Sunday, September 24, 2023

Black Cowboys

I have been interested in cowboys since I can remember. I am sure this was greatly influenced by the movie westerns of the 50’s. But we also had an annual rodeo at Madison Square Garden in New York and I learned many years later from a cowboy in Arizona that this event was what all Rodeo riders aspired to.

Once Upon A Time ...

In Later Years, Wickenburg, AZ

Therefore, a week ago, we went to a lecture titled “Enslaved and Free Black Cowboys in the Southwest”. It took place at the New Mexico History Museum. It was just one episode of a humanities festival called, American identities, “illuminating diverse American experiences through lectures, music, film, and discussion”. The organizing institution, the School of Advanced Research (SAR) is led by Michael F. Brown, a cultural anthropologist, bills itself as an “institution advancing creative thought and innovative work in social sciences and humanities and fostering the preservation and revitalization of Native American cultural heritage.” The Black history subject, unusual for Santa Fe, drew a packed house.

The lecturer was Ron Davis,II, a Phd candidate at the University of Texas. Austin who recently curated an exhibition on Black cowboys for the Witte Museum in San Antonio. He had a 24-year career in the military and served in various capacities including 5 deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. To make a long story short during his initial posting in Oklahoma he was sent to recruit voter registration at the Black rodeo. He, being Black, but from Boston, was not aware of Black rodeo performers. He started talking on one of the contestants and asked how long his family had been riding. The reply surprised him. They were cowboys before the civil war. That piqued his curiosity.

When he left the military he went to study at the University of Texas, Austin. In the academic environment, and particularly as a Phd student, he found himself deep in the weeds, but his advisor told her students to read their sources over and over again. He did so and soon felt as if he knew some of these cowboys personally.

One of the first things he learned is that it was only through Hollywood movies that all cowboys became White. In reality, 25% of the cowhands on any cattle drive were black and 62% of the ranchers owned slaves. In the early days a ranch was considered large if it had just 100 head of cattle. Even then skilled cowhands were needed. As soon as a slave turned 10 they were expected to start working. One of the slave cowboys he read about broke his first horse at the age of 10.

By the 1880’s the XIT ranch was the largest fenced ranch in the world. It covered 10 counties roughly 30 miles wide and covering 3 million acres in the Texas Panhandle near what is now Lubbock, Texas. In 1885 it had 22,000 head of cattle which eventually grew to 150,000.

The autobiography of a Black cowboy, Hector Bazy, particularly fascinated Ron Davis. Born into slavery Bazy began working as a cowboy at the age of 14. He tells his story of everyday life for the cowhand from 1865 into the 1890’s. He writes that on the trail cowboys made no racial distinctions. Their goal was to make money. Of course, when they were back in town everything returned to what was then “normal”. After the Emancipation Proclamation (1863) nothing really changed in the southern and border states. Jim Crow started in the 1870’s and continued into the 1960’s. (I still remember, as a little boy, asking my father when we visited Florida why I couldn’t use the bathroom at the restaurant that said Negros or Colored on the door.)

Though their work was essential on the long cattle drives even the most skilled Black cowboys were not promoted because of their color. Some of them however saved enough money to purchase their own head of cattle.

Ron Davis’ research taught me a lot about the reality of the images of the Old West I had as a kid. A fascinating detail came from a question at his lecture: among the top-earning star jockeys of the early Kentucky Derby races so many were Black because of their background as cowboys.



Sunday, September 17, 2023

How Many Is Too Many?

You have probably read about the theft from the British Museum where a curator has been accused of taking 2,000 uncatalogued pieces from the museum and selling them on Ebay. One individual commented that “if the Elgin Marbles weren’t so gosh darned heavy, we would probably find them on the Portobello road” (a large market of “antique, bric-a-brac and vintage clothing” in London).

My point, however, is that 2,000 sounds like, and is, a very large number but it is only one quarter of one percent of the museum’s 8 million objects. Does any museum need that many pieces?

My wife and I have had this discussion for roughly half a century! It all started when she was a curator at the Metropolitan Museum and I asked if the museum needed 1.5 million objects in their collection. As a dealer I would say “Let the collectors keep some of the spoils” and if I were taking the museum side, I might say “Why not give some to smaller museums?”.

