“As a young artist, when Black History Month came along I thought, ‘Woohoo!’ because it meant I got a lot of shows in February,” says Waterville-based photographer Sean Alonzo Harris. “But then I realized this was doing me a disservice.”

This is not an uncommon sentiment among Maine’s Black and brown artists. Though many acknowledge it is better to have this observance than not – “It’s a doorway to start looking into the relevance of Black history, which is American history,” Daniel Minter believes – it is also a double-edged sword. It can lead to marginalization by the art-going public as well as institutions, which narrowly categorize this work as “Black art.” This, of course, makes it easier to tokenize or, worse, dismiss.

Interestingly, there is very little going on in the state’s art institutions to commemorate Black History Month. Colby College Museum of Art is a notable exception, with its current “Poetics of Atmosphere: Lorna Simpson’s Cloudscape and other Works from the Collection” (through April 17). Museums and galleries say this may be a good thing, since it bodes a change toward including artists of color in their planning and curation throughout the year, not just in February.

Indeed, there have been many recent major exhibitions, including blockbuster retrospectives at the Portland Museum of Art on David Driskell and at Colby on Bob Thompson; an incisive survey at Bowdoin examining the portrayal of Black women throughout history; The Bates Museum’s Joseph Delaney show; and a prominent street-facing exhibition of the work of Portland-based muralist Ryan Adams at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art (CMCA) in Rockland.

The uprisings of 2020 and the power of the Black Lives Matter movement have also ramped up the art world’s discussions about what is exhibited, what is collected and how museums, academic institutions and galleries must transform to accommodate what artists see as an overdue racial awareness. Yet many of Maine’s artists of color are still distrustful about meaningful change. And many continue to face daily insensitivities not only from these institutions, but from their white artist colleagues.

Artist Rachel Adams stands by her painting, “Nurture.” Photo by Ryan Adams

Subtle slights

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“Someone once asked me if I was a Black artist or an artist who happened to be Black,” remembers Portland sculptor Ashley Page. “To me, they’re the same thing. You cannot ask me to separate myself from my blackness, from my identity.”

Further, Page says, “There’s still a level of invisibility for Black female artists in Maine. It is still the men who get the recognition. We can see that throughout history. It’s starting to turn around, but I’m hesitant to trust that because I’m really aware of tokenism.”

Portland artist Ashley Page Photo by Sean Alonzo Harris

Rachel Adams feels this in a particularly acute way. She graduated from the Maine College of Art (now called Maine College of Art & Design, or MECA&D) and has been a practicing visual artist since 2009. Her husband Ryan Adams’s art education was less conventional, beginning with graffiti, moving into murals and then sign painting. But for the last few years, Ryan’s career has experienced a substantial ascent.

“I’m more of a marketing tool for people,” Rachel Adams says, “part of the Black artist couple or the wife of the famous artist. One magazine introduced me not only as the mother of his kids and his muse, but ‘an artist in her own right.’ Then the social media around the article promoted it as a story about Ryan Adams.”

Harris has lived in Maine for 27 years and has long been a fixture on the photography scene. After opening a gallery called Hinge with his wife, Elizabeth Jabar (it’s now a collaborative artists’ space), he caught the eye of prominent photography curator Bruce Brown and the director of the PMA, Mark Bessire. Soon Brown curated Harris’s work into the CMCA and the PMA acquired an image. Harris has had 26 solo shows in 26 years, he notes.

In spite of his high profile, however, Harris has also had white colleagues ask him, “Are you still doing photography?” or expressing surprise when they find out he was not self-taught. Of the former, he says, “I’d been doing photography longer than him. Why wouldn’t I still be doing it?” The latter presumes he was too disadvantaged to afford an art education or buys into the romantic myth of a naïve Black artist. Still another colleague asked if he photographed white people. “They’re not being malicious,” Harris says. “They just don’t think of these things because they don’t have to.”

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There have also been more overt omissions. Another Maine institution that he preferred not to name curated a portrait show and, in a critique of the exhibition, a reviewer wrote about the “gaping hole” represented by the absence of Harris’s work. “They never addressed it,” remembers Harris. “Then they had a second portrait show and did it again!”

