“our advocacy Fair is a great…”

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47e1-2772-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.rIn most of this country, Fairs are a summer tradition. State or County Fairs are about pride, agriculture, social enjoyment, rides, and food. Think Charlotte’s Web or the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, State Fair.  Unless it is a year for presidential campaigns, they are generally non-political and the nearest thing to controversy is concern about the calorie count of deep fried candy bars. 

This Fall, however, New York is rife with Advocacy Fairs, events where social justice organizations set up tables for conversations, mailing list sign-ups, and possibly, recruiting new volunteers.  There has been at least one each weekend since the street fairs stopped in November and recruiting moved indoors.  Maybe, one each weekend since the fair set up at the Women’s March.  Today’s, Democracy Sunday,  was linked to an all-day event on urban activism around social justice.    It included (and, for me, began) with a program aimed at people who are already active volunteers in the local public schools.  From Volunteering to Advocacy was aimed at increasing the comfort level so that what we already do, Direct Service promoting reading for one or two children, becomes advocacy, activism and organizing.

The Fairs are of particular interest to me not just because I agree with many of the causes, but also because I have long had an interest in the politicized Fairs of the mid-19th century.  My research, which is usually exhibition-driven, keeps looping back to this on-going concern with how women supported social advocacy causes at a time when they were not allowed to manage money.  In other words,  how can you fund raise without access to funds?  I call the full project “The Origins of the Cake Sale.”  So, while I was at this morning’s sale, learning about current organizations, I was thinking about Abolitionist, Jubilee, Sanitary, and Freedmen Fairs of the 1850s – 1870s.  The engraving shows volunteer staff at a Brooklyn  Sanitary Fair in 1864, NYPL Digital Collection.   Larger skirts, so the folding chairs and tables would be replaced with much larger furniture; no e-mail or telephone numbers, and even pens and paper might be limited, so the sign-up process would be different.  Probably tea and coffee would be offered, but no pile of clementines.  Probably biscuits instead of bagels.   Same level of avid enthusiasm and commitment to inclusion, and, tragically, some of the same causes.


for Day without Art

December 1 is the International day for recognition of the world with AIDS/HIV.  It is an anniversary of nothing specific, but an opportunity for the medical and public health communities to look at progress, or at least, changes, in the pandemic’s impact on the world.  

Concurrently and conversely, it has been identified for over 25 years as the Day Without Art.  Day Without Art began before treatment, long before the disease shifted from fatal to chronic.  It recognized the impact of AIDS/HIV on the world in general, but focused on its impact on the arts.  During those years, December 1 was recognized at the very least by the public wearing of red ribbons, whose origins in the Gay Men’s Health Crisis’ “safety pins for safe sex” campaign have been almost forgotten.  It also refers to the wearing of red fabric poppy lapel pins to commemorate Armistice Day. 

In the early days, institutions took the “Without” very seriously.  Museums closed for the day or closed exhibitions.  As organized by VisualAIDS, institutions hung gigantic X banners or quilt panels in their public spaces, especially those with large windows or lobbies, so that those which stayed open made visitors enter under or through the display.  

Libraries and community centers did not close, but held informational programs or screenings.  Those which were actively documenting the crisis (as public health or through the arts), presented those archival collections or oral histories to the public.  The staff at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, where I worked, found different ways to identify the day, depending on which temporary exhibitions were up. For exhibitions of photographs one year or posters another, a staff member put black tape over the names of those who had died.  Another year, flowers were placed under photographs in an exhibition on post-modern performance, recognizing that the new art form had been especially devastated by the pandemic. We found both flowers and red ribbons under frames for a more recent exhibition on head shots.   

Our permanent response was to solicit names from the librarians and visitors and listed them in small booklets, bound in red ribbon.  We made additional booklets for the five staff members who died from AIDS in the early years.

