A neighborly museum; WITH A NATIONAL PURPOSE

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

On a grassy knoll in Roxbury is an old mansion called "Oak Bend." Since it was built in 1873, a lot of other houses, big but closer together, have crowded the neighborhood streets, and a public school has moved right up next to it. Since the '20s, the neighborhood has become black. The grassy hilltop is still uncluttered, and Oak Bend broods on top of it, its gothic peaks and dormers frowning down on the rest of the houses with the kind of elegance Charles Addams appreciates. Atop the spindly tower, sinister in the shadows of an overgrown oak, curlicues of Nova Scotia sandstone claw the sky. The second- and third-floor windows are bricked up, and the front yard is shaggy. As you drive up Walnut Avenue toward it, you half expect bats and ravens to wheel out of the oak tree.

But what comes out the front door of Oak Bend, also known as the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists (MNCAAA), as I come up its curving driveway, is the rattle of pop music. Inside, the first floor is bright with white walls and track lighting and studded with paintings and drawings by Afro-American artists of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. A large radio is propped by the door, keeping curator Edmund Barry Gaither and two high school boys company while they put some African instruments on stands for a loan to another museum. I am there in off hours, but Mr. Gaither, who is magisterial even in jeans, with his broad forehead, deep black skin, and black beard with white flashes at the sides, invites me to look around while he finishes up.

Gaither is the museum's founding curator, having been hired by Roxbury cultural leader Elma Lewis in 1969 when it was decided that the National Center for Afro-American Artists should have a museum. Boston's Museum of fine Arts (MFA) provided technical and financial assistance. Gaither was right out of graduate school, having studied art history on a Woodrow Wilson fellowship at Brown University. Brown probably instilled the taste and judgment he needs to establish the collection, but at the NMCAAA, he has to put up the paintings himself. That is, after he finishes putting up the walls the paintings hang on.

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For the first 11 years, the museum was in the auditorium of the Elma Lewis School, part of the center. The center acquired Oak Bend in 1978, but it wasn't until last year that Gaither and volunteers had carved exhibition spaces out of the first floor. Floor by floor, room by room, Gaither intends to inhabit the whole building. It looks like a long siege. Not only is he reclaiming exhibition space from the desiccated old building, but he also cultivates an interest among his neighbors in their own art, and creates one of two black fine arts museums in the country. All this in a time that is hard on all cultural institutions, when the country seems less interested in voices from outside the mainstream.

On the walls, the contemporary paintings of Romare Bearden, with their simple African shapes and bright, clear colors, hark back to some of the same designs Matisse mined, but from the perspective of someone who grew up in the American South. The paintings are crowded with black faces, pink flowers, and bits of fabric in bright colors. The backgrounds are stuffed with green leaves. This man has gone after everything gorgeous in life -- "this is straightahead, handsome art," as Gaither says.

In another room are more delicate drawings and prints, Afro-American views from gentle 19th-century landscapes through the socially conscious New York City scenes of the 1930s. A third gallery, called the Boston gallery, had a show of 1980s paintings, many of children, dedicated to the children of Atlanta. What strikes me, a white visitor, is that in all these paintings all the faces are black. This is new. I have never seen these smooth cheekbones and noses, these deep brown eyes and thick, soft mouths, these clouds of curly hair, in formal portraits in a formal setting. Here I am in a museum full of faces that are nothing like the sharp, bony, and pale apparatus through which I peer at them. I am amazed.

Is this way a black person feels on entering a roomful of thin-lipped, pale blond, blue-eyed Vermeer damsels in a big American museum like Boston's MFA? Probably not, Barry Gaither says, because "the most fundamental aspect of being a minority is an awareness of the majority." The majority isn't nearly as aware of itself, even though, without thinking about it, the MFA is celebrating its whiteness, just as the MNCAAA celebrates its blackness, he says.

"The question is whether that's in a narrow, programmatic sense or whether it's in a broadly celebrated sense. The Museum of Fine Arts celebrates the West. This society is glued together by the heritage of the West. It's a political buttressing that the museum provides. It does not have to do that in a narrow way, so it doesn't do a show which illustrates this point. . . . The conflict comes in when minorities try to do this. Because in a society where the majority is the standard and does not have a sense of itself as promoting itself, it thinks what it does is done for the cosmic reason," while, when the minority celebrates itself, that looks narrow to those in the majority. It comes off as a political statement, not as art.