The Black Lives Matter shift

Then came 2020, which caused a quantum shift in the attention paid to artists of color. Most of those interviewed for this article were suddenly being pursued to participate on this panel or that round table, to submit work to shows and judge exhibitions.

“My phone had never rung so much before George Floyd passed away,” recalls Harris, who adds that the very institution that had shunned him in its portrait shows asked him to be on its board (he refused). Despite what he feels was this insincere reversal, however, he believes the worldwide response to Floyd’s death “was empathetic and genuine. Maybe we’re not going to fix anything, but we’ll figure out how to continuously move forward. People will ask themselves, ‘If February is the only time we call that artist, do we have a problem?’”

Daniel Minter’s A Narrowing of Possibilities-I, mixed media collage, metal, fabric, acrylic painted relief wood carving, 37×32.5×7”. Courtesy of Daniel Minter

Others are less sanguine. “A lot of people,” Minter fears, “can use the uprisings to draw a line, to say, ‘I’m not going there. I’m not going to say I had anything to do with the last 400 years,’ or go so far as to say we have a systemic issue in this country.”

Rachel Adams reports, “People who I’d done the song and dance for and didn’t get a second look from are contacting me. Some of the calls are sincere – Wow, you’re this cool artist living in Portland and I didn’t know you were here. But some are clearly dial-a-Black-person calls.”

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Her husband Ryan echoes her skepticism. “My wife and I have been here the whole damn time! That adds to my worry and apprehension about lasting change. I’m curious about its longevity. I do believe it’s causing self-reflection and sparking some change. But the problems are so deep-rooted at the foundation of our culture that it’s going to take massive change to get to the equity we’re talking about.”

Institutional racism

For Black and brown artists, one of the biggest uphill climbs, they say, is at the institutional level, particularly the way museums can tend to contextualize their art from a white perspective or within the white canon.

“People see my work and go, ‘Oh! Braque, Picasso!’” Ryan Adams says. “And I say, ‘No, Dondi White and Futura 2000,’” (two of the architects of the graffiti art movement). “Everything does not derive from European-American work. That’s one area people have not realized is problematic.”

Artist Athena Lynch Photo courtesy of Athena Lynch

Athena Lynch, a graduate of MECA&D, points out that even much of the white European perspective was the product of cultural plundering. “Picasso actually appropriated his imagery from African art and got all this praise,” she says. “What he was doing was stealing. It was vicious and wrong. As long as institutions keep white art as the standard, any kind of art is pitted against it. We have to figure out how we change the standard.”

“I’ve always worked to insert myself into the arts community here,” Minter says. “But it’s always felt like there has not been a lot of context for the work, or an environment for the work to have an understood place. This goes for African-American art in general. It wasn’t looked at for what it was, but as ‘Oh, this is art by Black and brown artists.’ Then people moved on. They weren’t looking at what the work was saying or connecting with it in a deep way because they thought it dealt with issues that didn’t apply to them.”

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This was the impetus behind the Indigo Arts Alliance, which Minter co-founded with his wife, Marcia. “Indigo was meant as a kind of survival in spite of that paradigm,” he says. “We wish to live and function on our own terms and have the art serve our community.”

For Page, the lack of context extends to many institutions of higher learning. As part of a public engagement art project in 2019, which she designed with fellow MECA&D student Alejandra Cuadra, the women posted large pads and pens in the cafeteria that posed questions about issues students faced and asked for ways the school might remedy them. The pads quickly filled up with worries about food insecurity, housing insecurity, lack of support for BIPOC students and other concerns.

Eventually, after some difficult conversations between the students and the institution, Resilience Week was created. A series of events, lectures and exhibitions, it now puts the issues of racial equity in the arts front and center for students.

Change in the air

Since most of Maine’s art institutions and galleries are run by white people, it’s understandable why Black and brown artists might be reticent to believe much will truly shift. Certainly, the available data is not encouraging.

In 2018, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors undertook a national survey. Among the findings was that 35 percent of museum staff were people of color, compared with 26 percent in 2015. However, those positions were mainly in curatorial and education departments. Non-white curators represented 16 percent of curators overall, but only 4 percent of those (21 positions total) were filled by Black professionals.