This year, Day Without Art will be commemorated as a day with art focused on AIDS. There are an international array of film screenings, discussions and events, which can be found on the Visual AIDS web page, info@visualaids.org.   In NYC, screenings and talks at the Whitney Museum and the Schomburg Center for Black History and Culture are already full to capacity, but the film, Alternative Endings, Radical Beginnings, will be looped at the Bronx Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, BRIC, the Museum of Art and Design, the Museum of the City of New York, and other locations around the area.  Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, Classical Action, and Dancers Responding to AIDS will be reaching out to their supporters and audiences, as will the fashion and decor design communities and many bookstores.  In San Francisco, the GLBT History Museum will open AIDS Activism in SF, 1981 – 1990, which will become part of its permanent installation, http://www.glbthistory.org/museum/queer-past-becomes-present/.  Check your local LGBTQ Archives or community center for activity in your area.  If you don’t have an LGBTQ archives or community center, try the library or historical society.  Then, think seriously about founding an LGBTQ archive and/or community.

The medical and social aspects of the disease are not over.  AIDS continues to refuse to disappear from the world.  Think about that as well on December 1, Day Without Art.

“But, Then You Read” Baldwin

Next week’s outsidethemuseumblog will continue my appreciations of the current crop of exhibitions on protest and African American artists in the 1960s-. But, before it comes out, I need to make a suggestion for Saturday, September 23th. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is presenting But Then You Read, an all-day symposium on James Baldwin, who observed and participated in civil and cultural protests in that period.  James Baldwin is having a protracted renaissance with popular and academic attention being paid to him and his writings. I never understood why it took so long, but it may be that the critics and historians who admired his prose and political writings were uncomfortable with his novels.

Those of you who know the person who writes this blog, know that the quotation after my e-mail signature (a practice popularized by library and publishing professionals) is the text from which Schomburg took the symposium title. “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” I think of it as the theme for everyone who ever felt misunderstood or misappreciated.  Reading doesn’t make the rest of the world understand or appreciate you, but it brings to your own personal angst the understanding that others have also felt angst of their own. Baldwin himself discovered books at an NYPL branch and his archives are now housed at the Schomburg.

I found the quotation from Early Essays not at The New York Public Library, but on the wall on west 19th Street.  To be specific, on the gallery wall at New York Live Arts, the performing arts center.   Live Arts, formed by the merger of Dance Theatre Workshop and the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, has an gallery wall in full view of the street windows.  It often shows art or design, while a perpendicular wall has video art.   The April 2014 Liveideas (the annual humanities festival developed by New York Live Arts) was dedicated to Baldwin and quotations from his works provided the graphic installation on the window wall.   The Festival events were popular and transcribing quotes would have impeded the audience getting into the performance spaces, so I returned to 19th Street and stood outside the windows to write it out.  So, thank you, Bill T. for sponsoring liveideas, for your recognition of James Baldwin, and for including that quotation on the wall.  Video of the Baldwin liveideas events can be found through the New York Live Arts website.

The Schomburg’s readings and discussion is presented by The New York Public Library in collaboration with Times Talks. It runs from 11 to 5. It will be livestreamed, but if you go to the Schomburg, you can also see the exhibitions, which I will be discussing in my next blog. Try not to miss the symposium – live or livestreamed.

Do not miss this exhibition

This blog is not outside the museum.  It is urging you strongly to go into the museum and see a major exhibition —  We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965 – 1985 through September 17, 2017. Brooklyn Museum https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/

Part of the “Reimagining Feminism” year at the Brooklyn Museum, the brilliant exhibition literally wrap around the permanent Judy Chicago Dinner Party installation. This works beautifully – you ignore the odd shaped gallery spaces except when actually looking on the floor plan to make sure that you didn’t miss anything. It was organized by Brooklyn Museum staff Catherine Morris, Curator of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, and Rujeko Hockley. I first saw it as an addition to a visit to the Georgia O’Keefe exhibit, but have returned often to focus on it alone.

