Rethinking America

Amidst the current climate of political action and demands for racial justice, museums are confronting their own biases and whitewashing. In response, the Brooklyn Museum has revisited its collection of American art and revised the installation on display, attempting to be more inclusive. It seems like common sense that American art would include the work of those who were living on American soil thousands of years before European colonization, but until recently, it wasn’t. So what does this new American wing look like?

Visitors will still see works by artists like Thomas Cole, John Singer Sargent and Georgia O’Keeffe, but now they will be presented alongside works by Ojibwe and Eastern Sioux artists, previously underrepresented African American artists and many other groups. A drawing by Jaw/Ćehu′pa is hung near a Bierstadt landscape and works by artists such as Laura Wheeler Waring and Loïs Mailou Jones are included in the canon.

The new curation reminds us that what we think of as American culture is not necessarily the experience of every American. This allows us to acknowledge the differences we all face and, hopefully, ignites empathy for the different struggles of different groups. Through this new hanging, we see that at a time when mainstream artist circles were preoccupied with Europe, Native American artists were dealing with displacement. While Georgia O’Keeffe was in New Mexico, Loïs Mailou Jones was engaged in the Harlem renaissance. When seen in the same place, representing the same time periods of American life but through wildly separate viewpoints, we come to understand that these periods in American culture are not disparate, but inescapably interrelated.

It’s a timely and important revision, and one that forces us to rethink our understanding of American history through its art.