Six years ago, Jina Valentine and Heather Hart decided they would rewrite the history of American art. Or rather, wait, to revise that slightly: They would write the history of American art that should have been written the first time. No, no, let me put that another way: They set out to write the history of American art that included the Black artists often at the margins of art history, if at all. Sorry, sorry, but to amend that slightly, too: Jina Valentine of Chicago and Heather Hart of Brooklyn, N.Y., working with a legion of fellow artists, would not do all of this work themselves exactly.
They would edit it into Wikipedia.
They would reassemble the history of American art using the online encyclopedia, adjusting and reworking, adding one new Black artist Wikipedia page at a time. And to do this, they would invite artists, students, teachers — anyone inspired by their Wiki-correcting initiative — to help out.
Of course, filling the gaps in any historical record involves more than a digital tuck.
“But from an educational standpoint alone,” Hart told me, “if you consider generations growing up in front of screens now, this is the front lines of art history for a lot of people.”
Six years later, Valentine and Hart have introduced more than 1,200 entries on Black artists and institutions to Wikipedia, while modifying the existing entries of far more. For years, almost monthly, they have done this at Wiki edit-a-thons they’ve hosted, in schools and libraries and cafeterias, at the Chicago Athletic Club and Studio Museum of Harlem, in Charlotte, N.C., and Sheboygan, Wisc., in South Africa and Alberta. Their game plan is streamlined and direct: Each event tends to focus on artists associated with the place where the edit-a-thon is being held. A 2018 edit-a-thon at Museum of Contemporary Chicago, for instance, was a chance to write entries for Black artists whose work was shown at the MCA, yet somehow still didn’t have much online presence.
“To be honest, whenever I am searching an artist and end up on their Wikipedia page now, I tend to suspect this artist probably only has a page because of these Wikipedia edit sessions," said Grace Deveney, a former MCA curator (now with the Prospect art triennial in New Orleans). “People might wonder why it matters if an artist has a Wikipedia page, because it’s one of those invisible things you don’t always think about, but once you’re reminded of an absence like that, and how certain structures in the world perpetuate a lack of certain voices, it becomes a powerful project.”
Valentine said they started out with a list a few dozen names. “A short list of mentors and colleagues, and though we’ve been at it a while now, Heather makes fun me for still being shocked at how many omissions remain — artists who you would assume are and should be in Wikipedia.”
Figures like, as of this writing (if we stick with Chicago-related people alone), artists Mike Cloud and Bethany Collins, curator Hamza Walker, historians Huey Copeland (Northwestern University) and Darby English (University of Chicago). Entries the project has added (or just spruced up) include the Wiki pages for Jacob Lawrence, Betye Saar, Mickalene Thomas and Carrie Mae Weems.
“When I hear we’re writing this history for the first time, I appreciate hearing that,” said Eliza Myrie, a Chicago artist who doubles as manager of the project. “But I also resent writing it for the first time. It’s annoying how some of it wasn’t on Wikipedia. It’s the definition of structural oppression.”
Art history, like most history, can be as rigid as it is fluid.
A narrative gets established, then repeated ad nauseam (Expressionism gave way to Abstraction, which gave way to Pop Art, and so on). The players remain familiar and frequent (Manet, Warhol, Picasso). And yet, it’s a version of a story, from a point of view. American art history, like American history, was written primarily by white men. As recently as 2000, when Northwestern art historian Rebecca Zorach began teaching, she would send students into the Art Institute of Chicago on a mission, to locate a European-born woman artist of the 20th century to write about — the joke being that, at the time, only two were on display. She said if the assignment was to find an African American artist of any gender of the 20th century, they probably wouldn’t have found any. Zorach — who curated a pair of recent shows at the Smart Museum featuring Black artists (“AfriCOBRA” in 2013, “The Time is Now! Art Worlds of Chicago’s South Side” in 2018) — said the whiteness of art history and the whiteness of the art world has been a mutually reinforcing situation for a long time.
“Early art museums in this country, a lot of the money came from slavery,” she said. “And the art in them was about creating a European-style culture in this country, which was assumed not to have (an indigenous culture). Some have pushed back on that, of course, but the history of art, and writing about that history, went hand in hand with white supremacy for years.”