According to the Met’s website, there collections include in alphabetical order: Arms and Armor, Ancient American Art, Asian Art, Costume, Drawings & Prints, Egyptian Art, European Paintings, Sculpture and Decorative Arts, Greek and Roman Art, Islamic Art, Medieval Art, Modern & Contemporary Art, Musical Instruments, Oceanic Art, and Photographs.

I read recently that the museum also has a collection of over 30,000 Baseball cards given to the museum by Jefferson R. Burdick. It is the most comprehensive collection outside of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. My wife tells me that those baseball cards come under the print collection and can be an example of printing of the period. Good point, but do you need that many in order to make it. How many could you put in an exhibition anyway? My wife counters that by saying exhibitions are not the point and the in-depth collection is a study resource that can be drawn upon for exhibition.

When Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft with Bill Gates, died his incredible fine arts collection was sold at Christie’s auction house for a whopping 1.5 billion dollars to be split among a number of charities. In some publication there was a comment that he should have left the collection to the Met. I found that ridiculous because, in my opinion, the Met did not need it. I would have suggested giving this fabulous collection to a small university museum making it a destination in the art world. Who knows, there may even be a bonus for the university in that some new visitor might become a benefactor.

I spoke with a European curator, who preferred to remain anonymous, about this matter. She pointed out a number of interesting issues. She mentioned that in Europe many museums are government funded and that governments will contribute financial support for the acquisition of works of art that they feel are “important” key pieces that will enhance the collection and will put the museum and the locality on the map. The Dutch government put up 150 million out of a total of 175 million Euros to purchase Rembrandt’s Standard Bearer from the Rothschild Family for the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

I asked why does a museum need a great deal of filler after that goal has been reached. Her quick reply was, “it is not a question of need but of want”! I believe that goes for the private collector as well, but the latter would not be spending money that was raised publicly or privately nor having to physically expand the institution to accommodate the acquisitions, adding to the cost

Of course, as she said, the concept should not be about accumulation but rather the reason for collecting. The purpose should be in relation to the hierarchy of the cultural institution.

An encyclopedic goal leads to huge numbers. The Art Institute of Chicago notes on its website, that it “encompasses more than 5,000 years of human expression from cultures around the world and contains more than 300,000 works of art in 11 curatorial departments, ranging from early Japanese prints to the art of the Byzantine Empire to contemporary American art.” The Minneapolis Institute of Art website states something similar covering art from six continents, spanning about 5,000 years and they have “only” 90,000 works of art.

How many is too many? Now, if you don’t have enough to think about, the curator mentioned above said she believes “today the logic of museums is being questioned”.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Color, Gender, and Art

I cannot remember ever taking a subject directly from television but that is my first source for today. I am someone who needs routine so every weekday morning I watch the financial channel while doing my mat exercises and every Saturday I watch a bit of Michael Smerconish. He is a radio host columnist and has his television show where he does interviews revolving around many issues with an emphasis on politics.Saturday, September 2 the subject was a sculpture by Wesley Wofford of Harriet Tubman (1822-1913).* Here is the sculpture in front of Philadelphia’s City Hall.

Tubman was born into slavery in Maryland and determined to be free. Her safe haven was Philadelphia and from there she made many clandestine trips into Maryland to free family, friends and others. She has a fascinating history that has identified her to posterity as a heroine of Abolitionism. Her first biography was written already in 1868 just 3 years after the end of the Civil War. My purpose in writing, however, is not to tell you the story of Harriet Tubman and if you are interested you can find more here:

The issue I am interested in is the sculpture of this famous Black woman and the artist who happens to be White. An anonymous individual commissioned Wofford in 2017 to create a sculpture of Tubman with the proviso that it could not be duplicated. When Wofford decided to show pictures of the piece online there was such an enthusiastic response that he decided to make an artist’s proof and take it on a tour of about 20 cities, starting in Montgomery, Alabama. It came to Tubman’s adopted home and remained in Philadelphia from January to March, 2022 in time to celebrate Tubman’s 200th Birthday. Millions of people expressed such a positive reaction to the sculpture that the city wanted to buy it but that was against the artist’s contract so the city decided to commission another, different sculpture of Tubman from Wofford.

Now here is the rub: Before this contract was consummated, a number of local artists and community members objected saying there should have been a public process giving other artists the right to submit other proposals and that a Black artist should be creating a sculpture of a Black hero. Of the 50 submissions 5 have been picked as finalists and a decision will be made next month. Wofford decided not to participate. Here are the 5 finalist submissions.

