Integrating art and racial history in America

By Carol / March 14, 2022 /

How can integrating America’s art and racial history tell a broader and more accurate story of our country than we commonly see? A remarkable exhibit at Crystal Bridges Museum encouraged me to see it can be done. 

Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, AR, holds a good collection of early American art. I’ve seen the paintings on previous visits but was drawn to look again by the thoughtful curation. 

Crystal Bridges - We the People opens exhibit integrating art and racial history

“We the People” opens an exhibit integrating America’s art and racial history. *Photo from Crystal Bridges Museum website.

We all deserve inclusion

The exhibit opens with a wall-sized artwork made of colored shoestrings forming the words “We The People.” On the opposite wall hang paintings by white, black, and hispanic artists portraying the diverse faces of America.

Wall panels go beyond the usual descriptions of each artist and where the art fits in art history. Instead, the panels provide historical context on America and for why African Americans were or were not included and why they were depicted as they were.

Here is an excerpt from an opening panel:

“Between 1860 and 1900 the population of the United States grew from 31 million to 76 million, with immigrants arriving from all over the world. The growing middle class lived well, thanks to mass production. Vast sums of wealth contributed to an expanding gap between the rich and the poor. Innovations and inventions  advanced modern life, such as Thomas Edison’s incandescent lightbulb in 1879, Coca-Cola in 1886, and radio in 1895. At the same time, forced assimilation of American Indian children at residential schools and the passing of discriminatory Jim Crow laws segregating African Americans and whites in the South emphasized the deeply ingrained bias against non-white citizens in the nation’s culture.” 

Imagine that paragraph stopping after the list of innovations. It’s easy, yes? Easy to ignore that life for poorer people and people of color was markedly different than for middle and upper classes. Those people we most often see in early American paintings. The additional sentence forces us out of comfortable America to face a more complex story.

We might surmise that this exhibit happened for Black History Month. But a blog by Mindy Besaw, Crystal Bridges’ curator of American art, leads me to think otherwise. “If we focus on Black artists for one month a year, how can we ensure that does not absolve us from paying attention the other 11 months? How can we prioritize Black history in our everyday practices?” she asks.

Integrating more exhibits

Besaw acknowledges that Crystal Bridges holds few works by Black artists – only three paintings and one sculpture dating before 1900. They’ve acquired only a few more works dating from 1900-1960, though they actively search for more. She draws works from the whole museum collection to tell a deeper story of U.S. history, art, and diverse peoples.

Crystal Bridges exhibit connecting Tiffany lamp and Native American pottery.

For instance, a Tiffany lamp displayed next to southwestern pottery explains that Native American artists incorporated nature into art long before American artists of European heritage arrived on the continent. Exhibiting these artworks side by side made valuable points, even if not articulated. Art glass created by a white artist and art pottery created by a Native American are equally worthy of inclusion. They’re not separate. Seen together, they offer viewers a wider perspective – on art, on America, and on history.

Integrating America’s art and racial history in this way encourages a conversation about race and history that I wish we all could have. An exhibit such as this tells viewers America is filled with diverse people and stories. And we’re richer when we include them all.

Have you seen an art exhibit tell the broader American story? Not just during Black History Month? Crystal Bridges is the first I’ve encountered. I hope it won’t be the last.


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  1. Elfrieda Neufeld Schroeder on March 14, 2022 at 4:01 pm

    Here in Winnipeg, Manitoba (Canada) we have the Museum of Human Rights where indigenous art is displayed alongside that of other art works. In spite of this, the LGBTQ+ community did not feel welcome in this place, and the Israel/Palestine conflict was hardly given mention (the founders of the museum are Jewish whose people have themselves experienced genocide.) We have a long way to go and much to learn about acceptance and respect for one another as human beings equal in God’s sight! Thanks for bringing that to our attention, Carol!

    • Carol on March 16, 2022 at 3:43 pm

      Thanks for sharing what’s going on in Canada, Elfrieda. I agree that we have along way to go. If people and organizations are at least trying, I give them credit. While I was traveling, I also visited the Elvis Graceland property/museum and the National Civil Rights Museum, both in Memphis. Event though the events portrayed in both were happening concurrently, if you visited only one, you’d never know that the other happened. I know they each have a defined purpose, but the juxtaposition – going from one to the other – was startling.

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