The posters, prints, sculpture, archival cases and videos are organized to represent the organizations of artists and activists (a phrase that is repeated within the exhibit). The artists and activists who are represented include the very well known visual artists, such as Elizabeth Catlett, Lois Maillou Jones, Ana Medieta, Alison Saar, Betye Saar, Faith Ringgold, and Carrie Mae Weems, who would also be represented in a survey of 20th century artists.   It also includes filmmakers Camille Billops and Julie Dash.   I was delighted to see a life-size video wall dedicated to dancer/choreographer Blondell Cummings.  I was even more thrilled to discover poster artists whose posters I knew, and learn the names inside the cooperatives and organizational titles.

You have two weeks – get there.

Sculptor and printmaker Elizabeth Catlett is one of the multi-talented artists included in Black Radical Women. The display of her sculpture can be seen on its own or in visual context as the curators took advantage of the odd-shaped galleries.   In addition, one of her linocuts in included in a grouping of prints that sets up a continuum of art prints and political posters. It is an important curatorial statement of 20th – 21st century art that needed to be made.

To see more Catlett prints, take the 2 or 3 to the 14th Street stop, exit at 13th St. and walk west to the Whitney Museum of American Art. The ongoing exhibition Where We Are: Selection from the Whitney’s Collection, 1900 – 1960, includes 12 prints included in the

Section entitled “The Strength of Collective Man.”   I hope for a retrospective exhibition of Catlett’s American and Mexican prints someday, but was thrilled for the selection from The Negro Women at the Whitney. As well as the portraits of individuals (Phyllis Wheatley, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman), it includes four of the prints of anonymous women’s roles, such as the singer and the organizer. The final group has bitter titles, identifying ways that Jim Crow laws forced an African American woman is to be special –special water fountains, special houses, etc. medium_Catlett_95_203_cropped

The image with the blog, “My right is a future of equality with other Americans” was designed in 1946-1947 and should be dated, but is not.  “And a special fear for my loved ones” is terrifying, a brilliant composition of line, and as strong a political statement against lynching as I can imagine.

Caption: Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012), My right is a future of equality with other Americans, 1947, printed 1989, from I am the Negro woman (re-titled The Black Woman, 1989). Linoleum cut: sheet, 10 5/16 × 7 1/2 in. (26.2 × 19.1 cm); image (irregular), 9 1/8 × 6 1/8 in. (23.2 × 15.6 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Print Committee 95.203 Art © Catlett Mora Family Trust/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY







My own private Idaho eclipse

20170821_113351I was fortunate enough to have a chance to see the solar eclipse last week from the zone of totality. Specifically, I saw it on a field of volcanic rock and sagebrush in central Idaho. My family, which was in Southwestern Montana, drove almost to the Saint Anthony Sand Dunes. When we found the perfect spot and stopped the car, the eclipse was underway, the sun was a third covered. We watched all the way through to the full emergeance and the complete view of the sun. Through eclipse filtered glasses of course.

I had not planned to write a blog about the eclipse. If I were still working at The New York Public Library, I probably would have participated in the staff recommendations. Most eclipse fiction is imperialist. Knowledge of an upcoming solar or lunar eclipse privileges colonialism and lets the visitor claim magic, kingly, or god-like power over the sun or moon.  The Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage sent out a listing of actual folklore narratives about eclipses. The column by James Deutsch can be found in the weekly newsletter, Talkstory, for the week after the eclipse (http://folklife.si.edu/talkstory/swallowing-the-sun-folk-stories-about-the-solar-eclipse)

One rare fictional exception to the imperialist trend, but only because it is so cynical, is in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (originally published in 1889). Hank Morgan, the Yankee who goes back in time, doesn’t claim god-like status. He uses his knowledge of an eclipse scheduled for June 528 to outmaneuver Merlin, who he considers as much of a charlatan as himself. He has a convenient memory:

“It came into my mind, in the nick of time, how Columbus or Cortez or one of those people played an eclipse as a saving trump once, on some savages, and I saw my chance.  I could play it myself, now; and it wouldn’t be any plagiarism, either, because I should get it in nearly a thousand years ahead of those parties.”   Read the book in as close as possible to the original version – sometimes, the social satire and economics lesson sections are edited down, but they are definitely worth reading.

