The Black-Owned Gallery that changed the New York art scene in the ’70s and ’80s — Blind Magazine – Blind Magazine | Ad On Picture

As the civil rights and black power movements transformed the political, social, and cultural landscape of the United States in the 1960s, new spaces for exploring race, identity, and aesthetics emerged. As the black arts movement flourished, collectives like Kamoinge, AfriCOBRA, and the Spiral Group, and institutions like the Studio Museum of Harlem, provided important sources of community for artists largely excluded from the mainstream art world.

In New York City, Linda Goode Bryant spearheaded a new era in American art, transforming the gallery into a hub of creativity, collaboration, and conversation. As Education Director at the Studio Museum of Harlem, Bryant led the famous artist-in-residence program in the early 1970s. “Artists were always on the top floor to visit other artists and have conversations. A lot of people were older than me, so I was perceived as that boy, but we were all respectful,” says Bryant, who was in her early 20s at the time.

Linda Goode Bryant and Janet Olivia Henry (undercover) at Just Above Midtown, Fifty-Seventh Street, December 1974. Photo by Camille Billops. Courtesy of the Hatch-Billops Collection, New York.

As Bryant listened to older artists, she noticed that they focused on external limitations imposed by the historically exclusive white art world. Bryant wouldn’t let that stop him from pursuing her destiny. “I’d say, ‘Well fuck them, let’s do it ourselves. We do not have any money. We can still do this on our own – money isn’t the only resource,’” she recalls. “They shook their heads and said, ‘She’s sweet, but my goodness, she’s naive.'”

But Bryant was no blue-eyed dreamer; She was an imaginative radical ready to shake up the art world. Things came into focus when she met artist David Hammons and asked him when he would be exhibiting in New York. Hammons told her he didn’t exhibit in white galleries. “I said, ‘Ohh, I think I need to open a gallery!'” Bryant decided then and there.

In 1974, she did just that, quitting her job at the Studio Museum to open Just Above Midtown (JAM) on 57th Street. “A single mom, two babies and I’m going to start a gallery with not a dime!” says Bryant. “That was the inspiration for JAM and the art world was furious.”

Further up

“I just don’t have a good relationship with the idea of ​​power. Except my own,” Linda Goode Bryant said of Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, in the catalog for the new exhibition: Something about Midtown: Changing roomsnow on view at the Museum of Modern Art.

From this relationship to personal power, a revolution was born. Between 1974 and 1986, Bryant directed the groundbreaking gallery that produced a wide range of contemporary Black artists working in many disciplines, including Ming Smith, Lorraine O’Grady, Adrian Piper, Howardena Pindell, Maren Hassinger and Elizabeth Catlett throughout their careers.

Gylbert Coker and David Hammons, just above Midtown, Fifty-Seventh Street.  December 1974. Photo by Camille Billops.  Courtesy of the Hatch-Billops Collection, New York.
Gylbert Coker and David Hammons, just above Midtown, Fifty-Seventh Street. December 1974. Photo by Camille Billops. Courtesy of the Hatch-Billops Collection, New York.

Bryant recalls the challenge of simply finding a space, which she met with her unique blend of spirit, enterprise, boldness and poise. “When I called a real estate agent and said I’d like to see a space to open a gallery, they said, ‘What work are you going to show?'” she recalls. “I told them, ‘I’m going to show the work of black artists’ – and 98% of the time the answer was, ‘We don’t show black velvet paintings in our building’ and they hung up. What nonsense it was. White artists painted black velvet paintings!”

But fortune favors the brave — as did the city’s financial collapse as New York hurtled toward bankruptcy in the mid-1970s. With the mass exodus of the white middle class to the suburbs, the real estate market had collapsed. The seats were empty and the supply outweighed the demand.

Bryant got hip to speak at the gallery and rephrased her response, telling the agents she would be showing the work of up-and-coming artists. She called an agent at Judson Realty, looked at the 5th floor apartment at 50 West 57th Street and decided this was the place to be. Then, 25, Bryant arrived at the real estate office rocking a giant Angela Davis Afro and Army attire, her two babies in tow.

The broker was in shock. Bryant asked about the rent. It was a grand a month. “I can’t pay for that,” she said. Then she made him a counter offer: $300. The gamble paid off and the agent introduced her to Bill Judson, the owner. Curious about their astronomically low offer, Bryant explained, “You have a lot of vacancies in this building. Seems like $300 a month is better than nothing.”

Judson was sold. The agent drew up a lease and JAM was officially in business.

