In the midst of #MeToo and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, cancel culture has also emerged, asking people to withdrawal support from public figures and institutions whose actions perpetuate systemic injustice. Museums are being called to remove or re-contextualize works by artists like Picasso and Carl Andre, both notorious for violence and predatory behavior towards women.
Legendary Jazz Greats by impressionist painter Robert Blehert is the first exhibit in the museum’s new Ida McBeth Gallery. His 26 portraits focus on influential jazz artists, including Al Jolson and Bix Beiderbecke. Jolson’s nickname was The King of Blackface, and Beiderbecke was arrested in 1921 for a lewd & lascivious act with a five-year-old sight-impaired girl, though he faced no charges.
Museum staff and members from the Board of Directors engaged in critical conversations to remove their portraits from the exhibit. Communications Associate Luke Harbur sat down with Executive Director Rashida Phillips to discuss the decision to keep them on display.
Luke: As the museum’s Executive Director, why was it important to include the two controversial paintings in our new gallery space?
Rashida: Al Jolson and Bix Beiderbecke had major contributions to the idiom and history of jazz music. I learned about both early in my studies as an example of the first full length feature film with sound, and the other honestly in comparison to Louis Armstrong as being a trumpet pioneer of his time. Today we’ve become more aware of the problematic nature of depictions of minstrelsy and the stereotypes of African American contributions to our society, particularly considering Black Lives Matter and how much ridicule will not be tolerated around all that African Americans have contributed to the building and growth of our nation. Other issues surface in the biographies of certain jazz icons where allegations of sexual misconduct taint our view of the celebrity mystique. Sex crimes and lewd acts are being outed and brought to task no matter how famous they are.
Luke: How do you feel museums are different than other spaces to discuss and display controversial works or that are made by controversial people?
Rashida: A museum offers multi-perspectives: from the artist’s vantage point as a raw expression or statement of a particular subject matter, from the museum visitor intaking that vision and making meaning, and from educators and students utilizing the artwork for curriculum and discussion. In any case the hope is to incite a visceral reaction and connection that invites reflection and dialogue with self or others. It is in this space where we can dig deep and discover all of our intricate human nuances and how we navigate or champion our ever-present times either troubled or beautiful.
Luke: I know initially you were hesitant about displaying the controversial paintings as part of the new gallery space. What changed your mind to include them?
Rashida: We wanted to honor the artist’s vision. There’s a depth and vulnerability within artistic purpose that deserves to be seen and heard, even if that means challenging their point of view, asking hard questions, and pushing them to illuminate their choices and process. The same might be said about how we receive the message in their work.
Luke: Is there anything you want to say?
Rashida: This was not a singular decision and we hope that as people come in to view and celebrate the full exhibition that includes special portraits of musical heroes, they too will make meaning, challenge themselves, us, the artist, and others as we face our current moment in the throes of BLM, #MeToo, and other conscious and conscientious efforts to grapple with the shadows of our history. We are working to forge a different future, to see ourselves as we are, imperfectly human and uplift those that are working to do better. And then there are those who’ve been doing the right thing all along, angels on high and their music, well, just stunning.
Legendary Jazz Greats is now viewable with paid admission. Visitors are encouraged to explore Blehert's impressionist portraits up close, with vibrant colors matching the intrinsic energy and sounds of jazz.
Lisa Heishman and Luke Harbur
Robert Blehert’s Bix Beiderbecke and Robert Blehert’s Al Jolson.