Real City The Museum Nobody Knows

Buried at Fair Park is a little-known gem that ranks among the top five of its kind in the country.

BOTTLE TREES BRING GOOD LUCK. You still see them in country yards: colored glass bottles stuck neck-down over branches in a bare tree, They used to say that a bottle tree would keep the snakes and evil spirits away from your house, and thai the bottles were spirit catchers-when the wind blew, you could hear the spirits moving in the clanking glass.

This bottle tree, in the center of the courtyard of the African American Museum at Fair Park, is less folkloric and more sculptural than the usual yard art. These multi-colored bottles are arranged in a thought-out pattern on a geometric metal frame, not on a fractal tree. It’s a formal American interpretation of the intuitive African tradition, and it just about sums up the African American Museum in Dallas.

Five years old, the Museum building feels like it just opened yesterday. There’s a toehold spareness to the understocked gift shop-display cases are nearly empty, and credit card transactions have to be run through a terminal on the floor behind a shelf. The glass-walled, spick-and-span cafe is still just a gleam in director Harry Robinson’s eye. But so was the Museum itself, not so long ago.

MAYBE THAT BOTTLE TREE IS WORKING: According to Harry Parker, former DMA director (now director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco), the African American Museum in Dallas is one of the top five African-American art museums in the world.

Funny that so many people in Dallas haven’t been there yet.

The African American Museum’s self-described, No. 1 mission is to create a community, to become a center for African-American culture in Dallas. But the whole idea has a built-in ambiguity-how do you become the gathering place for one culture and at the same time embrace the whole city? The African-American experience of art is different from the Anglo experience. There isn’t a strong African-American tradition of going to museums, of collecting and buying art. Mainstream art museums usually begin as personal monuments, with a core of visual art collected by one individual. But African-American museums have a completely different definition.

“They started as storefronts, originally set up during Black History Month-it was “Week” then–and hung with magazine pictures, or whatever pictures they could get, of black art and history,” says Robinson. African-American museums were born in the social unrest of the ’60s. Their purpose was, and remains, to reflect on culture, while traditional museums focus on objects.

Robinson is more than the museum’s director-he is its father. He looks scholarly, but underneath the mi Id, tweedy look, he’s a fighter. He’s carried this institution from its struggling beginning in the basement of Bishop College to its opening in the niche museum mall at Fair Park. The first year in the new building, the Museum received mixed reviews. Sixteen shows in the first 12 months proved too much for the tiny staff to handle, and die Museum didn’t publicize itself well. Workshops, public forums, and film series were haphazardly scheduled. And canceled.

Too much too soon, said many. Too broad a mission. Too mixed a message. But a broad message is the point. And the African American Museum’s mission is definitely, purposefully mixed.

“I think of this Museum as a transformation and liberation center,” explains Robinson. “We provide new information that we hope will lead to new attitudes that will lead to new behavior.”

Changing society is a big mission statement for a museum. And that seems to be Robinson’s big dream.

THE MUSEUM IS RUN BY TWO STRONG AND sometimes controversial personalities. (For instance, “he’s the jewel in their crown,” an associate of Collins told me. “He’s totally unqualified,” said another.) Harry Robinson is the man upstairs. Phillip Collins is the man downstairs. He came to the Museum to help out temporarily, (Three years and counting.) He had been director of outreach at DMA (you know, Go Van Gogh). He had left the museum to go into business when he was asked to help put together a show at the African American Museum. He’s been there ever since.

His amazingly cluttered office is an abridged edition of the Museum, filled with African, contemporary, and self-taught art. Two huge Ebo carvings lean against one wall. “Where are they from?” Collins repeals the question, “They’re straight from Mr. Stanley’s office. He gave them to us.” On Collins’ messy desk sits a memory jug, its colored clay surface studded with mementos. It was made by the kids in one of artist Jean Lacy’s summer classes. The recently unveiled ceramic sculpture “Amazing Grace” by Sister Maria (Mama Johnnie) Benson sits behind a stack of files, waiting for its paperwork to be processed, and you can see Rev. Johnnie Swearingen’s distinctive brushwork through the wrappings of several canvasses, propped against a wall until they’re checked in for the November exhibit. A painting of Collins’ high school art teacher is on the floor, and near it is a traditional wood carving of a squatting African chief in a loincloth with the jowly face of Richard Nixon. (“It was a commissioned piece, in a way,” says Collins. “The African artist wanted to make a carving of “the American chief.”)

“African culture is holistic,” Collins says. “The music is the art is the history. We’ve recorded our history in the arts instead of in words. It may be different mediums telling the story, but African-American art is mostly about the story. Storytellers have the power because they have the history.”

Art history is now, and it’s happening to you, and you’re helping to make it.

