As we continue to reckon with the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, and far too many other Black lives taken by violence, we must once again contend with the harrowing reality that America is a place where racial injustice and inequality are lethal forces. I write in support of, and in solidarity with, those who are suffering, those who are living in fear, those who are exhausted, and those who are expressing their anger and frustration at this time. As I listen to the pain of those around me, and as I grapple with my own heartache, I know that we all must do our utmost to hold one another up and to do the hard work, as individuals and as a community that is required to effect substantive change.
What role should museums play? One answer has to be that we must engage with the issues of the day, head on and honestly. This is what we at the Fine Arts Museums are trying to do through our acquisitions and programs. As I write this, members of our exhibitions staff are at the de Young, restarting the deinstallation of Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963–1983, a process that was halted in mid-March by the City of San Francisco’s shelter-in-place order. Soul of a Nation documents the artists whose transformative visions and voices contributed to the Black Power movement by promoting personal and cultural pride, collective solidarity and empowerment, and political and social activism. Their extraordinary works retain their power as proud declarations of selfhood, brotherhood, sisterhood, and nationhood. Truly, they represent the soul of a nation. The de Young had the privilege and honor of presenting this exhibition from November 2019 through early March 2020, and the response from the local community was overwhelming. It is now urgent that we ensure this exhibition’s safe delivery to its next venue at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, so that audiences there can experience its poignancy and power. As Bridget R. Cooks, associate professor of African American studies at the University of California, Irvine, noted regarding Soul of a Nation: “I have good news and I have bad news—this exhibition has never been more relevant.”
As this exhibition departs for Houston, we continue to think critically about our own ongoing practices and how we might foster change. Internally, our Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access Committee has already played a key role in providing space for our staff to grieve together. Externally, we are seeking to act on and participate in the heavy and necessary conversations that must take place in the coming days, months, and years to quash systemic racism in this country. As museums that serve our city and region, our focus is especially on how we can amplify the voices and experiences of artists of color, both contemporary and historic. We must also interrogate our exhibitions and holdings, not to censor but to use centuries of art as a window to examine, question, and expose the roots of racism, sexism, and inequality. I look forward to working closely with our curatorial, education, and related teams on these endeavors.
In a small and immediate gesture in honor of those we have lost to violence, and in service of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s mission “To connect our visitors with local and global art in order to promote their knowledge and curiosity about the past, deepen their engagement with the art and ideas of today, and stimulate their creative agency in their own futures,” I would like to raise up voices of strength from our collection—voices of Black American artists Elizabeth Catlett, Thornton Dial, Aaron Douglas, Leonardo Drew, Lonnie Holley, Jacob Lawrence, Joe Minter, Horace Pippin, and Purvis Young.
The voices and visions of the artists whose work is featured below—icons in our collection, and each significant in their own right—must be elevated at this time, as witnesses to the Black experience in our country and poignant proclamations that Black Lives Matter, a truth that we at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco believe unequivocally.
Thomas P. Campbell
Aaron Douglas, Aspiration, 1936. Oil on canvas, 60 x 60 in. (152.4 x 152.4 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, the estate of Thurlow E. Tibbs Jr., the Museum Society Auxiliary, American Art Trust Fund, Unrestricted Art Trust Fund, partial gift of Dr. Ernest A. Bates, Sharon Bell, Jo-Ann Beverly, Barbara Carleton, Dr. And Mrs. Arthur H. Coleman, Dr. and Mrs. Coyness Ennix, Jr., Nicole Y. Ennix, Mr. and Mrs. Gary Francois, Dennis L. Franklin, Mr. and Mrs. Maxwell C. Gillette, Mr. and Mrs. Richard Goodyear, Zuretti L. Goosby, Marion E. Greene, Mrs. Vivian S. W. Hambrick, Laurie Gibbs Harris, Arlene Hollis, Louis A. and Letha Jeanpierre, Daniel and Jackie Johnson, Jr., Stephen L. Johnson, Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Lathan, Lewis & Ribbs Mortuary Garden Chapel, Mr. and Mrs. Gary Love, Glenn R. Nance, Mr. and Mrs. Harry S. Parker III, Mr. and Mrs. Carr T. Preston, Fannie Preston, Pamela R. Ransom, Dr. and Mrs. Benjamin F. Reed, San Francisco Black Chamber of Commerce, San Francisco Chapter of Links, Inc., San Francisco Chapter of the NAACP, Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity, Dr. Ella Mae Simmons, Mr. Calvin R. Swinson, Joseph B. Williams, Mr. and Mrs. Alfred S. Wilsey, and the people of the Bay Area, 1997.84. Art © Heirs of Aaron Douglas/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Horace Pippin, The Trial of John Brown, 1942. Oil on canvas, 16 1/2 x 20 1/8 in. (41.9 x 51.1 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd, 1979.7.82
Elizabeth Catlett, I'm Sojourner Truth I fought for the rights of women as well as Blacks, 1947. Linoleum cut, 8 7/8 x 5 7/8 in. (22.5 x 15 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of A. Jean Lesher in honor of Aimee Isgrig Horton, 2010.41. Art © Catlett Mora Family Trust/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Purvis Young, A Good Man, 1980–1981. Oil on plywood, 27 1/2 x 81 3/4 in. (69.9 x 207.6 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, American Art Trust Fund, and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2017.1.63. © 2020 Larry T. Clemons / Gallery 712 / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Jacob Lawrence, printed by Workshop Inc., Revolt on the Amistad, 1989. Color screenprint, 35 x 25 1/2 in. (89 x 65 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts Endowment Fund and gift of Samella Lewis, 1995.52. © 2019 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Thornton Dial, Blood and Meat: Survival for the World, 1992. Carpet rope, copper wire, metal, metal screen, canvas scraps, enamel, and Splash Zone compound on canvas on wood, 65 x 95 x 11 in. (165.1 x 241.3 x 27.9 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2017.1.7. © 2020 Estate of Thornton Dial / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Lonnie Holley, Him and Her Hold the Root, 1994. Rocking chairs, pillow, root, 45 1/2 x 73 x 30 1/2 in. (115.6 x 185.4 x 77.5 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, American Art Trust Fund, and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2017.1.27. © 2019 Lonnie Holley / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Joe Minter, The Hanging Tree, 1996. Wielded found steel, 83 1/2 x 49 1/2 x 49 1/2 in. (212.1 x 125.7 x 125.7 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, American Art Trust Fund, and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2017.1.41. © 2019 Joe Minter / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Rosie Lee Tompkins (Effie Mae Howard), quilted by Irene Bankhead, Hanging, 2002. Velvet, synthetic, cotton; pieced, quilted, appliqué, embroidered (whip and blanket stitches), 29 1/2 x 33 1/2 in. (74.9 x 85.1 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of the Eli Leon Trust, 2019.52.2. © Courtesy of the Estate of Rosie Lee Tompkins (Effie Mae Howard)
Leonardo Drew, Number 71S, 2018. Wood and paint, 87 x 106 x 24 1/2 in. (221 x 269.2 x 62.2 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, Anna Gardner Contemporary Art Fund and Friends of New Art, 2019.47. © Leonardo Drew