet tall, conceptually the work is compact. The artworks in Open reveal more of Bell’s technical range, as well as a more complex and allegorical relationship to his subject matter.

A projection on the outside of the Flagg Building during the opening (Photo by Flavio Cumpiano, used by permission.)

Bell’s works don’t usually articulate the artist’s own voice, but one projection on the outside of the Flagg Building during the opening — “I Was Protesting Before Trump” — playfully did just that. The exhibition also features a video that rolls like fog across the atrium steps, a projection of overlapping 10-foot faces, and scrolling phrases that hang across and beneath the upper balustrade in the foyer. There’s something familiarly peripatetic and temporary about Bell’s work, even in this museum space, where the art’s existence doesn’t cause threat of imminent arrest (as one of his unlicensed public artworks did last week, resulting in a misdemeanor citation from U.S. Capitol Police for one of Bell’s projectionists).

Sethi said Bell’s exhibit is the museum’s latest effort to dedicate its atrium to “exhibition projects that involve critical social dialogues … that we think need to be part of a broader context.”

When asked if he condemned the Corcoran’s 1989 decision to cancel, Sethi explained, “I’m less engaged in the forensic examination of who did what and what the cause was. The question for me is the fidelity of the Corcoran Gallery to the commitment they had made to show this work… The question for me is about how do cultural institutions handle controversy?”

In an interview prior to the opening, Bell was less equivocal. He called the 1989 cancellation “a disservice not just to the institution, but to the entire arts community.” In interview with the university prior to the opening Bell said his Open is about asking the audience to reflect on closure, and cancellation. “As thinkers, as people and as educators we want to talk about openness,” Bell said.

Open — on display through March 31 — and the upcoming 6.13.89 — the dates for which have not been announced — reflect on a darker part of the Corcoran’s history. “It’s important to go ahead and exhume one of the greatest ghosts of the Corcoran’s past,” Sethi said.

Looking back to summer 1989

In the summer of 1989 the District was the center of what came to be called “the Culture Wars,” a series of impassioned, high-profile debates about arts funding, morality, censorship, and homosexuality.

Curated by Janet Kardon and developed under the auspices of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Philadelphia, The Perfect Moment was scheduled for display in five cities after its winter 1988 debut in Philadelphia. Conservative groups including the American Family Association began to protest the exhibition soon after its opening, saying the exhibition included “indecent” images. The Perfect Moment exhibition was developed in part through grant funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the exhibition’s scheduled arrival in DC coincided with some Republican members of Congress urging elimination of all arts funding after seeing federal dollars go to some projects out of step with their values.

The Corcoran Gallery of Art’s decision to cancel its display of A Perfect Moment just weeks before the planned opening led to intense public scrutiny and prompted mentions in scores of newspaper articles, editorials and opinion pieces that have been preserved in the Corcoran’s archive.

The Tuscaloosa News in Alabama ran James Kilpatrick’s June 1989 column for Universal Press Syndicate under the headline “When porn passes for art.”

It’s nearly unimaginable that any museum decision today would make headlines over an entire summer as the Corcoran decision did, but national interest was fomented in widely read political opinion pieces. One column by conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan — who backed the cancellation and said the show never should have received any government funding — was published in more than 30 newspapers in the U.S. and Europe between June 16 and June 25. The various headlines included “Obscenity at the Taxpayer’s Expense” (The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C., June 16), “A Mere Label Can’t Turn Pornography Into Art” (The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville, Fla., June 20), and “No Censorship Involved Here” (Taunton Daily Gazette, Taunton, Miss., June 20).

Two major newspaper editorial boards weighed in subsequently, criticizing the Corcoran’s decision-makers. The New York Times published an editorial headlined “Caving in at the Corcoran” on June 23, 1989. “The Corcoran unwisely chose to repudiate its own artistic judgment. Instead of helping to avoid controversy, the gallery’s cave-in only attracted it,” the newspaper wrote.