The experience, the story, is about being black in white America. But at the African American Museum, the colors get mixed up a lot. For white visitors, the Museum is, for a few minutes, about being white in black America. Collins tells the story in the exhibits-of folk art, contemporary art, painting, and sculpture. He uses other mediums, too. Like, oh, baseball. The current exhibit, Triumph Over Adversity: The Center for Negro League’s Baseball Collection, loaned by Dr. Layton Revel, is one story of the black experience, as black ballplayers struggled for equality with while leagues.

The Rev. Johnnie Swearingen’s paint-ings tell another story. “You could look at his canvas and think he was formally trained-the organization of the canvas, the flat planes of color, the narrative,” Collins enthuses about a Swearingen canvas. “We just call it “The Farm” because he didn’t name his paintings, he just painted his experiences, and his visions, like you would take a snapshot,”

It’s not only the wonderful paintings that have Collins so excited about this show. “It’s brought us to another dimension of audience development,” he explains, rather diplomatically. “Audience development” is museum-speak for finding supporters with money.

It’s all a little difficult to talk about in politically correct terms, but the Swearingen show is attracting a different level of lender to the Museum, according to Collins. Folk art is the crossover hit of the art market right now-African-American folk art is collected primarily by wealthy white people. The African American Museum has one of the largest African-American folk art collections in the country, but folk art is such a hot commodity that the Museum often gets beat out for the big exhibits by more mainstream (you know what that means) institutions.

The African American Museum has come a long way, financially-Matrice Kirk is chairing the annual ball and auction. Cecil Edwards, senior vice president at NationsBank and T.I.’s Terry Larmay are chairing the new capital funds drive–the kind of campaign that has DMA in a mailing frenzy, their publicists courting the media for the attention that paves the way to money. The success of a museum is judged by what it’s given. The African American Museum is stuck in a kind of stasis-it doesn’t have the money to hire the marketing and publicity staff it needs to get the money.

Robinson’s approach has always been a little different. It has to be.

“Let me tell you what we do that other museums don’t,’” says Robinson. “We do grassroots fund-raising.”

He pats an envelope on the table and says, “This money was given to me by a man who asked all the African-Americans with kiosks at the State Fair to contribute to the Museum. We go to the community for support-to the churches.” Instead of a corporate donor plaque in the gray dome of the Museum, Robinson envisions a “church’s donor plaque” listing all the congregations thai participated. “Some of these churches can only give a few hundred dollars. You know what? That buys a lot of bulk postage, A lot of bulk postage.”

The members of this museum are real members-most of them are not joining to get complimentary valet parking or discounted admission prices. They belong to the Museum, and it belongs to them.

But the African American Museum needs to attract the entire community to survive- no museum these days can be satisfied with a slice of the pie when it takes several pies to keep from starving. Only since its move to the permanent building has the Museum been able to pull off larger visual exhibits. Exhibits require money and the problem becomes reaching out to North Dallas dollars to fund a dream on the downside of town.

“It’s challenging,” says Robinson. “Very challenging.”

“Challenging” is in art-speak what “discomfort” is in doctor lingo: painful. Very painful. After 20 years, Robinson still has a preacher’s zeal about his Museum-he’s a soft-spoken but outspoken man. In these politically correct times, it’s hard even to mention the problems the Museum faces trying to build support-you have to use terms like “black,” “white,””rich,””poor,””class.”But Robinson and Collins share a vision that provides vocabulary. So Robinson says, “Art is elite. We are a non-elite museum.” “Art provides the best opportunity for human relations.” “Art builds bridges between communities.”

And Collins defines the qualities that thread through the African-American experience. “African art is functional,” he says. “African art is traditional. African art is spiritual- visionary.”

Visionaries take chances. “It took a lot of vision for Dr. Robinson to say, ’I want to be in the community,” points out board member Lisa Hembry. “Because that put the museum outside the mainstream moneymaking zone.”

Visionaries need luck. And help. And some observers see a fresh energy surge at the Museum, an upswing from the current plateau. Bruce and Julie Webb (owners of the self-proclaimed world-famous Webb Gallery in Waxahachie) are guest-curating the Swearingen show. The museum’s three permanent collections–the core collection of African art; the contemporary African-American art; and the Billy Allen Folk Art Collection-are very good. There’s been lots of civic support in the past-Steve Bartlett, Margaret McDermott, Curtis Meadows, Mabel White (“Too many to mention, really,” says Robinson, in a social escape clause).

Harry Parker makes the future of the African American Museum sound bright. “I’ve watched this Museum for 20 years,” he says. “It has an authentic spirit, and it always has.”

Everyone remembers the opening of the African American Museum five years ago. “It was really tremendous-the whole community turned out for it,” remembers one board member. “There was a real joy; it was truly multicultural. I kept thinking, “This is going on in Dallas? Conservative, uptight, racist Dallas?”

“Well, yes.”


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