Morgan’s memory was accurate. Columbus used a lunar eclipse when stranded on Jamaica on his 4th voyage, on February 29 or March 1, 1504.  Columbus’ source for the predicted date was Regiomontanus, an astrologer and mathematician, whose Almanack for 1475-1506 was a standard for mariners.  The indigenous culture in Jamaica at that time was Arawak and, according to Space.com, Columbus did not claim god status – he just wanted food and supplies to help his crew survive until a rescue ship arrived.

Last week’s eclipse lived up to its press. It was majestic even in mid-day on land so flat and wide that there was no sense of scale. And the eclipse glasses that I brought at the American Museum of Natural History did their job very well. But, I have convergence issues with my eyes – distance vision crosses in one direction and close vision works in the opposite way. I have prisms in my glasses that solve the problem. But, the eclipse glasses countered (contradicted?) the prisms, so I had a unique experience – I saw two suns having two eclipses. It was magical, terrifying, and it made me deeply thankful to live in a time when 21st century ophthalmology met up with 17th century lens grinding.

I usually try to ignore science fiction when I have an experience with actual science. But, my eclipse experience reminded me of one of my favorite sci-fi stories. Nightfall was first published in September 1941 by Isaac Asimov in Astounding Science Fiction.  It was expanded into a novel by Robert Silverberg, (published 1990), but my memory is of the original version, which is considered one of the great examples both of science fiction and short fiction. It is a favorite of archivists and scientists since it concerns scholars trying to protect their civilization from the fearful response of a people to what seems to be a predicted eclipse.  Why my eclipse view reminded me of this Asimov story gets a Spoiler Alert.

I recommend both books and the Talkstory article.

Out of Vogue?

When I first began blogging, a dozen yeas ago, it was my antidote to the curatorial curse – having more to say about an artifact than would fit in a caption.  Many related the research process behind my exhibition texts – captions, intro panels, brochures, etc. Those were NYPL staff blogs and can still be found on the Staff Voices section of nypl.org.https://www.nypl.org/blog/author/barbara-cohen-stratyner

My blogging this month relate to my on-going (but soon getting finished) research on the photographer Florence Vandamm, but also relates to past blogs. She was a pioneer of women in photography, having opened her first studio in London in 1908, using her own name (not initials or, in the practice of the time, the street name). My current task relates to an extremely important question – why she moved her successful studio to New York in 1923.  May 1, 1923 to be specific.  I am pleased that she did, of course, since she became Broadway’s premiere photographer and her huge collection of images ended up at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

There are interviews with her over the decades, but they deal primarily with her New York career. In one of the few articles that mention her London studio, she linked the decision to re-locate to the bad economic times in England, citing theater and magazines. When I first read it, we had not found many published images from the early 1920s and I was ready to accept the statement.  Since then, however, after vast amounts of reading digitized periodicals (thank you Hathi Trust and Gale Research Company!) and the wonderful generosity of the National Portrait Gallery curators who shared Xeroxes of 1920-1922 British Vogues, we discovered that 1919-1920 had been very successful for her indeed. So, why this discrepancy? Was it British Vogue’s change of editor? Was it her American husband wanting to go back?  Somewhere in the back of my mind was the description of the early 1920s as Britain’s golden age of popular magazines. Golden for whom? Were they not using photographers or not using her? The answer is probably yes and no to all of the above.