The Washington Post’s editorial board agreed days later: “They scheduled the show without adequate understanding of what was in it … and then, at the first sign of trouble on Capitol Hill, panicked and canceled with much hand-wringing about not wanting to get into politics or to give government an excuse for cutting funds.”

After the Corcoran’s cancellation, The Perfect Moment was shown in the District by last-minute arrangement at the Washington Project for the Arts, and the tour proceeded to other cities amid continued controversy.

A full understanding of the Corcoran’s decision requires a value judgment on whether the cancellation in fact amounted to censorship of Mapplethorpe’s artwork based on its homosexual imagery.

Mapplethorpe had died three months earlier of complications from AIDS. Reacting to the cancellation, Urvashi Vaid, a spokesperson for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, told the Washington Blade at the time, “It is appalling that [Sen.] Jesse Helms succeeded in having a pre-emptive impact on homoerotic art.”

But objections to the exhibition were more complex than simply objecting to any depiction of homosexuality.

The Perfect Moment was a comprehensive retrospective of the artist’s work, including 125 images. While the majority of the images were from Mapplethorpe’s more commercial work — including pictures of celebrities and flowers — the exhibition also included depictions of naked children and homosexual sadomasochism. One well-known image shows the photographer’s buttocks in profile, a bullwhip protruding like a horse’s tail. Another displays a young girl seated on the floor, her white dress pulled up to her knees exposing her naked groin as she looks innocently into the camera.

Even though the photographer had parental permission, several of the images from this series are no longer exhibited as art in adherence to 21st-century standards of child protection. Critics of the exhibition, and federal funding of the show, charged that Mapplethorpe’s images were criminal, not art. A June 22, 1989, commentary by The Miami Herald’s editorial board referenced Mapplethorpe’s work to bolster objections to government funding of artist Andres Serrano’s artwork “Piss Christ”: “Also disturbing is the traveling exhibit of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe that include explicit sadomasochism and child nudes.”

Uproar over the Corcoran’s decision to cancel the exhibit required a villain — a censor. That person was identified as the museum’s executive director — Christina Orr-Cahall, who resigned later that year — even though it was the Board of Trustees that canceled the show. When consultants performed a subsequent audit of the Corcoran’s decision-making process, they attributed the unanimous decision to the board being too large to keep its members well-informed. In response to the audit’s recommendation, the Corcoran reduced the size of its board by two-thirds. The presence of fewer board members — along with dwindling commitments from outsiders soured by the controversy — had a predictable impact on the institution’s coffers, and it’s not a stretch to argue the Corcoran’s demise as an independent institution can be traced to the summer of 1989.

Ironically, given the hatred poured on her as a “censor,” Orr-Cahall’s action may have saved the National Endowment for the Arts as we know it today. By proposing to the board members that they not display the controversial photographs in DC while Congress was debating restrictions on or outright elimination of federal arts funding, she created a major new issue in the debate. On the day the Corcoran announced the cancellation, then-U.S. Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas, called images by Mapplethorpe “morally repugnant trash” and Hugh Southern, the acting head of the NEA, told Congress that he would “try and weed out” objectionable artwork. The cancellation decision prompted such a strong backlash against censorship, and in support of free expression, that federal arts funding continued.

The relevance of Robin Bell

Now, 30 years later, the works of another artist some see as courting controversy occupy the Corcoran, communicating a related message. Bell’s art, including his work in Open, encourages transparency and holding power to account.

The history of Washington, DC, is alive in the memories of longtime residents, and the legacies of hometown artists like Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington and Alma Thomas exist like small bonfires around which residents warm. But other memories live on as deep scars, occasionally causing a collective hiccup, and the cancellation of the Robert Mapplethorpe show at the Corcoran the summer of 1989 is one of those.

A few months ago, when the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities pushed a new contract out to grantees attempting to restrict funding for political or offensive works, The Washington Post reported “the short-lived controversy sent shock waves through the city’s arts community and had many recalling the 1980s culture wars.” And for one summer, the summer of 1989, the Corcoran Gallery of Art served as a battleground in those culture wars.

