Who writes history?
Painting by and for the privileged class
Grace Beals, Niagara River, 1918
images courtesy of the burchfield penney
“Art and money are inextricably linked.”
That’s the first sentence of the catalog essay accompanying In the Fullness of Time: Painting in Buffalo 1832–1872. Though the authors bemoan a “lack of any appreciable regional art market” in smaller cities like Buffalo, the exhibition nonetheless aims to spur collecting of historic regional art. The intent is to “act as a guidebook for collectors,” explains curator Tullis Johnson. But it’s important to understand that this guidebook is assembled by dealers and collectors, spotlighting work amassed and often produced by the socially elite—art and money inextricably linked.
This raises a question museums and historians everywhere grapple with today: who defines art history? The Museum of Modern Art recently reinstalled its collection, rethinking the modernist canon while creating a more inclusive experience. Atlanta's High Museum did the same. The Brooklyn Museum, MCA Chicago, and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, among others, are all reenvisioning art history through the lens of diversity.
In the Fullness of Time is Buffalo art by the numbers, comprising work made largely by white men for prosperous buyers. Certainly, a creative impulse flourished within Buffalo’s African-American and struggling immigrant communities throughout those 140 years. Irish, Germans, Poles, Swedes, Hungarians, Ukrainians, Armenians, Puerto Ricans, and more brought ethnic painting traditions to Buffalo (note the beautiful mural work in the DNIPRO Ukrainian Center). The show has almost no folk or outsider art and, despite efforts by the curators, women make up only seventeen percent of the exhibition, almost half being members of the social elite around the turn of the century.
Even with a relatively hefty budget, the organizers were likely confined to what was reasonably accessible through collectors, dealers, and museums. The outcome is an exhibition focusing exclusively on the art of Buffalo’s privileged class.
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