Fifty Years Later: Museum’s Landmark 1964 Exhibition Comes Back to Life, Digitally

Contact sheet of photos taken in the days leading up to the 1964 opening of The Portrayal of the Negro in American Painting. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine.

Contact sheet of photos taken in the days leading up to the 1964 opening of The Portrayal of the Negro in American Painting. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine.

Fifty years ago, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art opened its exhibition The Portrayal of the Negro in American Painting. This critically acclaimed show, featuring 80 works brought together from major museums and private collections nationwide, was visited by Martin Luther King, Jr. and other luminaries during its extended run during the summer of 1964.

Now, that landmark show has been born again as a virtual exhibition. Launched on November 11, Fifty Years Later: The Portrayal of the Negro in American Painting is the result of a collaboration between Bowdoin students, faculty, and staff in the Museum, Art History department, Digital and Computational Studies Initiative, and Library.

The website’s launch will be marked with a lecture by visiting speaker Bridget R. Cooks, associate professor in the program in African American studies and the department of art history at the University of California, Irvine. Held in Kresge Auditorium at 4:30 p.m. on Nov. 11, her talk Double Consciousness: Remembering Black Images in American Struggles for Freedom will explore the exhibition in the context of American struggles for racial equality for the visual arts. The lecture will also be streamed live on Bowdoin’s Live Webcasts page.

The Fifty Years Later project germinated when the Museum’s Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, Sarah Montross, began talking with Assistant Professor of Art History Dana Byrd about ways to commemorate this important exhibition on its fiftieth anniversary. Byrd decided to bounce some ideas off of the students in her upper-level seminar Race and Visual Representation. “When I mentioned the show to them, they were so excited about creating a digital legacy for it,” Byrd said. Her course syllabus switched gears, and her students began digging for archival information about the exhibition. Each researched the backgrounds of 10 artworks and wrote a research paper related to the show. Then the students distilled their papers into shorter essays for the website.

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The Orchard, oil on canvas, by Francis Coates Jones, American, 1857 –1932. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine. An essay by Taylor Guiffre ’14 explores the significance of this work.

The result was something that not only commemorates the historic show but actually breathes new life into it, establishing a widely accessible resource that can be used for years to come. The eighty artworks are digitally reproduced in full color on the Gallery page of the site, while a History page of essays by students and faculty provides historical and sociopolitical context for the show.

“We’ve created a bigger picture that documents the art in the show, the people responsible for bringing this collection together, and the atmosphere of Bowdoin during the civil rights movement,” said participant Elisabeth Strayer ’15. Strayer’s essay focuses on renowned historian Sidney Kaplan, author of the introductory essay to the exhibition’s original catalogue.

Montross noted the “concentric circles of research” that went into the site. “There are essays focusing on single works of art in the show, and then there are essays about overarching themes of the show and how it affected the Bowdoin campus, and then how it related to major issues such as the civil rights movement at the time,” she said. “So through the website you can explore the exhibition on all of those different levels.”

She added that she and Byrd have found few examples of similar digital exhibitions, and fewer still that rival the caliber of Fifty Years Later. “It’s a forward-looking project,” she said.

Alongside the student essays the site contains pieces by Montross, Byrd, and Jen Jack Gieseking of the Digital and Computational Studies Initiative. As a third advisor for the exhibition, Gieseking helped the team conceptualize the scope of what could be accomplished technologically and provided ongoing digital expertise for the website and its content – such as the “provenance map” featured in one of the essays, depicting the geographic movement of the paintings between 50 years ago and today.

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Cover of the 1964 exhibition catalogue The Portrayal of the Negro in American Painting, published by Bowdoin College. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine.

Yet another collaborative partner in the project was the Bowdoin College Library’s George H. Mitchell Department of Special Collections and Archives, where students conducted much of their archival research with additional guidance from director Richard Lindemann. This past summer, Special Collections staff and students also digitized the exhibition’s original catalogue, designed by artist Leonard Baskin and now out of print, as a pilot project for their new initiative to digitize all of the Museum’s catalogues.

The digitized catalogue is accessible through a link on the About page of the new website, which also acknowledges some of the many contributors to the virtual exhibition project.

The site itself was designed by computer science and visual arts student Cody Stack ’16, recruited by Gieseking for the project. Never having designed a website before, Stack started out by modifying a WordPress template – but, finding it unequal to his vision for the site, scrapped the template and began teaching himself new coding skills. Working through the summer on a Mellon Humanities Fellowship, Stack created a whole new site from scratch. Not only is this an impressive demonstration of technological skill, Montross said, “it’s also really sophisticated to take all of this unfamiliar art historical material and synthesize it in a way that’s so clean and accessible.”

As Montross and Byrd hoped, the site helps the exhibition to be recognized for what it is: a groundbreaking show for its time. In her essay The 1964 Show: An Overview, Emily Stewart ’16 explains:

Portrait of a Gentleman, ca. 1830, oil on panel, by an unknown American artist. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine.

Portrait of a Gentleman, ca. 1830, oil on panel, by an unknown American artist. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine.

Marvin Sadik, the museum curator, had a distinct vision for the show, which reflected his views of the function of art museums in society and the correspondence between African-Americans’ position in society and their representation in art. His mission was not to create an activist social commentary, but rather to provide a survey of great American paintings with largely positive portrayals of African-American subjects.

Yet, Stewart continues,

The exhibition concluded with Jack Levine’s Birmingham, 1963, a social realist painting that comments on racial injustice. These final images suggest emerging African-American social independence and reaction against oppression. They create a narrative of social progress that was well suited to the show’s political context during the civil rights movement.

In addition to being sociopolitically important, the 1964 show also marked a turning point for the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. As curator, Sadik – who is profiled in an essay by Gretchen Williams ’14 – spent a full year’s exhibitions budget on the summer show, which then brought in more visitors than the Museum had formerly seen in a year.

“It was really eye-opening for the students, because when you look into the archives you get to see this correspondence from Sadik inviting important figures like Jacqueline Kennedy and the Treasurer of the NAACP to this exhibition,” Montross said. “So you see the way this exhibition really had a national presence, and how ambitious the curator and the organizers were at the time.” The exhibition, along with Baskin’s masterfully executed catalogue, helped to establish the Museum as a nationally recognized venue for large-scale exhibitions and world-class publications.

Jessica Holley ’15 does archival research for the virtual exhibition

Jessica Holley ’15 does archival research for the virtual exhibition

This digital boost is critical in giving the 1964 show the attention it deserves. “The exhibition is included in the art historiography, but not as well as we would like it to be,” Byrd said. The original catalogue – while historically important, as described in an essay by Alex Pigott ’14 – reproduces the paintings only in black and white.  To physically recreate the exhibition would be overwhelmingly expensive and laborious, given that the artworks are owned by major institutions across the country.

The virtual exhibition elegantly circumvents these limitations with its complete, full-color gallery and its rich contextual information, all available for anyone to work with – from Bowdoin professors using it as a tool in their classes, to interested students, to scholars worldwide, such as guest speaker Cooks. And it may even pave the way toward solving some mysteries about the exhibition – for example, the whereabouts of a handful of paintings that have disappeared in the past half century. “Maybe by disseminating this we’ll encourage someone to come forward and share,” Byrd said.

The site’s functionality is also what made it such a valuable learning and teaching opportunity for Byrd’s class. “The students mentioned that it was exciting for them to work on this seminar topic that allowed the world to see what they were doing, rather than just having their professor read a 15-page paper,” she said. “That really motivated them.”

Learn more by visiting the digital exhibition itself, Fifty Years Later: The Portrayal of the Negro in American Painting.

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