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Can Jam Be Jam at MoMA?

Thelma Golden and Linda Goode Bryant

Read an exclusive excerpt from the exhibition catalogue Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces about the desire to create a Black cultural "home."

The exhibition Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces at MoMA, celebrated the landmark influence of Just Above Midtown Gallery (JAM) on New York City’s artistic landscape of the 1970s and 1980s—and well beyond. The accompanying catalogue, a copublication between the Studio Museum in Harlem and MoMA, tells this one-of-a-kind story of an attempt to transform the art world’s infrastructure. It includes a conversation between JAM’s founder and director, Linda Goode Bryant, and Thelma Golden, The Studio Museum’s Director and Chief Curator, which appears below. They speak about the gallery’s history, Goode Bryant’s personal story, and JAM’s importance today.

The catalogue also features rarely-seen archival images and ephemera documenting JAM’s prolific programming, announcements, and publications—including Contextures, a primer on Black Conceptual art published in 1978 by Goode Bryant and scholar Marcy S. Phillips. On the occasion of Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces, we’re sharing this foundational text.

—Curatorial team, Department of Media and Performance, MoMA

TG When JAM opened, there was a demand to be representational, both from figures in the previous generation, like Romare Bearden, and from the peers of the artists you were showing. Can you talk a bit about the landscape of that moment? 

LGB In terms of the Black community, there was a fierce debate, between artists making representational art and those making nonrepresentational work, about the definition of Black art. What was Black art? Were artists who made nonrepresentational work “Black artists”? And there was a kind of rivalry between artists based on where they lived, between New York and California artists, and a more subtle one between Los Angeles and Bay Area artists. Of course, there were Black artists working throughout the country, notably in Chicago, Boston, and DC, and they were also part of the conversation. So when I decided JAM was going to show artists based in New York, California, and elsewhere, New York City artists made their objections known. Most Black-run art organizations in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens tended to exhibit representational work, which I called “red-green-and-black” or “Black-women-nursing-babies” art because those were common elements. It was considered nationalist art. I identified as a nationalist, but I wasn’t drawn to that aesthetic. Artist-run organizations such as Tom Lloyd’s Store Front Museum in Queens, WeusiNyumba Ya Sanaa Gallery in Harlem, and

Linda Goode Bryant, age one, with her father, Floyd N. Goode, Columbus, Ohio, 1950.

Where We At Black Women Artists created opportunities for Black artists to meet and show their work. I was at the Studio Museum, and while it was a vibrant space, especially for artists, people who walked by the museum every day or lived across the street were not coming in. I wanted more of them to come into the museum. JAM was on Fifty-Seventh Street, and Black folks didn’t usually come to Fifty-Seventh Street then. So engaging folks at JAM who weren’t going into museums was complicated.

TG You were trying to create a different model separate from the ways the “community”—we put that in quotes—was imagined to engage with art, and in direct response to what Black artists wanted and needed at that time. Can you talk about the exhibition openings at JAM? Because that would allow us to then talk about how you created this space that was different from anything else. I have lived with the stories of those legendary openings, which were the meetings of so many worlds and people, not just in the art world, but in music, fashion, film.

LGB The cross-fertilization in that little seven-hundred-square-foot space was amazing because every segment of the Black community came in. Whatever their motivations for coming, however they identified, professionally or creatively, those distinctions started to break down. And people didn’t just come to the openings; people hung out at the gallery and came by frequently. It was kind of like the Artist-in-Residence program at the Studio Museum when I was there. Folks were there sharing ideas, relating to one another, being creative, and just being human together. But the mix at JAM was more diverse than at the Studio. And then there were the debates, including the one at David Hammons’s first solo show at JAM. I first saw the work when it arrived, and I said, “Hmm, this may need some explanation.”

Brienin Bryant (Linda Goode Bryant’s daughter), 4, at an exhibition opening at The Studio Museum in Harlem, 1977

So I asked Lowery [Stokes Sims] to write something that we could hand out to people if they wanted it. She wrote this piece that had her humor in it; she could have done stand-up. And when David got there right before people arrived and saw Lowery’s text on a podium by the door, he said, “What is this?” “Read it.” “You can’t describe the work to somebody. They have to see this themselves.” He told me to get rid of Lowery’s essay and I did. This opening was one of JAM’s largest openings. People were outside, down in the stairwells, in the lobby, and out the building—almost as many people as there had been at the opening of JAM’s first exhibit. People were coming in expecting to see body prints, but there weren’t any. David told me he wasn’t making more body prints. Instead, he was making work with brown paper bags, barbecue bones, grease, and hair. Abstract and figurative artists came and talked about the work in their different “tribes.” Artists in both groups were angered by the work. Some confronted David, asking, “What the fuck is this shit, man?” He just stared and didn’t say anything. The tension in the room kept building. Finally, I asked everybody to sit down, shut up, and have a conversation. Things got heated. First people said, “You can’t make art with barbecue bones and hair. This isn’t art.” But after a while someone asked, “Well, why not? Why are you objecting to what he’s making art with? Why’s that a problem?” Those words kind of sat there until a few more people said, “Wait a minute. Yeah, why not?”