The new exhibit, according to Sethi, reopens a dialogue set to continue with 6.13.89, which has not been announced in detail but which will include documents from the Corcoran’s archive.

“This institution has an opportunity to talk about its values,” Sethi said, “and to talk about ways that we can talk about critique. Critique of systems. Critique of individuals. Critique of policy. And to do so in provocative manners. And that’s what you start to see here.”

Robin Bell was sanguine about what Open might mean for him personally. “The biggest difference,” he said, “is that people will be able to see [my artwork], to come over the next two months and see it as opposed to seeing it online and appreciating it that way.”

In Open we find Robin Bell and the Corcoran looking back on what went wrong and are encouraged to look back with them.

The exhibition continues through March 31, with public access from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and from 1 to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Flagg Building, 500 17th St. NW.

DC’s Own Alma Thomas Rises to New Heights in the Art World

Career trajectory for African-American expressionist led from DC Public Schools to the Whitney Museum

This article was written for The DC Line. You can read it on their website here.

Forty years after her death, DC artist Alma Thomas is becoming a museum idol, one of a hyper-select group of artists around whom institutions are building their permanent collections.

Artwork by the trailblazing African-American expressionist hit a new auction high last year, and the list of prominent institutions acquiring her work in recent months includes Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas; the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire; the National Museum of African American History and Culture; the White House Historical Society (for display in the White House); and the Smith College Museum of Art in Massachusetts.

Alma Thomas, shown in a 1976 photo by Michael Fischer that’s in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, became the first African-American woman to have a solo show in New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art in 1972. (Photo © Michael Fischer 1976; courtesy of Smithsonian Museum of American Art)

Emma Imbrie Chubb, curator of contemporary art at the Smith College Museum of Art, pushed for the 2018 acquisition of Thomas’ 1973 painting Morning in the Bowl of Night, which has since become a centerpiece of the museum’s redesigned permanent collection.

“A work by Alma Thomas was a priority for Smith for a few reasons. First and foremost, Thomas made a signal contribution to abstraction,” Chubb said.

In 2016, Hood Museum of Art director John Stomberg recommended that museum’s purchase of Thomas’ 1969 painting Wind Dancing with Spring Flowers, which he found exhibited at an art fair in Chicago.

“[The piece] is a total knockout,” Stomberg said. “It is a singular and forceful work of abstraction that embodies the joy of color and harmony in the best of the modernist tradition.”

Former President Barack Obama helped bring appreciation of Alma Thomas’ art to this new level by selecting multiple works by the artist in his first-term redecoration of the White House. The Obamas added a third Thomas, in 2015, at the head of the table in the renovated formal family dining room. Owned by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Gallery, one of the artworks displayed in the Obama White House is visually similar to the painting acquired by Smith College.

First in her class — and first a teacher

Theater aficionados may know that actor and comedian Robin Williams was the very first graduate of the theater program at Julliard, the famed New York City music academy. Similar fun fact: Alma Thomas was the first graduate of the fine arts department at Howard University.

Alma Thomas, shown in a 1976 photo by Michael Fischer that’s in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, became the first African-American woman to have a solo show in New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art in 1972. (Photo © Michael Fischer 1976; courtesy of Smithsonian Museum of American Art)

After graduation in 1924, Thomas was active in the local arts community, including helping to establish a gallery that represented black artists. She also worked as a teacher of visual arts in DC Public Schools (DCPS) for more than than 30 years, retiring in 1960 at the age of 68. It was only after her retirement as a teacher that Thomas began regularly exhibiting, and all of her acknowledged masterworks are from this “late” period.

“Alma Thomas left an indelible mark on countless DC Public Schools students as a teacher at Shaw Junior High School,” interim DC Public Schools Chancellor Amanda Alexander said. “Her legacy lives on today and thanks in part to her dedication to DCPS, arts education remains an integral part of our efforts to ensure joyful and rigorous learning in our schools.”

