Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces
October 9, 2022 – February 18, 2023
Detritus tells a story; papers, bills, flyers, and photos pile up into a history. Sometimes, if we are lucky, these go into an archive if they have a story to tell. As a researcher, I know that not all archives are created equal, not all archives get seen, and not all stories get told—especially in the case of Black stories. But Linda Goode Bryant, who founded the gallery Just Above Midtown in 1974 as “New York City’s First Black Contemporary Art Gallery,” kept the records of this institution close. Her commitment to showing, telling, and preserving Black stories has made the current exhibition, Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces on view at MoMA, possible. The museum is located near JAM’s first gallery space on 57th Street, and the exhibition and its accompanying catalogue don’t shy away from the tension between the institutions. In fact, the opening text, “Can JAM Be JAM at MoMA?”, is a conversation between Goode Bryant and Thelma Golden, Director of the Studio Museum, which co-sponsored the show. Goode Bryant responds to the question, “That is a challenge. Can Black presence be in this white space?”
What this show does do is capture the enthusiastic and bustling energy of the artist-run and artist-operated gallery with an unusual, crowded, and lively display. Changing Spaces includes traditionally mounted paintings and mixed media works alongside framed exhibition posters and announcements unexpectedly hung in the corners and in salon-style groupings. Vitrines filled with announcement cards and installation photographs are included, as are video projections of performances, and a brilliant display of artwork slides on a lightbox table, projecting onto the wall above it. Mixed media collages by Raymond Saunders, photolithographs by Betye Saar, assemblages by Randy Williams, and woven collages by Howardena Pindell are included. Oral history audio recordings play aloud and from listening devices throughout the galleries, literally evidencing the multi-vocal energy of JAM. This is echoed in the catalogue, a well-researched resource on the institution that reprints all the archival materials, and includes quotes from curators, artists, and historians such as Horace Brockington, Lowery Stokes Sims, Tony Whitfield, and AC Hudgins.
Parts of the exhibition reference the 1976 exhibition Statements Known and Statements New, which gathered works by established white artists and paired them with lesser-known Black artists. David Hammons’s body prints from the mid-1970s hang beside Jasper Johns’s similar, smeared handprint work from the early 1960s. As the detailed exhibition chronology in the catalogue points out, Johns’s work was acquired by MoMA immediately after its creation, while at the time of the JAM exhibition Hammons’s was still not in the museum’s collection (and wouldn’t be until 2005).
“We can see how JAM’s inclusion of non-black artists offered a model of desegregation in contradistinction to integration,” curator T.J. Lax writes in his catalogue essay, citing the “cooperative approach” of JAM as further evidence. In each of JAM’s three locations over the years, Goode Bryant used the space as an incubator for artists, open to performances and programs run by others, collaborating with other organizations such as Franklin Furnace and Basement Workshop. JAM ran a number of programs that sought to reach outside the gallery space, including “Brunch with JAM,” begun the same year as the Statements exhibition, in which the gallery distributed flyers on the street near its Midtown space, inviting people to brunch with a lecture for a small attendance fee.
One hallway is papered by a collage of Goode Bryant’s unpaid gallery bills. In the center, a phone receiver, when raised, plays audio of her discussing the gallery’s ongoing debt. “I kept all the bills from JAM and moved them from one storage space to another storage space,” she explains. “And on and on and on for almost fifty years. Because they were part of the key truth to what JAM was.” Goode Bryant’s resilient community efforts allowed JAM to remain open and active until 1986; careful archiving made Changing Spaces possible. Wall labels for the exhibited ephemera and the captions in the catalogue reveal that these materials are not part of any institutional archive. They remain as “unprocessed Just Above Midtown Gallery Records, Collection Linda Goode Bryant, New York.” (It’s also worth noting that some materials in the show come from another important Black archive, the Hatch-Billops archive in Emory University’s collection.)
In Lax’s essay he asks, “Why would someone who didn’t pay her bills keep them for a half-century, moving them from one storage facility to another?” They are evidence of a history still needing to be told. I wonder what this exhibition will mean for this archive of unpaid bills and yet-untold stories, and I think of the opening catalogue question: can JAM be JAM at MoMA? As the trend in institutions turns towards greater support of BIPOC artists, Changing Spaces is just one historical exhibition offering substantial attention to their work. I hope these established institutions are also ready to steward their stories and care for their histories.