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Artist Ashely Page’s Pupa State from the Portland Museum of Art exhibition “Untitled 2020.” Courtesy of the Portland Museum of Art

Another study conducted by Williams College in Massachusetts found that 85.4 percent of works in American museums were by white artists. Of those, 87.4 percent of them were male. African-American artists claimed the lowest share of works at 1.2 percent. A 2020 AAMD report stated, “Diversifying collections based on artist identity (i.e.: race, ethnicity, gender) is seen as a priority in acquisition strategies.” The report also called for diversification on museum boards.

The Mellon and AAMD are embarking on another study, the AAMD’s Chief Administrator Alison Wade said in a phone call, though she could not make any predictions about new findings. The new report might, however, offer some indication of whether the BLM movement’s heightened racial awareness is having an impact on inching these strategic priorities toward greater parity and inclusion.

“The art world has to ask itself what it’s for,” Minter says. “If they don’t, they’ll just replicate systems of using artwork as a way to adhere to the same canon they’re built upon. I do sense some change at the institutional level the last seven or eight years. It’s small, but it’s something they have to look at from the inside, to realize they have been complicit.”

Here in Maine, Minter’s perception of small change seems validated. “DAI (diversity and inclusion) efforts at the museum began in 2016,” says Jacqueline Terrassa, the Carolyn Muzzy Director of Colby College Museum of Art, “but it wasn’t the first time we started collecting Black artists by any means. The importance of having a lot of work that represents particular groups is to show there’s absolutely no way to homogenize any group. There isn’t one story of being a Black artist, a Latin artist, an Asian artist.”

Works by 25 to 30 African-American artists are on display in the galleries at any given moment, Terrassa, who is Puerto Rican points out; she holds one of the few leadership roles nationally occupied by a non-white professional). She adds that the Lunder Institute at Colby “selects fellows whose research and practices help advance the mission of the institute, which is rooted in equity and social justice.”

At the PMA, Christian Adame, Director of Learning and Community Collaboration, says, “The PMA’s Art for All mission is grounded in platforming our communities in the museum every day and in impactful ways across the entire PMA experience. We are intentional about working with BIPOC artists, scholars, educators, activists, and community members to champion the importance of multiple perspectives and histories.”

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Bowdoin’s co-directors, Anne Collins Goodyear and Frank H. Goodyear, are going even further. They enlisted Elizabeth Humphrey, an alumnus who had returned for a two-year position as curatorial assistant and manager of student programs, to curate the recently concluded exhibition “There Is a Woman in Every Color,” which looked at depictions of Black women from the 18th century onward.

For a just-opened exhibition on Wabanaki basket-making, the Goodyears had three students from the school’s Native American Student Association – Amanda Cassano (Akwesasne Mohawk), Sunshine Eaton (Pueblo from Tesuque Pueblo) and Shandiin Largo (Diné) – curate the works. And they had Humphrey and consulting independent curator Laura Sprague recontextualize the historic collections to, says Frank Goodyear, “de-center the European-American perspective and add works by people of color.”

“We’re very interested in providing students with professional training to nurture the next generation of art museum professionals, who are more attuned to the issues of structural inequity,” Collins Goodyear says. “It’s the kind of change that one doesn’t necessarily see on the surface but will effect deep, institutional change.”

Frank Goodyear adds that the museum has established a fully funded endowment in David Driskell’s name to support diversity initiatives. “You’re not going to build a diverse collection by one acquisition,” he says. “It happens through a series of decisions that foreground this as a priority.”

Artist Kevin Xiques stands before several of his paintings. “By virtue of the fact that I’m Black, my blackness is going to come through in my work,” he says. Photo by Helen Mohney

New voices

Gabon-born sculptor Titi de Baccarat Photo by Tom Bloom

Pressure for change also comes in the form of non-American Black narratives from Maine’s African immigrant community. Gabon-born sculptor Titi de Baccarat, says, “I don’t have a deep understanding of American history. I’m African and have a different story and existence. But I want to support the struggles of my fellow African-Americans. I face the same issues because these are about the color of my skin. So, it’s important to have a month that celebrates the work of Black artists.”

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Even what one might call “conventional” Black narratives are also changing. Kevin Xiques, an abstract artist who only started painting in December of 2020, was adopted and raised in a white family). But, he says, “By virtue of the fact that I’m Black, my blackness is going to come through in my work.” As the world becomes more aware of the great range of Black experience, these conversations will be freshened in new ways.

