On Friday the National Gallery of Art will open “In the Tower: Kerry James Marshall,” an exhibition more-or-less about Marshall’s Great America (1994), which the NGA acquired in 2010. The show will include eight paintings (including 1994’s Bang, above) and numerous works on paper related to Great America and related works. Judging from the checklist, curator James Meyer’s show is likely to be a nice, bite-sized introduction to Marshall’s early-1990s work.
But “Kerry James Marshall” is newsworthy for another reason, a reason wholly unrelated to the work on view: This is the first time since the NGA opened in 1941 that it has organized an exhibition of a living African-American artist.
Previously the National Gallery organized an exhibition of a late African-American artist (Romare Bearden in 2003) and it hosted an exhibition of an African-American artist organized by another institution (the Museum of Modern Art’s Martin Puryear retrospective in 2008). The Marshall show is just the third exhibition of an African-American artist at the NGA.
Sadly, this shouldn’t be a surprise: Even as historians have substantially opened up the art historical canon in recent decades, director Rusty Powell’s National Gallery has been stuck in a previous era. For years the NGA’s West Building galleries of American art have been so dominated by paintings by white men that the hanging of a third artwork (out of about 170) by a non-white-male painter last year was news. As recently as 2011 the NGA hung zero works by non-male artists in its American galleries.
The NGA’s exhibition program has also long been dominated by white males: The museum has presented either zero exhibitions or one exhibition of a female artist in the last 11 years. (The NGA organized “Judith Leyster: 1609-1660,” in its Dutch cabinet galleries in 2009. The Arthur Wheelock-and-Frima Fox Hofrichter-curated exhibition featured 10 Leysters (out of fewer than 40 known to exist) alongside 15 paintings by Leyster’s male contemporaries, plus assorted ephemera such as musical instruments.)
The National Gallery received well over $100 million in taxpayer funds in FY 2013.