"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
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 By January 30, when the catalog was withdrawn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.
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
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,
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."