The MNCAAA certainly promotes black culture, but, as Gaither says, there's no need to do this in a narrow, propagandistic way. He likens the sense of being black to the sense an American gets of being American when he or she visits a foreign country. "Any American that goes abroad right away becomes aware that the American experience is an experience. It doen't make the person smaller. It means that the person recognizes his world is not the world. The same thing with the black experience. Knowing the other thing does not make it smaller."

There is no propaganda, for example, in Romare Bearden's paintings of families. The assemblage of so many shapes in harmonious groups with the black faces and the bright colors and the plants and household goods all displayed like fld shows African, Afro-American, and Afro-Caribbean works. It has a permanent collection that includes the early works of American black artists and African instruments, as well as a slide archive of more contemporary American and African art, to be used in research. In its Boston gallery, it presents the work of local artists.

Gaither has a very traditional vision of what a fine arts museum should do, which makes him quite unusual among minority curators. The prevalent ideas in the '60s, when the MNCAAA was started, were the storefront museum -- too casual, Gaither says -- and the satellite of the big city museum, which, he says, couldn't develop a life of its own. What he is doing is almost unprecedented. There is the Studio Museum in Harlem, but other than that there are only black- history museums with a section on art. Gaither's museum is out to be an institution for all that undiscovered or at least uncataloged art.

"And of course there are a lot of other centers that also do exhibitions but which are not involved in performing detailed museum activities such as colleting and conservation and so forth." And holding up art for formal criticsm and publishing, which he feels is a responsibility of a fine arts museum.

And carpeting. Right now, Gaither's thoughts have turned from black culture, conservation, and criticism to carpeting. While I am going on about Bearden's colors, Gaither is quietly exulting that he has found out in Consumer Reports that good padding is the key to carpet survival. The Museum of Fine Arts has just handed the MNCAAA down some brown carpeting.And when you have ambitions to establish an enduring, top-flight institution as Barry Gaither does, you take its looks seriously. If you also have Gaither's budget -- $135,000 a year -- you put in your own carpeting.

"When my viewer walks through the whole space I want them to come out with a concept of the visual arts heritage of black people at its strongest. The space should function so that in the mind, all of this rings true."

Carpet padding is not them answer to supporting a sense of the visual arts heritage of black people, but it is definitely anm answer. The museum is set up for the long run. He feels that by the turn of the century it will be what he envisioned in his 1970 concept paper.He doesn't see a lot of black people compiling the family fortunes and leaving an endowment such as that which powers the MFA -- some of which, he points out, comes from slave-training in the 18th and 19th centuries -- in the next 19 years. So it would be nice if the carpet was still in good shape in the year 2000 and beyond. "I want the museum, 100 years out, to have the same relation to the culture of the black world as the MFA has to the culture of the world," he said.

More immediately, it's important that the whole room, not just the art, look its best, because "my neighbors, wrestling with the American experience, have had to accommodate themselves to things falling short. When they come to something in their own community, they should not adjust their experience downward."

To make it lovely, Gaither mixes a lot of handiwork into his curating. And he enlists a lot of aid. In most Roxbury families, he says, both adults work, and money is tight. So the museum doesn't have a lot of people who can afford to come in and do volunteer work in the daytime. They volunteer their children to work at minimum wage when Gaither has it, and for free or deferred payment when he doesn't.

They also come at night and on weekends. And while there is a docent program , as there is at any museum (Gaither teaches classes of ladies to talk groups of children through African culture), volunteers are much less likely to find themselves at fund-raising lunches and or in a museum shop selling post cards, and much more likely to have a spackle knife or paintbrush put in their hands.

What separates the MNCAAA from older American museums is that it has no endowment. Most museums are founded on a sizable endowment -- either in paintings or money -- given by patrons, which ensures the museum's survival when other funding doesn't come through. Gaither estimates his community has given about $40,000 toward remodeling costs. That's as close as the museum comes to having an endowment, but it consists of building suplies and chores, and it's hard to give it a monetary value.A woman across the street gave $125 worth of plasterboard to finish a hallway of the museum, and a neighbor who works as a taper -- taping the pieces of plasterboard together to make a smooth wall -- came in between jobs and worked for eight days. Don Stull, an architect, donated his services -- about $20,000 worth, Gaither estimates.

Stull considers himself a "resource." He gives his services because he has known Gaither since the time when the museum shared space with the Elma Lewis School, another arm of the National Center for Afro-American Artists, a school that gives professional arts training to black teenagers. Stull worked on the school building, and on Oak Bend, because his brother and brother-in-law are artists and, he says, "fine arts are very much a part of the total environmental experience. They contribute to a better life."