It is certain, too, that artists who are coming of age during the tectonic shifts of the Black Lives Matter movement and its subsequent cultural debates will be pushing for reforms. Athena Lynch is known for her racially charged subject matter. For one installation in Congress Square Park, she painted body outlines of Tamir Rice and Atatiana Jefferson, two victims of police violence against unarmed Black people.

For a show at Able Baker Contemporary, she created a figure in a hoodie and projected faces of male friends and family into the hood. “I want people to get the point. I don’t want ambiguity. If you feel uncomfortable, then good. If there’s no discomfort, there’s no growth.”

Movement on all these cultural levels may one day propel us toward some semblance of mutual respect and appreciation. As Harris says, “Love and empathy. That’s the ultimate goal and what I’m trying to do as an artist.”

Portrait of a Man (Abner Coker), ca. 1805–1810, oil on canvas by Joshua Johnson, American, 1789–1832. Museum Purchase, George Otis Hamlin Fund. Bowdoin College Museum of Art. Courtesy of Bowdoin College Museum of Art

WHERE TO SEE WORK:

Rachel Gloria Adams: rachelgloria.com
• Will be doing a Black Seed Studio residency sponsored by Indigo Arts Alliance

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Ryan Adams: ryanwritesonthings.com
• Received a Kindling Foundation grant through SPACE to create a space in Thompson’s Point “where people can interact with working artists and give emerging artists a place to show their work”
• Recently completed a residency at Surf Point Foundation in York that will generate new work
• No gallery representation currently, but prints available for sale on the site; paintings through private inquiries

Titi de Baccarat: krystaldebac.wixsite.com/mysite

Sean Alonzo Harris: seanalonzoharris.com

Athena Lynch: acapellalynch.com
• Coordinating MECA&D’s Resilience Week, Feb. 22-26. Among various activities will be a virtual exhibition of student and alumni work

Daniel Minter: danielminter.net
• Show at Dowling Walsh this summer
• Upcoming collaborative project with Eneida Sanches from Bahia, Brazil, at CMCA, Sept. 30-Jan. 8

Ashley Page: ashleypagestudio.com
• Her installation in the windows of SPACE will be up April 8-May 15
• She’ll have a piece in the Resilience Week virtual exhibition, Feb. 22-26 at MECA&D

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Kevin Xiques: kevinxiques.com
• Participating in Visionary Arts Collective’s permanent virtual show “Splash, Drip, Throw” visionaryartcollective.com

Indigo Arts Alliance: indigoartsalliance.me and the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art & Design
• ICA will be presenting an exhibition of works by Indigo Arts Alliance Artists in Residence Dianne Smith, Nyugen Smith and Carl Joe Williams, March 25-May 6

Bates Museum of Art
• Works by David Driskell, Sam McMillan and Daniel Minter in “The Adventurous Spirit: The Jane Costello Wellehan Collection,” through March 19

Bowdoin
Recent acquisitions include works by Benny Andrews, David Driskell, Whitefield Lovell, Lorna Simpson, Mikalene Thomas and Carrie Mae Weems
• On view in the galleries is a c. 1840 pot by David Drake and a portrait by Joshua Johnson

Center for Maine Contemporary Art
• Work of Jennie C. Jones in the “Walk the Line,” through May 8
• “Reggie Burrows Hodges: Hawk Eye,” May 28-Sept. 11
• Collaborative art project of David Minter and Eneida Sanchez, Sept. 30-Jan. 8

Colby
• “Poetics of Atmosphere: Lorna Simpson’s Cloudscape and other Works from the Collection,” Feb. 3-April 17
• Work of 25-30 black artists regularly in the gallery, from Henry Ossawa Tanner and Edward Mitchell Bannister to Barbara Chase-Riboud and Julie Mehretu

Portland Museum of Art
• Works by Daniel Minter and Reggie Burrows Hodges currently on view (closed for construction until Feb. 16)
• Permanent collection also includes David Driskell, Sean Alonzo Harris, Jacob Lawrence, Alison Saar Randy, Kara Walker. Recent acquisition of Burrows Hodges painting

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