When she retired from DCPS, Thomas’ reputation as a teacher was firmly secured. In the succeeding years, with newly available time and energy, Thomas re-established her studio practice as an exhibiting artist and, in a most unusual fashion, received overwhelmingly positive response.

“From an outside perspective, Thomas’ ‘mature’ style seems to have appeared out of nowhere, when in fact she worked very hard to get to where she got,” said Jonathan Walz, director of curatorial affairs and curator of American art at The Columbus Museum in Georgia and co-curator of an Alma Thomas retrospective currently in development jointly with the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va. “She deserves all the credit she received and then some. She definitely paid her dues, just in a quieter way than many other artists.”

Acclaim late in her career

Vincent Van Gogh had a tragically brief career, dying at age 37 and having enjoyed no commercial success at all. Johann Sebastian Bach was in his own time a composer of modest reputation, better known as an organist, who made his living as a church music director. Thomas, whose career as a working artist began only after her retirement from teaching, had amazing success — but only very late in life. In 1972, when she was 80 years old, she became the first African-American woman to have a solo show in New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art.

Alma Thomas’ 1966 painting “Air View of a Spring Nursery,” acrylic on canvas, is part of the collection of the Columbus Museum in Georgia. The acquisition was in part a gift of the National Association of Negro Business Women and the artist. (Photo courtesy of Columbus Museum)

“Once she started making her own work, she was showing fairly quickly at galleries and then had the Whitney show,” visual arts scholar Lauren Haynes said in a 2016 interview with CultureType.

Haynes — now curator of contemporary art at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art — was co-curator of a highly regarded Alma Thomas exhibition in 2016 that was organized jointly by The Studio Museum in Harlem and the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

“She was able to see her work in museums while she was alive, which is something that not all black artists who were making work at the same time that she was really were able to do,” Haynes said. “That was this amazing, really I think important, part of her story.”

While some have pondered what Thomas might have achieved had she begun exhibiting at a younger age, Haynes pushed aside such speculation in a recent interview with The DC Line. “It’s hard to comment on how her career would have developed if she had achieved success when she was younger because her work wouldn’t have necessarily been the same,” she said.

In the years since Thomas’ 1972 Whitney solo show, museums and high-end galleries have frequently displayed her works, but the past decade has brought an additional dimension to that attention: an intense effort to research and understand the artist.

In May 2018, responding to public interest, the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art unveiled a fully digitized Alma Thomas archive, including primary source materials once owned by the artist.

“I think of greatest interest are her autobiographical writings, her exhibition files … and her scrapbooks that document her teaching career at Shaw Junior High School,” said Liza Kirwin, deputy director of the Archives of American Art. “They give an intimate view of her life and work.”

Living in ‘the fast lane’ on 15th Street NW

Charles Thomas Lewis, a federal government employee, has his own intimate understanding of his famous great aunt. After spending parts of two summers living with her — first in 1969 and again in 1970 — Charles and his mother moved from Columbus, Ga., to DC and into Alma Thomas’ house on 15th Street NW the next spring. The pair lived with Thomas on and off for the rest of her life.

Alma Thomas’ “Clown Marionette,” dating to the 1930s and made from wood and fabric, is part of the collection of the Columbus Museum in Georgia. It was a gift from Miss John Maurice Thomas in memory of her parents John H. and Amelia W. Cantey Thomas and her sister Alma Woodsey Thomas. (Photo courtesy of the Columbus Museum)

“It was like going from the slow lane of traffic into the fast lane, and everyone was speeding,” Lewis said in an interview with The DC Line. “I met people who I would never have met if it was not for her.” 

Thomas’ social circle included fellow artists Jacob Kainen, Lois Jones Pierre-Noel, Delilah Pierre and Sam Gilliam. Lewis also recalls meeting Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey with his aunt.