Artist and educator Leopold Segedin (b.1927) in a treatise on his own website called “Outtakes from Making It: Race, Gender and Ethnicity in the Art world” posed the questions “Who is qualified to teach about such issues? Can a white professor teach about Black art? Can a Black Professor teach about Andy Warhol? Can either teach about Latino or Chinese art?”

In that same article Segadin quotes, one of my favorites, Black artist, Jacob Lawrence, “Black art is art that has particular form that is recognized as being ‘Black’ – regardless of content”. From my personal perspective I find that books by women have a different tone or perspective than those by men, but neither is either good or bad, just different.

In the original version of the movie “Annie” the character was White and in the most recent version she was Black creating a backlash by some because they wished everything to remain as they wished to remember it. It is always so difficult for people to accept that things change yet, as Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher (circa 540-480 BCE), said, “Change is the only constant in life.”

NPR reported in 2020 that, “Art by women and men is valued differently. Fine art by women, on average, is valued much less than men's pieces, and are routinely left out of major museums.” The assumption that men are the artists and women are the models has been supported by the preponderance of nudes with female subjects depicted by male artists.

We react to art emotionally and aesthetically. Artists see the world through their eyes, and we see the result through ours both aesthetically and emotionally. Unless the subject is intended to reflect personal experience, why does it matter the gender or race of the person who created it.


Sunday, September 3, 2023

Vandalism of Art

I have written before about climate change protesters gluing themselves to picture frames or smearing on the glass over famous pictures like the Mona Lisa. There are various reasons for vandalism to art. Recently, it has been ostensibly for a good cause, climate change, but that is not an excuse. No more than going into an appliance store to use a sledgehammer on their gas stoves.

Of course, vandalism against art is nothing new and has existed through the ages. I remember in 1972 Michelangelo’s “Pieta” at St Peter’s Basilica, received several hammer blows from a man claiming to be the resurrected Christ.

I would venture to say that over the years most vandalism is either the perpetrator’s desire to call attention to themselves out of jealous resentment of fame or the desire to associate their name with the art work or to bring attention to causes less noble than climate change.

A short while ago I read about a British tourist who used his key to write on the wall of the Coliseum in Rome, “Ivan + Haley 23”. He clearly did not think what it would look like if all 6 million people who visited every year carved their initials on the walls! Some don’t understand that their pronouncements are less important than a monument that has been around for over 2,000 years.

The National Monument of El Moro, in New Mexico represents a twist of grafitti history. As early as 1605 non-Native travelers added their names and the date to the nearby ancient Indian petroglyphs carved in the sandstone bluff above the waterhole. (The site is now managed by the National Parks Service to prevent the defacing of historic inscriptions or further additions.) This instinctive labelling action might seem to be a literal translation of the French art world saying in French, “Pour Marqué le passage”. In the art trade when you travel and visit a gallery you might buy a little something from the dealer to show that you like them and hold them in high esteem. But that is a positive way of saying you passed through and not a destructive one.

Responding to the uptick of vandalism “The director of Florence’s Uffizi Galleries (Eike Schmidt) called on Wednesday for stiff Penalties against vandals who spray-painted graffiti on exterior columns of the Vasari Corridor connecting the famed museum to the Boboli Gardens” according to an August 23 Associated Press report. The perpetrators were German soccer fans who sprayed Munich related soccer graffiti on the 460-year-old corridor by the Italian Renaissance painter and architect Giorgio Vasari.

We have read about historic statuary taken down or destroyed because it goes against the mores of today. This has been done both legally and illegally, the result being the same. Santa Fe’s new contemporary museum has been built around a protected old building which had an exterior mural by Gilberto Guzman, the Chicano muralist. He completed the work titled “Multi-Cultural” in 1980 with a group of other artists and students from the Institute of American Indian Arts. In spite of community protests and offers of financing for the needed restoration the beloved mural was destroyed because it did not go with the aesthetic of the enveloping contemporary structure… which clashes with the historic buildings of Santa Fe. While the mural was a pleasure to pass by, we now only see the museum’s blank outside wall.

There are always excuses for destruction of one kind or another, but it leaves those who appreciate it or think of it as important all the poorer.