TG What is so apparent—particularly in that ’74 to ’78 period, in that set of exhibitions and your first exhibition with David—is that you were creating the ground for what we now think of as Black conceptual art, not in relation to a debate about figuration and abstraction, which had ruled the conversations about Black art for so long, but as this other space that was so much more expansive and tied to risk and experimentation. Can you talk about what it meant to be a woman gallerist in that moment, particularly in relation to race? How did you navigate this Black cultural space from the perspective of being a woman?

LGB I experienced a lot of hostility from some of the gallerists on Fifty-Seventh. Some of them couldn’t pass up an opportunity to say something insulting when we were forced to be in the elevator or the lobby together. A lot of them were angry with Bill Judson for renting the space to me—Black and single with two kids.

R. Kenneth Bryant (Linda Goode Bryant’s son), 5, at the Just Above Midtown, 1974.

There were a few galleries supportive of me being there. Female dealers extended themselves: Terry Dintenfass and Betty Parsons, mostly through Jack Tilton, who was working for her. They shared how hard it was to be a female in this business. The men didn’t show us the same respect they showed each other. The women talked about that and acknowledged how difficult it was for me to be Black and female. And I realized, “This woman thing is everywhere.”

I certainly experienced it in the Black community, but it became part of my consciousness in the art world. I’m sure there were times that I or JAM wouldn’t have gotten through it if not for those women.  

But, you know, it’s kind of funny because part of me couldn’t be bothered with that. I didn’t think of myself that way until they presented it, to be honest. That’s how I’ve always been. I can’t be fixated on that.

TG One of your goals with Just Above Midtown was to bring more awareness about Black artists to audiences and collectors. One of the ways you achieved this was through JAM’s melding of the commercial and the nonprofit.

LGB We opened as a commercial gallery in 1974 but applied for and secured nonprofit status in 1975. In JAM’s early years, I was very interested in cultivating Black collectors and creating an infrastructure that would enable our community to support the art being made. Being on Fifty-Seventh Street provided us with access to Black professionals who worked in Midtown and had discretionary income. Ivan Karp, who owned O.K. Harris Gallery, advised me on this when I was a Rockefeller Fellow at the Met. As part of the fellowship, we got to meet him and other people working in the arts. At some point during our visit with him, he stopped the visit and said to me, “Come with me.” He took me downstairs, and he began to break down the art world for me. He explained that art is a social thing.

A few years later, when I decided to open the gallery, I kept hearing white dealers argue that the reason they didn’t show African American artists was that they would not know how to be social with collectors. An artist had to come to dinner with the collector and, these white dealers’ argument went, Black artists would be uncomfortable with white collectors. Which was bizarre. Like, what would happen? We wouldn’t know how to use a fork? Wouldn’t be able to speak the language? Sometimes people say the most offensive shit and reveal themselves in the process.

Ivan Karp telling me art was a social thing helped me understand that there’s a strategy underneath, that selling art is relationship-based. At JAM, what I said was, ”How are we going to bring people together?“ Well, we all know that food is a good way to get people around a table. So, the Brunch with JAM series was one way to do that. A way for more people to know about JAM and to build new relationships.

Linda Goode Bryant, c. 1974. Photographs by Dwight Carter. Just Above Midtown Gallery Records, Collection Linda Goode Bryant, New York

TG Explain Brunch with JAM.

LGB Brunch with JAM was when we would offer lunch for a few dollars. Faythe Weaver, a dear friend who had done the Whitney Independent Study Program and was questioning whether she was going to stay in the art world or do something else, was a great cook and would make meals and bring them to the gallery. We would advertise with flyers. AC Hudgins was working at JAM and became the flyer man, passing out flyers on the street at seven o’clock in the morning, before people went to their offices. In addition to being the cheapest lunch on the block, it was also homemade and delicious, plus you got a lecture from a curator, historian, or critic.

TG You were doing public programs along with the curatorial programs. You had earned income from the lunches. All of that speaks again to this shape-shifting model. You figured out what was needed and then operated within that, as opposed to just grafting the available models. You used the model of the gallery but in the least literal way possible.

LGB These Black professionals were coming to the gallery, along with every Black model that was walking a runway, backup singers in all of these bands, entertainment attorneys at CBS and ABC. They would come in and buy Palmer Hayden works and David’s body prints because while they were abstract, they were also figurative. Brunch with JAM became Sunday brunches with collectors and artists. There were only a few, but they were key. Black collectors would come and feel comfortable asking, “How do I know if it’s good?” They would talk with artists about their work, and artists would usually reply, “If you like it, it’s good.” Conversations developed into relationships that led to people feeling comfortable at JAM. Gallery spaces were once alien to us, because we were excluded from them. JAM was home.

Read the whole interview in the Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces catalogue, available at Studio Store.

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