Nell Irvin Painter is the Edwards Professor of American History, Emerita, at Princeton University and author of the New York Times bestseller The History of White People, among other books. She has an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and a BFA from Mason Gross School of the Arts, and her visual artwork has been shown at galleries and in many collections, including the San Angelo Museum of Fine Art, the Brooklyn Historical Society, and Gallery Aferro. Her book Old In Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over is forthcoming in June. (January 2018)
How would “Soul of a Nation”—an exhibition of Black Power art made in the 1960s to 1980s—look at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, situated in one of the whiter areas of Arkansas? In a state where 17 percent of the overall population and a third of the African-American population lives in poverty, there could hardly be a more glaring contrast to the values and material objectives of civil rights and Black Power.
Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power is rigorous and encyclopedic. As a catalogue, it is certainly lavish, and while it spends time on individual artists, its strength lies in its acknowledgment of the important part institutions play in art’s creation and reception. Within the racist and sexist history of the American art world, black curators, collectors, and galleries have exerted a crucial countervailing influence.