To hear him talk about it, you'd think Gaither was supremely possessive. The boys helping him box the African instrument exhibit, he says, "have helped me since I moved into this space, maybe a year and a half." And he talks, and thinks, about "my viewers," as if the gangs of Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and children from day camps and the general public who troop through are people he has personally selected for a look at "his" collection. In a way, they are. Gaither grew up in South Carolina, but it is as if he had personally selected the people of Roxbury as his audience. And this is probably why, in a community that has never had an art museum or much spare time or money, he has generated support for "his" museum.

It's hard, he says, in a working-class community, to get people who are just joining the professional classes interested in doing things with their hands again. "They tend to keep quite separate their hats," not wanting to do by hard labor what they can now achieve in their jobs by signing a piece of paper. "I suppose it takes confidence on a number of different levels to do all the things required without thinking, 'I can't be seen doing this by my neighbors.'" He feels, however, that his neighbors still think of him as curator even though when they stroll by in the evnings, he is out on the lawn helping some little boys plant the pachysandra a friend donated.

"My own view is holistic," he says. "This activity has consumed me to a point where my cerebral aspirations are married to my physical aspirations, to get the product closer to where I want it to be."

At the MFA, where he is also a special consultant, doing a show every year and a half or so, "They have utility crews doing everything. There are two people standing there holding the painting, waiting for you to nod. That's wonderful, but I don't enjoy it as much as being in the process."

His enjoyment is probably what gets the volunteers working. "I am obliged to generate enthusiasm," he says. He has a very personal feeling about the place. "It's alternated between being a bride and being an albatross," depending on whether, when he looks up at teh great old peaked building, it looks like a magnificent old building with a lot of promise or like a menacing old wreck that will take a lot of work. It is both, but he feels that "people will put something in where they have confidence. I think i have inspired broad confidence."

Not to mention awe. "You can't imagine what that building was like," Don Stull said, implying in a weary tone of voice a mess beyond one's most chaotic dreams. "When Barry first talked about it, I suggested he didn't really know what he was getting himself in for. I can think of few people who have achieved what he has achieved in this period of time."

"It's easy to see that this is a half-million-dolalr proposition," Gaither says. "And if you don't have any of that, it's on the fact of it unreasonable to bite it off to do. Except that the whole history of being black in America has been a history of being unreasonable. . . . If you just applied your mind to what's possible, the possibilities would have been infinitely smaller. Although we have as a community a lot of people broken by the experience of having to face an unreasonable life, on the other hand, the viability of the community has rested on those people who have been unreasonable enough to push. . . . One never knows precisely what is possible, and the existential options are to wrestle with it or resign from it."

More arts institutions will find themselves wrestling if the National Endowment for the Arts is cut in half, as the Reagan budget proposes.For the MNCAAA, Gaither says, cuts are "a threat to the rate of growth, not to survival." No one knows how the cuts will be divided among the NEA's departments. But the Heritage Foundation, the think tank that worked up a conservative "blueprint" for the Reagan administration, said the endowments "reveal a tendency to emphasize politically inspired social policies at the expense of the independence of the arts and the humanities." The Expansion Arts program, set up in the Carter administration to expand minority, blue-collar, rural, and low-income communities' involvement in the arts, was cited as an example. The report recommended the NEA fund "serious art" instead of "art for the sake of social service."

A. B. Spellman, director of the Expansion Arts program, says that minority art shouldn't be considered "political," and that minority groups such as Chicanos, Asians, and blacks are making an important contribution to this country's cultural future. "Harlem, New York, has had more impact on art in this century than most major cities," he says, but the black community in America is "culturally rich and institution-poor." Now that minorities are developing their own institutions, they are not always accepted by the white establishment. For one thing, Chicano, black, and Asian- American artists work within their cultures. The African roots, for example, in Afro-American art are unfamiliar to those steeped in Western-European culture. The structures these communities invent for themselves are naturally out of that mainstream. "They don't have to be downtown," he says, but since they're not downtown but in poor areas, funding for them is "seen as social work" because the casual observer of Roxbury or Harlem sees urban blight, not a place where art is flourishing. Spellman calls the MNCAAA's collection "one of the finest in the world."

When Gaither talks about "the community" he is talking about blacks in America, but he has such a personal feeling toward them and the museum that one just thinks of his neighbors in Roxbury getting together to be unreasonable along with him. And when he says "wrestle," you can't be sure whether he means wrestling with unwieldy carpeting or with the concept of the minority's view of itself and its art. At this point, the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists is so young and so poor that to do one is to do the other.

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