Lewis, who is executor of his great aunt’s estate, supports the efforts by a growing number of institutions to participate in her artistic legacy.

Alma Thomas and her extended family have deep ties to the western Georgia city of Columbus, where work is underway for the retrospective. She was born there in 1891 to John Harris Thomas and Amelia Cantey Thomas, who moved their family to DC in 1907. Alma Thomas had three younger siblings.

The Columbus Museum owns an important tranche of archival materials related to the artist, once property of the artist’s youngest sister. Along with materials from the Archives of American Art and additional public and private collections, the documents held by the Columbus Museum are helping to shape the exhibition that Walz is developing with Seth Feman, curator of exhibitions and photography at the Chrysler Museum of Art.

The co-curators are striving to present a holistic picture of the artist in their exhibit, which will be augmented by a catalog of scholarly essays published jointly by Yale University Press and the Columbus Museum. The traveling exhibition will debut at the Chrysler Museum of Art in the summer of 2021 and then visit two yet-to-be-selected cities before winding up at The Columbus Museum in 2022.

“Over time, Thomas has become mythologized, and there is this persistent triumphalist narrative that makes her seem almost superhuman,” Walz said. “As co-curators, we can confirm her many accomplishments, but we’d like to present her as a fully rounded human being who was incessantly curious, continually growing, and always learning — even from her mistakes and failures.”

Part of a revised, more diverse art history canon

Thomas’ ascendance comes amid broader changes happening in museums today. “It’s critical to acknowledge that the story of modernism and abstraction has, for a long time, been shown in U.S. museums and taught in its classrooms as the sole domain of a few artists, who were mostly male, straight, white and in New York,” Smith College’s Emma Chubb said. “Even though that was never the reality.”

To revise the story told on museum walls, the works on display are changing.

Several months ago, when the Baltimore Museum of Art de-accessioned works by highly regarded white male painters from its permanent collection, gallery officials said they hoped to use the funds to acquire works by a more diverse set of artists, including Thomas.

Alma Thomas’ 1973 painting “White Daisies Rhapsody” is part of the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. (Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum)

“Every museum in the country that actively collects art currently strives to rewrite art history in such a way that past transgressions are acknowledged and corrected,” Hood Museum director John Stomberg said. “That inclusiveness now informs our mandate. While Alma Thomas figures in this corrective moment, her work transcends the vicissitudes of history.”

With her place in art history expanding, contemporary descriptions of Thomas’ artwork are increasingly detailed. New York Times visual arts critic Roberta Smith noted, “Her dappled fields, stripes and concentric rings of color bring an energetic bluntness and unencumbered joy to the usual refinements of Color Field and Minimalism.” And New Yorker visual arts critic Peter Schjedladl wrote, “The uncompleted arc of her talent makes her a perennial artist’s artist.”

Recognizing her importance as a local public figure, the DC Public Library is reportedly considering prominent recognition of Alma Thomas within the library system. Asked for comment by The DC Line, library spokesperson George Williams said, “It is too early for us to discuss what shape that might take.”

Meanwhile, an unincorporated but influential group of arts supporters have organized themselves as the Friends of Alma Thomas to support similar efforts.

DC Public Schools, where Thomas spent so many years as a teacher, is also considering honoring her legacy. School officials — currently in the process of selecting a name for a new Ward 4 middle school scheduled to open next fall — are offering “Alma Thomas” as one of 10 potential choices in an online survey open through Oct. 30. The survey’s biographical sketch highlights the art clubs, lectures and student exhibitions that Thomas organized at Shaw Junior High, alongside her many other local ties.

DC is in many ways a small town, so it’s a matter of pride when artists with local ties — whether that’s author and screenwriter George Pelecanos, opera singer Denyce Graves or comedian Dave Chappelle — enjoy success. Now, 40 years after her passing, not just DC but the art world writ large is celebrating the artwork of DC artist Alma Thomas.