British Vogue did change editors in 1922, turning from Elsbeth Champcommunal to Dorothy Todd. In addition, the ratio of social portraits to performer portraits changed as well  Vandamm could relate well to the young women who were war widows (as she was) or who had been active in suffrage movement or war efforts who were featured un the 1920 issues.  But, as a Jewish woman, she did not have access to society and aristocracy available to rival photographers Lallie Charles, Dorothy Wilding and Cecil Beaton.

England in the period between the Wars was a split society. The image in popular culture is of the “Bright Young Things,” the British equivalent of Flapper Society but with legal alcohol. British Vogue and many of its rival magazines featured them and reported on  their activities.   But there were also the “demobbed” (de-mobilized), the returned veterans who could not find work – the British equivalent of the Bonus Army.

1919-1922 were also the years that Agatha Christie published her first mystery novels and short stories.  Having re-read Christie’s 1922 The Secret Adversary for an earlier blog, I could turn to its opening chapter, when Tommy and Tuppence compare unsuccessful post-war job search notes before turning to their adventures.   I  re-read the excellent introduction to the 2015 William Morrow Paperback edition by John Curran (who edited the Christie notebooks) and found an important clue/clarification that could be the solution.  When it was called the golden age, it was for fiction magazines and short stories were the featured content.  I remembered from all that digitized magazine reading that most of the stories ran with an engraved illustration.  More stories with engraved illustrations had crowded out the photographs.

So, Christie and her generation of mystery writers got published and Vandamm moved her studio and family to NYC.  Conde Nast’s Vanity Fair was still using her author portraits and within 2 years, Vandamm’s photographs became the staple of New York Vogue’s monthly “Seen on Stage” section.   Now, I have to turn all of this into a clear paragraph that links the London and New York sections of the professional biography.

Dystopia — The New Ordinary

I really expected that the popularity of dystopian adult fiction would wane by the 100th day of the Trump era. But fear and loathing do not fade that quickly. Or, possibly, at all.

The most recent re-discovery of the literature connects to dramatizations. A British production of 1984 is coming to Broadway and a serial based on The Handmaid’s Tale is streaming. Margaret Atwood’s vision of Gilead, an American theocracy that subjugates women, was lacking from the original lists, partly because it does not deal with political messaging like 1984 and It Can’t Happen Here. But there were many references to the book in the Women’s Marches around the World. Keep The Handmaid’s Tale Fiction and Don’t Make America Gilead showed up among the posters carried here in New York. One of the terrors for Atwood’s characters results from the Aunts’ insistence that the changes to America will become ordinary. This phrase linked to protesters’ insistence that we should not normalize the Trump presidency. Nasty women know their books and we’re not afraid to use them.

Atwood’s impetus for the establishment of Gilead is an epidemic of mutations and sterility. These themes also show up in two British novels. P. D. James’ best-selling thriller Children of Men was set in a civilization very close to her contemporary real-life. Children are not being born and the last new generation is self-destructing. In keeping with James’ prowess in detective fiction, the characters search for solutions to their immediate issue, maintaining the safety of a pregnant woman, balances solving the greater mystery.

A post-Apocalyptic society’s obsession with mutations is the theme of a lesser-known British novel, John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids.  It was published in 1955, and is now available in a 2008 NY Review Books re-print. The society, Waknut, rejects and destroys all babies that are not perfect. Wyndham also dealt with this theme in his better-known novel The Midwich Cuckoos (aka Children of the Dammed), as the fate of many of the children outside England.   In The Chrysalids, David, and his younger sister, are telepathic, but their invisible mutation has not been discovered. He befriends Sophie, whose extra toe has been hidden by her parents and discovers a secret community of people with mutations who hide in the forest.  I find the novel disturbing since it doesn’t end with escape to a society that accepts all differences. It ends as David and his sister reach a society in which everyone is telepathic.  It is presented as a happy ending. Suitable for England in 1955, but disturbing.

All three books are available at NYPL, which currently lists 2812 entries under End of the World — Fiction.