Linda Goode Bryant and Janet Olivia Henry (undercover) at Just Above Midtown, Fifty-Seventh Street, December 1974. Photo by Camille Billops.  Courtesy of the Hatch-Billops Collection, New York
Linda Goode Bryant and Janet Olivia Henry (undercover) at Just Above Midtown, Fifty-Seventh Street, December 1974. Photo by Camille Billops. Courtesy of the Hatch-Billops Collection, New York

A nation under a groove

Once the Just Above Midtown (JAM) gallery was up and running, Bryant was in her element. She maxed out credit cards and stored receipts, overdue bills, and eviction notices that piled up along the way. But Bryant bet on himself and played to win. While many of her contemporaries were stunned and hostile to the single mother who upended long-held notions of status and wealth, Bryant used her ingenuity, vision and charisma to chart a unique path through the New York art world.

Recognizing that art and artists could be a vehicle for social change, she took an expansive approach, working in an interdisciplinary manner and using photography to document the moment. “There were so many ways it was done. I felt that the role of a gallery and myself could give artists the opportunity to push their work even further beyond the confines of their final piece and to support that,” says Bryant. “The talks, the debates, the arguments, the ‘Aha!’ Moments that happened with artists in that space were fabulous.”

Suzanne Jackson.  MaeGame.  1973. Private Collection.  Courtesy of Ortuzar Projects, New York
Suzanne Jackson. MaeGame. 1973. Private Collection. Courtesy of Ortuzar Projects, New York

Throughout the gallery’s 12-year existence, JAM has hosted some of the most innovative original works of its time, including a 1980 debut performance by Lorraine O’Grady as “Mlle Bourgeoise Noire” and David Hammon’s infamous 1976 exhibition “Greasy Bags and Grilled Bones.” Photographers such as Dawoud Bey and Coreen Simpson documented performances and events, their documentation became a work of art in its own right.

Suzanne Jackson.  Talk.  Courtesy of the artist and Ortuzar Projects, New York.
Suzanne Jackson. Talk. Courtesy of the artist and Ortuzar Projects, New York.

Love is the message

Over the years, the Just Above Midtown (JAM) gallery has had various incarnations, moving from Midtown to Tribeca to Soho when the neighborhoods were still post-industrial outposts that attracted experimental artists. Photography played a crucial role in recording and preserving the events in the revolutionary gallery.

“JAM was a magnet for everyone,” says Bryant. “Artists from other galleries hung out at JAM. It was the place where artists could discuss or collaborate on their work, thoughts and ideas,” she says. “It had the perfect energy for artists to be together, to support and contradict each other, because fundamentally there was a deep love for each other.”

Senga Nengudi performs Air Propo at JAM, 1981. Courtesy Senga Nengudi.
Senga Nengudi performs Air Propo at JAM, 1981. Courtesy Senga Nengudi.

The seed for JAM was planted in Bryant’s youth. She recalls visiting the garage of Mr. Dillard, a neighbor who transformed the space into a wonderland filled with discarded bits of everyday life that could be reused to make art. “It was things like a baby doll, chairs, or car parts, and he would bring them back to life. It was like magic, and that’s when I knew I wanted to be an artist,” Bryant recalled.

Growing up, she watched her mother’s brother make art, a practice he continued despite the fact that it wasn’t financially feasible. “He kept doing his art, it was something that spurred him on,” Bryant recalls of this formative reminder of the work’s greater purpose. And while it might not have been lucrative, her uncle was part of a larger group of like-minded visionaries.

Bryant recalls nurturing her understanding of community and connection at a young age. “I was interested in my parents’ generation,” she says. “They were socialists for a time, and their circle of friends consisted of visual artists, musicians and writers. It was a collective. They supported each other. I knew JAM had to be about supporting our creativity, imagination and determination. You have to be a family – and we were.”

Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces Edited by Thomas (T.) Jean Lax and Lilia Rocio Taboada in collaboration with Linda Goode Bryant, 2022 Exhibition Catalog Paperback, 184 pp
Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces Edited by Thomas (T.) Jean Lax and Lilia Rocio Taboada in collaboration with Linda Goode Bryant, 2022 Exhibition Catalog Paperback, 184 pp
Abstraction Blue, Georgia O'Keeffe.  Samantha Friedman, Museum of Modern Art, August 29, 2022
Abstraction Blue, Georgia O’Keeffe. Samantha Friedman, Museum of Modern Art. August 29, 2022.

Something about Midtown: Changing rooms is on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York until February 18, 2023. The accompanying Catalog is published by the Museum of Modern Art/The Studio Museum in Harlem, $45.00

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