At this year’s “Black Creativity Juried Art Exhibition,” two works by artist Lexus Giles—titled She’s Healed and She is Me—invite visitors into the gallery that houses much of the exhibition’s sculptures.
“I’m a storyteller,” Giles says. “Those busts came from a poem [I wrote] called ‘Tribulations of a Black Woman,’ and there are actually three other pieces along with it that kind of broke down that poem.”
Giles, 26, is a high school teacher in Mississippi who learned about the Museum of Science and Industry exhibition from a former professor, a testament to Black Creativity’s reach, and really, its rarity as a large-scale exhibition of Black art.
“A lot of times, you go to some museums and you don’t see a large, or even see some, representation of Black art. I feel like that’s something that I wanted to see as a kid and I never got a chance,” Giles says. “That’s important for both me as an artist seeing my work—because I do want to be in museums when I get older, I do want to be a household name in the art world—but I also think it’s important for generations coming in now.”
A 2018 Artnet analysis showed that although the exhibitions focusing on Black artists has jumped to record-breaking numbers in recent years, Black art accounted for less than 3 percent of museums’ acquisitions—in some museums, it was less than 1 percent.
“Juried Art Exhibition” has been an antidote to the industry’s lack of Black representation for more than 50 years. As the longest-running exhibition of Black art in the U.S., it is part of a great legacy of celebrating achievement in science, technology, engineering, art, and medicine. The Black Creativity program started in 1970 as Black Esthetics—a collaboration between local artists and staff at The Chicago Defender. It was renamed in 1984 and expanded to include the sciences, adding more exhibits and educational programming.
It’s this history that makes Black Creativity anything but ordinary, but that achievement is not easy. Even simply combing through all of the entries from artists like Giles who submitted their work from around the country can be difficult to do, staff say.
R Black Creativity
Through July 4, Wed-Sun, 9:30 AM-5:30 PM, Museum of Science and Industry, 5700 S. Lake Shore, 773-684-1414, msichicago.org, $21.95, $12.95 for children 3-11, free for members, must reserve timed-entry tickets.
To do this kind of mass selection, the museum relies on the invaluable help of jurors. Multidisciplinary artist Paul Branton is one of five jurors this year. He says he’s always marveled at how remarkable the art is in this exhibition and how it shows the many parallels of Black communities around the world: no matter where an artist is from or where their heritage and inspiration takes them, it shows some of the same triumphs and frustrations of Black life.
“After years and years of being excluded on walls and major institutions, this is one of the places where we can shine and we can show our excellence,” Branton says. “Way before I was a juror, way before I even participated in the show as an artist, this was one of the things that I looked forward to every year, to just marvel at what we can do, and how no matter what corner of the world or what corner of the country, there are things that we can connect with.”
This year’s exhibition covers hard-hitting topics such as recent police violence and the global pandemic, while also celebrating Black joy and Black love. But getting to this point was a challenge as museums in the city, including MSI, closed due to COVID-19 restrictions. The group of jurors whittled more than 600 submissions down to 85 final pieces—but they did this all virtually.
“I know how difficult and uncertain it was as an artist to continue to show your work to the public, in-person,” Branton says. “And I’m just happy to see that this many people never stopped creating. That passion that burns inside us, that drives us to create things, to paint things, to sculpt things, to document—it was still there. And this exhibit, it’s a testament to that.”
The “Juried” space may look as stunning as ever, but logistically, lining the gallery walls this year was a great feat. Normally, Black Creativity kicks off on Martin Luther King Day in January, where families swarm to the museum for Family Day. Opening days of the past generally included a packed house for “Juried” and interactive activities in its Innovation Studio among other programming and opportunities.
But this opening day, of course, was different, and the museum wasn’t sure when it could even open. Not knowing the timing of Black Creativity threw a wrench into a usually well-oiled process, and it took the work of all departments to work through those challenges.
“Knowing that we weren’t sure when we’re going to reopen, we had pushed the date for setting up the exhibit and opening,” says Manny Juarez, director of science and integrated strategies. “And so, when we finally found a time where we felt comfortable, then we accelerated that process and of course, everything had to change.”
Multiple calls for art went out to combat a less-than-desirable initial response, the artists whose work was chosen had to set up specific times to drop off their pieces, and overall, programming had to change and be refigured into ideas that could be rolled out slowly.
In January and February, virtual programs took the place of what would have occurred in-person. In April, the “Juried Art Exhibition” and the Innovator Gallery—the gallery that celebrates Black innovators—opened separately plus a new art and activism exhibit opened that invited students to come in and contribute to two murals.
Although Martin Luther King Day has passed, Black Creativity will have the opportunity to bring families back for another holiday. This year, Family Day will be held on Juneteenth, June 19, with programming that further reinforces the idea of art and activism. One of this year’s honored innovators, J. Ivy, wrote a poem for the event, and visitors can share an artistic expression of what those words mean to them.
And, the show will be available until July 4, totaling a much longer run than its normal length of less than two months. Because MSI is able to extend the run of the show, it hopes that even though there will be fewer people visiting at a time, more people overall will get to experience it. With all the many changes, Juarez says the past year of planning for Black Creativity has been a learning experience.
“Next year, hopefully things will be better,” Juarez says. “But I think there’ll be a lot of changes that will be for good, that this horrible year has helped us sort of develop and be nimble and flexible, I think for the better.”
And the lessons learned extend far beyond the logistics of creating a show. During a time that has been filled with stress and struggle for so many, it also is a reminder of just how to have grace for one another.
“We like to say we approached [the process] with a lot of grace, because some things didn’t happen as quickly as we would have hoped, and sometimes answers don’t get to someone as quickly as we hoped,” Juarez says. “But . . . at the end of the day, something like this is present, and we’re standing here in front of and in the middle of a really terrific show. And the show almost didn’t happen.”
But Black Creativity did happen—and is continuing to happen.
“I’m proud of every time I walk into this space, there’s a sense of pride in what Black creatives continue to do,” says Branton, artist and juror. “There’s a sense of pride in when you look back in history, and you talk about five decades’ worth of doing this, that somewhere in a small paragraph in a corner of a history book, that my name is in there somewhere.” v