Valentine and Hart met at the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture in Maine. “We both had an art school education where there was no equity in the teaching of history,” Hart said. “So we wanted to provide something for younger Black artists coming up to readily see themselves.” In 2005 at Skowhegan, they “literally segregated the lunch room, because of the optics and because of the conversation that came out of doing that,” Valentine said. What also came out of it was Black Lunch Table, Valentine and Hart’s ongoing history project, now in its 15th year, that includes an actual, occasional lunch table where Black artists meet over a meal and simply talk shop.
“What it looks like is, five or six artists at a table,” Valentine continued. “They have an hour to 90 minutes to talk, we give conversation prompts on a custom set of playing cards. We also have transcribers and meta-data taggers, along with recorded audio of the conversations, so later the whole thing could be archived then searched by the subjects brought up in the conversations. And so, when we started to look into what it meant to create an archive like that, we also started to see who was missing from popular art histories. And we would turn to Wikipedia at times and we would notice that we were even missing from the most widely used encyclopedia on Earth.”
Which led to conversations about who writes art history.
Naomi Beckwith, senior curator at the MCA, said she’s been impressed by Black Lunch Table, but also bemused: “Impressed, because of how clever they’ve been with finding a way to create an archive. But bemused in the most affectionate sense — that name, ‘Black Lunch Table,’ brings to mind the kids of color who sat together at lunch in high school. It’s a striking metaphor, because as heavy as participation (in the art world) has been lately for artists of color, for many there’s still this feeling of being a minority.”
So, the past decade has seen more Black artists and historians challenging, amending, and introducing the history of American art to the history it had been excluding, because of tokenism and institutional neglect and systemic racism. Last year, Darby English, a University of Chicago historian and adjunct curator for the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, co-edited “Among Others: Blackness at MoMA,” an art book that took his employer, the country’s leading contemporary art museum, to task for generations of ingrained ignorance, even as English celebrated the artists of color who were in its collection. More famously, the blockbuster 2016 retrospective of Chicago’s Kerry James Marshall at the MCA, the Met Breuer in New York and MOCA in Los Angeles, who explicitly introduced black figures into the usual art history timeline.
Wikipedia, however — where informed and ignorant alike wade into research on nearly everything — was founded as a democratizing, open-sourced, user-written and edited “compendium of all knowledge” (as Hart described it). The assumption is, if something exists and it’s notable, you’ll find it on Wikipedia. In reality, according to surveys of who contributes to Wikipedia, its most active contributors are white and male. This same community also establishes guidelines for inclusion.
Chris Schilling, a Chicago-based program officer for the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that provides training to contributors (and works occasionally with Valentine and Hart on edit-a-thons), said because Wiki editors and writers work anonymously, the demographics of its users are a bit imperfect. That said, standards change as users change. Which is why Black Lunch Table is among several arts-based groups — for instance, Art+Feminism hosts edit-a-thons to correct a bias against women artists — that regard Wikipedia as a path towards a more inclusive history.
One standard that won’t change, though, is that artists are not allowed to contribute to their own pages. Neither Valentine (who teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is known for art works flooded with data and text) nor Hart (whose New York-based practice is known for its large installations) had anything to do with writing their Wikipedia pages. Still, they say some teaching colleagues and art historians have questioned the validity of promoting Wikipedia as a resource. They themselves have questioned whether or not what they are doing is closer to activism than history. They’ve decided it isn’t. “It’s what should be happening anyway,” Hart said.
Their edit-a-thons — which resemble study sessions, with long conference tables occupied by rows of students behind open laptops — will head online for the fall. But the endless adding and amending will continue. “In a way, the project has become a metaphor to us,” Valentine said, “a metaphor for the impossibility of the task itself, of filling in so many holes in this historical record.”
They are, however, seeing results.
As the number of solo exhibitions and group shows featuring Black artists steadily rises around the country, audiences, collectors and curators turn online for more information. Consider Dindga McCannon, whose work as a quilter and muralist had been marginalized for decades, until she was included in a recent traveling exhibition of Black women artists. Her Wikipedia entry, created at an edit-a-thon, is now the first thing anyone curious about her work finds online. When Valentine and Hart set up a photo booth at an edit-a-thon to attach portraits to entries, McCannon herself, now in her 70s, showed up. “Her entry had provided her some traction,” said Myrie. “Writing these (Wiki pages) takes a lot of time, but myself, I think, if I can make this person visible, considering all the biases they already face, if I’m already versed in this knowledge, if I can help, why wouldn’t I?”
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