By Sydney Melson
The Birmingham Times
In leadership positions dating back to high school, Graham Boettcher, R. Hugh Daniel Director of the Birmingham Museum of Art (BMA), knew the importance of being mindful about the differences among people.
“I remember going to a student leadership conference, and one of my classmates was Latina,” recalled Graham, who attended high school in Skagit County, Washington, in the late 1980s. “She was talking about racism she experienced in the Skagit Valley, and, honestly, I had never really thought about race in that way. … I didn’t realize that not everyone was having the same experience of life in Skagit Valley that I was.”
Boettcher listened intently to her story and her presentation. As the student body president, he wanted to be a force for change, so he convened a meeting of students.
“To call it a conversation would be giving it too much credit,” he said. “There were racial epithets shouted from the audience. People were saying there was no issue with racism in Skagit Valley. Up until that point, I didn’t realize we had a problem, either. I had to be made aware of the racism by people who experienced it. It opened my eyes.”
In his position at the BMA, Boettcher now opens the eyes of others through the museum’s captivating exhibitions, including a major event that will begin on Nov. 20 —“Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle,” an exhibit that features a series of paintings where the iconic artist depicts how women and people of color helped shape the founding of our nation. The multipanel series covers history from the American Revolution through World War I.
“[Lawrence] talked about it in terms of depicting the struggles of a people to create a nation, and their attempt to build a democracy,” Boettcher said.
“He painted [the pieces in this series] between 1954 and 1956, when the Civil Rights Movement and the struggle for freedom for people of color in this country were in full swing. First in the courts with the [landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, U.S. Supreme Court case that ruled racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional] and leading up to the events that happened in this very city.
“It’s poignant to see how Lawrence views what he called the ‘American Struggle’ through the eyes of someone who knows how institutional racism has been ingrained in this country. At various points, he was not fully able to participate in all of the freedoms [expressed] by the Founding Fathers. That’s what makes [this series, which Lawrence named “Struggle …. from the History of the American People’] unique—the moment in which he’s looking back at American history and thinking about our democracy.”
“The Struggle Continues”
The pieces in “Struggle” seem to depict a continuation of what happened in the past, Boettcher said: “I would say, in many ways it’s significant to look at this material right now.”
“The struggle continues not only with respect to racial equity but also in terms of what it means to live in a democracy and have your voice heard,” he added. “How precious is our democracy? Is it strong? Is it fragile? The museum signed on for the exhibition long before the current election cycle, but I have a feeling that when people look at what Lawrence painted, it will be very natural to draw connections with the present.”
Boettcher explained that the BMA was offered the exhibition by the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, in 2018.
“The last time we had a Lawrence exhibition was in 1994, [when the ‘Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series’ was presented],” he said. “We’re excited to do this show. [Lawrence’s] work is so impactful in Birmingham’s history. … For our community, with its rich history and being a [Black-majority] city, it’s important to honor Black artists who are speaking and interpreting through their own experience of American history and culture.”
Lawrence’s artwork itself has history with the BMA, according to Boettcher.
“In 1972, the BMA acquired one of his works,” he said. “During the 1994 exhibit, Lawrence came himself, and it was completely packed. I’ve spoken to a number of patrons who remember him being here.”
Two of those present were Elias and Gaynell Hendricks, founders of the Wee Care Academy Daycare, and they received a special visit from Lawrence.
“Lawrence was a legend,” Elias said of the artist, who died in 2000. “He’s a national treasure, so if he’s coming to town and I get a chance to meet him, I’m just geeked!”
At the time, the Hendrickses were a part of a BMA organization that was focused on bringing more Black and African art to the museum and to the city. During Lawrence’s 1994 visit, the couple took the artist and his wife to Sixteenth Street Baptist Church to pay homage to the four little girls killed in the 1963 racially motivated bombing; they also toured the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
“He was very impressed with Birmingham and how beautiful it was,” Elias said, adding that Lawrence wished more artists captured the joy of Black people in Birmingham.
“When all of that was going on, we still lived and flourished as a Black community,” Elias said.
“Part of the Solution”
Boettcher, 47, is intent on bringing diverse art to the BMA, and he won’t ever forget his experiences in high school, when he wanted to change the culture around race in the school.
“I had a teacher who was a Civil Rights activist. I went to talk to her, and she said I needed to channel the way I was feeling, to get it off my chest,” he said. “So, I wrote an open letter to the local paper in which I talked about racism in our area and what had gone on that day.”
Not long thereafter, Boettcher received a strongly worded letter from a relative who saw the newspaper.
“She made it clear to me that she did not share my views,” he remembered. “Maybe she was part of the problem. It’s something that stayed with me.”
Boettcher joined the BMA in 2006. Since that time, he has served as a postdoctoral fellow, curator of American art, chief curator, and deputy director; he was appointed director in 2017.
During his tenure the museum has presented recent works like “All Things Bright and Beautiful” which opened just before the museum had to close to the public because of the coronavirus pandemic in March 15. It was on display again when the BMA reopened on October 6. The exhibition takes its name from a painting by Amy Sherald, whose portraits depict Black sitters with pride, dignity, and joy, representation historically only given to white people.
“Ways of Seeing: Buildings and Monuments” also opened on October 6. This exhibition features nearly 60 works from the museum’s collection that examine the built environment and its impact on individuals and communities.
And there is “Wall to Wall” the new ongoing project that invites artists to transform the museum’s lobby and cafe with artwork inspired by the city.
About the BMA, Boettcher said, “[ want to feature art that is in some way part of the solution and not part of the problem. … Both in my current role as director and even when I was curator, there has been a huge effort to obtain more artwork from people of color—and the effort to put on [the upcoming] Lawrence show has been a big one.”
“Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle” opens at the Birmingham Museum of Art on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020; the exhibit will be on display in the museum’s Jemison Galleries through Feb. 7, 2021. For more information, visit artsbma.org.