"Madness At The Met..."-- An excerpt from George magazine, January 1999

Thirty years ago, an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art sent shock waves through the art world and endangered the museum's priceless collection. The show's creator, Allon Schoener, recalls those harrowing days in 1969: ....

In January 18, 1969, the Harlem on My Mind exhibition opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. By January 30, when the catalog was withdrawn from sale, the show and I were at the vortex of the worst political storm that had ever occurred at a museum. Harlem on My Mind documented the history of the cultural capital of black America from 1900 to 1968, at a time when examination of minority cultures was consciously ignored by major cultural institutions in the United States. The exhibition, which occupied 18,000 square feet, included 700 photographic enlargements, 500 projected images, and a five-minute video, but no original works of art. Harlem on My Mind was the first audiovisual environment ever created in a major art museum.

In the age of Aquarius, and in the midst of the civil rights movement, one would have hoped for universal acclaim for a museum exhibition that pushed cultural boundaries to such extremes. No such luck. Harlem on My Mind became the focus of a legion of angry voices, all with different agendas. The cultural elite was horrified by the use of multimedia communications technology in an art museum and was distressed that the Met had embraced African-American culture. Black painters and sculptors were outraged by their exclusion; they saw the show as a missed opportunity for them to gain recognition for their work. The Jewish community condemned the catalog introduction - which was written by a Harlem high school graduate - for containing what it considered to be anti-Semitic statements.

The comments were, in fact, quotations drawn from Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan's acclaimed sociological study Beyond The Melting Pot. With considerable naivete, I made the decision to remove the quotation marks from the introduction because I wanted it to evoke firsthand experience.

The Met was under siege. Two days before the exhibition was scheduled to open, ten paintings, one of which was a Rembrandt, were defaced with small H's presumed to represent Harlem. This wanton act of violence made me sick. As an art historian, I was trained to preserve works of art, not to destroy them. On opening night, an unlikely alliance of about 50 picketers stretched across the Met's Fifth Avenue entrance: a contingent of black artists and members of the militant Jewish Defense League blocked the path of the formally attired invitees. Having been a participant in many demonstrations in the '60s, I was mortified to find myself the target of social protest. Mayor John Lindsay, speaking from a prepared text at the opening, praised the museum for its innovation and lauded the exhibition.

The next day, without any reference to his remarks of the previous evening, he charged that the catalog introduction was "racist." A few days later, the New York City Council threatened to withdraw funding from the Met unless the catalog was removed from sale. The Met ultimately folded under the pressure and complied.

During its 11-week run at the Met, Harlem on Mind had one of the highest attendance records in the museum's history. The visitors were predominantly white and middle-class; but for the first time, blacks came to the Met as gallerygoers, not janitors. Despite the show's evident popularity, the editorial page of the New York Times condemned it and welcomed the Met's decision to allow the censorship of the catalog after 14,000 copies had been sold in 12 days.

How did I, as creator of the show and editor of the book, fare in this political maelstrom? When I created the Lower East Side exhibition (which documented my family's heritage) for the Jewish Museum two years earlier, I became a Jewish hero. With the Harlem on My Mind exhibition, I became a pariah. Dismayed by criticism from the Jewish community, I contacted the rabbi of the synagogue where our children attended nursery school. But he refused to see me. I arranged to see the attorney who had represented Diego Rivera when the painter's murals were removed from Rockefeller Center. But when I went to the lawyer's office, this defender of free expression denounced me as "a traitor to the Jewish people." There were picketers outside my apartment building. I received threatening phone calls and had to obtain an unlisted number. My wife and I couldn't let our children go anywhere unaccompanied.

Thirty years later, the dust has settled. I have worked for major Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League. The exhibition catalog was recently reprinted. I hear from black photojournalists and black photo curators that the Harlem on Mind exhibition propelled them into their careers. My hope had been to change the way museums do business. Although a lot was accomplished, some attitudes remain entrenched. Several years ago, while having lunch at the Met, I went to speak with an acquaintance who is a curator in the department of Western European art. She introduced me to her guest as "that awful Allon Schoener who almost ruined the Met with Harlem on My Mind."