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30 Americans in Insight Magazine, Summer 2016

The critically acclaimed 30 Americans makes its West Coast debut at Tacoma Art Museum. Experience this showcase of paintings, photographs, installations, and sculptures by prominent African American artists who have emerged since the mid-1970s as leading innovators in the contemporary art scene.

What will you see in 30 Americans? Selected from the Rubell Family Collection, the exhibition brings together 45 works by seminal figures such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Carrie Mae Weems with younger generations of artists such as Kehinde Wiley, Mickalene Thomas, and Kalup Linzy.

Two works from Carrie Mae Weems’ series From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried and Leonardo Drew’s Untitled #25 address the legacy of slavery. Robert Colescott’s Pygmalion includes a dapper self-portrait of the artist as the mythical Greek sculpture bringing his art to life.

Nick Cave’s jubilant Soundsuit incorporates a garden of found flowers. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Bird on Money riffs on the iconic jazz musician Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, commemorating the Brooklyn neighborhood where the painter was born. Kerry James Marshall’s Souvenir: Composition in Three Parts recalls the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 1, 1963. You’ll see all this and more, and there are Northwest connections! Both Carrie Mae Weems and Robert Colescott have important histories in Portland, and Noah Davis is a Seattle native.

The Rubells celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 2015 and credit a shared passion for art as the key to their relationship. They met in 1962, when he was a medical student and she was a teacher in New York’s first Head Start program. They began collecting art on a budget of $25 a month and, in 1964, established the Rubell Family Collection in New York City. It has become one of the largest privately owned contemporary art collections in the world. In 1993, they moved the collection to Miami, and a year later launched the Contemporary Arts Foundation with their son Jason. Drawing from the collection, the foundation develops thematic traveling exhibitions.

“Since we started collecting in the 1960s, we have always collected African American artists as part of our broader mission to collect the most interesting art of our time,” shared Don and Mera Rubell in discussing how and why they organized this exhibition. The Rubells noted that around 2005 as they spoke with artists about their influences, “we found there was a critical mass of emerging African American artists, and began the process of understanding what seemed to be a new movement…we heard some of the same names over and over: Robert Colescott, Renée Green, David Hammons, Barkley Hendricks, Kerry James Marshall, Gary Simmons, Lorna Simpson, Kara Walker, and Carrie Mae Weems. We had been collecting almost all of this older generation for decades. Perfect conditions for a new exhibition.”

Yet the Rubells were initially advised by many not to do the show. From Andrew Russeth’s April 10, 2015 post in ArtNews:

“Everyone we spoke to said, ‘Don’t do it,’” Mera recalled. “Everyone white we spoke to—every museum director and curator — said, ‘Don’t do the show. It’s ghettoizing, patronizing, it will bring you down…’ It turned out to be one of the greatest things we will ever do because it was a celebration of something that needed celebrating.”

30 Americans has traveled to ten museums in the US, including the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where President Obama and his family viewed it; the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans; Detroit Institute of Arts; and Cincinnati Art Museum. It has set all-time attendance records at many of these venues.

Four years ago, TAM began efforts to bring 30 Americans to the NW.
Often provocative and challenging, themes of race and identity weave through many of the works in 30 Americans. The exhibition illuminates how these artists have addressed Black identity in America, navigating concerns spanning the struggle for civil rights, popular culture, and media imagery. The works are timeless and the themes are more relevant than ever, responding to concerns raised in Tacoma and many communities across the country.

One of the themes the exhibition addresses is the label “Black art” and the concept of organizing exhibitions based on race, gender, ethnicity, or other self-identity factors. The 30 Americans catalogue includes an essay on the subject written by Franklin Sirmans, current Director of the Pérez Art Museum in Miami. His essay overviews the artists in 30 Americans, and concludes:

“Together they provide a foundation of stylistic tendencies and genres of art-making that encompass some of the most prevalent trends in contemporary art since the late ‘60s. But, they are all black. To some, that may be a surprise: that black artists employ all the strategies and styles of contemporary art. Others invariably would take a glance at this list of artists and let out yet another exasperated ‘WTF?’! Industry rule number 5,080: Don’t show in all colored exhibitions… .”

In March, TAM issued an open call inviting our community to participate in an advisory committee for this exhibition. The 30 Americans Community Advisory Committee is a diverse group that have committed to being thoughtful partners in identifying themes that resonate with our community, program ideas, potential partners, and promoting the exhibition to the widest possible audience.

Take advantage of this opportunity to see some of the most compelling contemporary art in the country and study different artists’ perspectives on important current cultural topics in 30 Americans.