Unmasked At Last

After a half-century of effort, local African-American artists are emerging to the forefront of the arts, both in Houston and nationally

In 1988, Margaret Burroughs, an artist and founder of the DuSable Museum of African-American History in Chicago, gave a Houston speech that inspired Galloway to lead another effort for a museum. "I didn't know what I was doing, but I was fueled by a tremendous passion," says Galloway, who became a physician after his mother discouraged him from pursuing art as a career. "It was the same as medicine for me. I considered the absence of art the same as a disease."

The exhibition space was a suite in a downtown building Galloway owned at 2101 Crawford. The first exhibit was from the TSU School of Art. After a few years of hand-to-mouth existence, the museum was forced to close.

The new incarnation of the museum is proposed to be in a much more visible place, like Hermann Park. Those involved in the project are intent on acquiring Museum District land. "It's important to have synergies with the other museums and be part of the cultural landscape. We also want to be part of a single destination…," says project director Johnson. "You know what they say about real estate: location, location, location."

Smith, an avid collector, heads the effort to establish a black museum here.
Deron Neblett
Smith, an avid collector, heads the effort to establish a black museum here.
Noted early artist Huey Long (center) and his wife (left) were honored by the MFA. With them are MFA director Peter Marzio (left rear) and Willy and Sarah Trotty.
Dan Kamin
Noted early artist Huey Long (center) and his wife (left) were honored by the MFA. With them are MFA director Peter Marzio (left rear) and Willy and Sarah Trotty.

The Friends of Hermann Park group, however, is concerned about protection, protection, protection. Museum organizers presented plans for a building in the area of the Garden Center. The proposal would actually create more greenspace -- the Friends' sacred cow -- by developing land that now sits unusable, covered with scrub behind a chain-link fence. Still, the Friends are not receptive.

"We need to be careful how we define the word 'unused,' " says Roksan Okan-Vick, the executive director of Friends. "Despite the institutional nature of the park, it still is a park. It needs to have places of respite. You don't need to do an activity every time you're in the park." Strangely, Okan-Vick volunteered that the Friends have their own vision for the same area, although "it's not to a point where we are able to fulfill [that vision] yet."

The Friends are concerned about how the museum proposal could affect future planning for the park. "It is a precedent," Okan-Vick says. "It is worthwhile, but then how can we argue that the next one is not?"

Smith and other organizers take pains at this point not to put a price tag on the museum project, but an institution of the scale they are planning could cost in the neighborhood of $50 million to build, staff and outfit with art. Leaders insist that figure is not out of reach -- organizers have influential backing. "Funding will not be an issue," says Marzio, the MFA director.

"It will complete that 50-year cycle from TSU," says Robbie Lee, owner of the Black Heritage Gallery on Almeda. "It will complete what Biggers started."

Lee started her gallery about the same time the TV miniseries Roots premiered. The show caused a surge in black pride that helped launch her business. Now hers is one of at least a half-dozen Houston galleries specializing in African-American art.

The Black Heritage Gallery is not one of those highfalutin places that make visitors uncomfortable. It's packed with the work of mostly Houston artists, some of it costing thousands of dollars, much more of it within the reach of the average consumer.

Her gallery covers several thousand square feet, but she still doesn't have enough space to show everything. Many locals have important historical artifacts stored away, but no place to donate them. "When these people pass away, there are a lot of treasures we're losing," she says. Why not give them to the MFA? "To be stored in the basement?" she asks rhetorically. "The MFA is not into slave documents and shackles and scales that weigh cotton. These are the memories that we have. I have things that should be in museums…"

Lee retreats to a back room and returns with a yellowed book, Mother Goose's Nursery Rhymes, published in 1886. It includes the ditty "The 10 Little Niggers":

Ten little nigger boys went out to dine

One choked his little self, and then there were nine.

"This is the kind of thing that should not be forgotten," Lee says, closing the book.

Johnson says, "The history of this country has been told in a way that doesn't reflect our spirit, our ingenuity. It's an American story. This American story hasn't been told by museums here." Johnson says existing museums focus on a Eurocentric influence. "And that's great, and that's important. Now we will tell our story our way, in a manner that transcends the boundaries."

"I've always had problems with the term 'black art,' " says David McGee, 39. "I think it's limiting. The popular press, they don't use 'white art' or 'Jewish art.' I think that it pigeonholes people of African descent to try and stereotype us into one type of thought. We are vast, varied people. We paint, we sing, we do a lot of different things in a lot of different languages, and we use different images to convey it, our blackness."

"We have come a long ways. But then again, I think sometimes people want to put us back in those pigeonholes," says the Houston artist. "What John Biggers has done is cast a very powerful shadow that we still can use. But at the same time, it can be such an overwhelming shadow that people will want to put you under that umbrella. I paint about black people because I'm a black person, and I paint autobiographically about what I've seen. But I think we've come a long way, and we still have a ways to go."

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