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A neighborly museum; WITH A NATIONAL PURPOSE

By Maggie LewisStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 16, 1981


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.

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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.

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.