Last month, Carole Anders Harris arrived at Joslyn with a group of friends to have lunch and visit the 30 Americans exhibition. The visit was planned in celebration of a milestone birthday for Harris, who had traveled from South Carolina to her hometown of Omaha for the gathering. For thirty years, Harris was an accomplished business leader in Omaha. From the late 1950s to her retirement in 1990, she worked in telecommunications, rising from an entry-level post (one that she, a black woman, was initially denied) to executive leadership roles. She was committed to public service, sitting on numerous boards. In 1992, she became the first black woman elected to the Douglas County Board of Commissioners in Nebraska. We were honored that Harris chose a visit to 30 Americans to help mark her birthday. And it was a point of pride for her to see this exhibition, which deals with race in America through the work of thirty renowned black artists, on view in the city where she helped forge a path for minorities at the height of the civil rights movement.
30 Americans is the first exhibition at Joslyn devoted exclusively to the work of contemporary black artists. An exhibition like 30 Americans is overdue at Joslyn, and just one step in the right direction toward broadening the presence of underrepresented voices in our galleries. The exhibition is equally important for Omaha, where, 100 years ago, Willie Brown was lynched, and 94 years ago, Malcolm X was born. In addressing race in the U.S., 30 Americans does not shy away from challenging themes; it’s an exhibition with the volume turned up. The art speaks . . . and we hope those who view it do as well. Cultivating conversation around the exhibition has been as much a focus as curating the art featured in its galleries. Stories of connections being made to and through this exhibition—stories like Harris’s—are abundant and worth sharing.
Omaha’s Deborah Bunting is Community Outreach Special Projects Coordinator for 30 Americans at Joslyn. A quilter and textile artist, she knows how to put the pieces together, and conversations surrounding the power of art are her specialty. Recently retired from the Nebraska Arts Council, where she served as the Heritage Arts Manager, she has been associated with Joslyn for years. A champion of black artists and the black community in Omaha, Bunting saw great potential with 30 Americans. “I’m retired, so I pick my opportunities now,” she said, smiling. “This exhibition is outstanding, and so are the possibilities for real growth around it . . . getting people here and connected with what’s going on. I am about the relationships . . . rebuilding the old, nurturing the current, planting seeds for the future. The exhibition is temporary. The impact will be lasting.”
To ensure that lasting impact, considerable care went into developing 30 Americans and its public programming. Joslyn formed an exhibition community advisory council comprising twelve non-profit, business, education, social services, and arts leaders from the black community. This group provided invaluable guidance and feedback, resulting in terrific public events, from a family festival and Valentine’s Day concert, to gallery presentations and spoken word performances. Members of the group contributed powerful narratives for the exhibition mobile tour.
Collaborative events were developed, including a repertory series with Film Streams and programs with The Union for Contemporary Art and Love’s Jazz and Art Center. Teachers from Omaha Public Schools worked with Joslyn staff to develop high school curriculum surrounding the exhibition. Students from the University of Nebraska Omaha (UNO) and Nathan Hale Middle School developed content for the 30 Americans family gallery guide, while students from UNO and Blackburn Alternative Program created podcasts recording their reflections of the work on view in the show.
The A-HA! Moments
Karin Campbell, Joslyn’s Phil Willson Curator of Contemporary Art and curator of the exhibition at the Museum, notes, “This show has multiple points of entry thematically.” Ensuring that there is something for everyone, regardless of how they approach the exhibition, adds meaning and gives it staying power . . . that long-term impact of which Bunting speaks. All of this takes time to organize, of course (over a full year for programming; two years for the exhibition itself). Organization is great, but you might ask . . . did anything unexpected happen? Absolutely, yes! And despite all of the planning, it has been the unexpected, unpredictable, organic momentum of 30 Americans that has really been the most rewarding to experience. Just a few of the A-HA! moments:
Artist Jevon Woods of Lincoln was invited to teach Thursdays for Teachers workshop participants about his inspiration—artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Standing and speaking in front of Basquiat’s work in the exhibition, he said, “This is a highlight of my life.”
The young daughter of a friend of Campbell’s, while in the exhibition galleries, stopped in front of a portrait of a woman by Mickalene Thomas and exclaimed: “HEY! She looks like me!”
Othello Meadows, President & CEO of Seventy Five North, dedicated to the revitalization of North Omaha’s Highlander neighborhood, brought his entire staff to the exhibition for their monthly outing. (We have been delighted at the number of local arts organizations and businesses who have scheduled staff-development visits to 30 Americans).
Through Seventy Five North, Joslyn connected with the organization’s adopted school, Howard Kennedy Elementary, and partnered with them for an impromptu family night attended by nearly 65 guests. For many, it was their first-ever visit to the Museum.
Jade Rogers, professor, archivist, and oral historian, presented at Framing the Flame in the galleries, sharing that her grandfather was on the crew that constructed Joslyn’s 1931 Memorial Building (surprise!). She then spoke poignantly about her family’s connection to slavery while standing in front of Leonardo Drew’s installation of cotton bales. Her story elicited a response from an audience member who raised his hand and said, “I would have walked right past this work before without giving it a second thought, but now, after your story, no way.”
Sparked by 30 Americans, people have reached out to Joslyn to partner on events that encourage public dialogue about racism and inclusion: UNO’s Educational Leadership Summit with Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert; CreativeMornings/Omaha sponsored by the Greater Omaha Chamber; and Omaha Table Talk presented by Inclusive Communities and College of St. Mary’s Department of Multicultural Initiatives. Requests for partnerships continue to come in.
And people are having fun in the show! Friends are getting together to have lunch and see the exhibition. Prominent sororities such as Alpha Kappa Alpha and Delta Sigma Theta have made group visits. Family Festival participants of every age collaborated on an awesome Nick Cave-inspired “soundsuit” of which the artist himself would certainly be proud. #30Americans selfies are popping up all over on social media.
30 Americans has inspired these moments and so many more. From a birthday visit by one of Omaha’s first black elected officials to the youngest of visitors delighting in seeing herself represented in the art. It is about learning . . . about great artists, great art, and a little bit more about ourselves and each other. We are grateful to those who have shared their moments with us, including these thoughts noted in the exhibition comment book:
As a black man in Omaha, it’s empowering to think of my culture as artistic, elegant, sophisticated.
I have personally never been more interested in any art.
My goal is to become an African American activist artist like the 30 Americans artists seen today.
I feel represented, seen, and understood.
30 Americans is on view at Joslyn Art Museum through May 5.