Peggy Cooper Cafritz irked by black art platitudes at Katzen

By Jessica Dawson
Curator J.W. Mahoney leads a tour at American University's Katzen Center on Saturday. (Courtesy of Max Cook)

An impassioned plea to area art institutions to show black artists interrupted last Saturday afternoon's smile-and-nod curator's talk at "Catalyst: 35 Years of Washington Project for the Arts" on view at American University's Katzen Arts Center. During the exhibition walk-through with curator James Mahoney, arts patron Peggy Cooper Cafritz, victim of a devastating fire that destroyed her extensive African- and African-American-heavy art collection, asked why the black artists in "Catalyst" were so few and far between -- and why they were segregated to certain areas of the exhibition. Mahoney's platitude-ridden reply -- "I'm with you," "God Bless him," --- irked Cafritz, and rightly so.

Concerned with how to represent black artists in his show, Mahoney struggled to arrive at an adequate solution. Over the past decades, Mahoney explained, African American artists employed different strategies in their search for equality. According to the curator, some artists advocated for inclusion with white artists as a means to equality; others argued for being "separate to be enfranchised." Many of the "Catalyst" artists are arranged around exhibitions held by the non-profit Washington Project for the Arts, including exhibitions such as 1989's "The Blues Aesthetic: Black Culture and Modernism," which included both black and white artists. Mahoney's segregation of black artists largely followed the WPA's history.

Cafritz ventured that the problem stemmed from Washington's institutions -- both Smithsonian and private museums -- where African American contemporary art remains a rarity. She cited the Baltimore Museum of Art's 2009 exhibition of Hank Willis Thomas and iona rozeal brown's recent exhibition at Cleveland's Museum of Contemporary Art as examples of shows that should have happened in Washington.

Peggy, you're absolutely right. Isn't it time for the Katzen to step in? They've got the right space and they're in desperate need of an identity. What do you say, Jack Rasmussen?

By Jessica Dawson | November 22, 2010; 10:21 AM ET