In January 1970, artist and activist Dana Chandler Jr. mailed a succinct manifesto with the ambitious yet matter-of-fact title “A Proposal to Eradicate Institutional Racism at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts” to director Perry Rathbone. “White museums have ignored, avoided and denied their obligation to portray the contributions of the black man to American history… We find this museum no different,” he opened. He denounced the underfunding of the newly-established National Center for Afro-American Artists (NCAAA) and listed concrete demands ranging from setting aside space for Black art to ensuring representation in leadership. Under public pressure, Rathbone responded courteously, if condescendingly, to Chandler’s proposal, lamenting that the funds could not be found to meet Chandler’s requests.
The new online exhibition Black Power in Print, sponsored by the Museum of Fine Arts Boston (MFA Boston) and Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), explores the artistic legacy of the Black Power movement, including Chandler’s forceful advocacy and art and the social and political context in which he worked.
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Although Chandler’s proposal was rebuffed, the MFA Boston, together with the NCAAA, put on its first exhibition of African American art, Afro-American Artists: New York and Boston, a few months later, featuring 158 works by 70 Black artists. Chandler had misgivings about the show — he called it “pacification” — but decided to contribute. When the exhibition opened in May 1970, he commented, “This will be the first time that my children, my parents, and my community will see a major show about them and of them sponsored by a Black institution in a major white institution.”
Chandler exhibited two paintings. One was a portrait of Black Panther Party (BPP) co-founder Bobby Seale. The other was “Fred Hampton’s Door” (1970), which depicted the bullet-ridden entryway to the BPP deputy chairman’s home, a forthright reference to Hampton’s assassination in an FBI raid half a year prior.
Inexplicably, Chandler was never sent “Fred Hampton’s Door” back after he displayed it at the International Exposition on the Environment (Expo ’74) in Spokane. So he made “Fred Hampton’s Door 2 (1974), this time with an actual door. MFA Boston curator Reto Thüring thinks that the physicality of the second door — which Chandler hoped would prevent it from being stolen or lost again — renders it even more powerful. In 2020, MFA Boston purchased “Fred Hampton’s Door 2” after it went on tour with Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power.
Chandler’s grief in the aftermath of Fred Hampton’s murder was amplified by his close relationship with the BPP. Though not himself a member, the BPP had an office in Boston, and Chandler knew all the Boston party members. He attended meetings with his daughter, where he admired “how beautiful everybody was” and “how erudite they were.” Back at his studio, he hosted huge parties that attracted “thousands” of guests, including BPP members.
Like many other Black Americans, Chandler read the BPP newspaper. Three newspaper covers, including the one that announced Hampton’s assassination, are included in the Black Power in Print exhibition. They are part of 30 issues designed by graphic artist Emory Douglas that were recently acquired by MoMA, granting his designs their proper due as not only historical artifacts but also artistic achievements that profoundly shaped Black visual culture. “He’s one of our major African American artists. And I’m glad to see there are people starting to treat him that way,” Chandler saidin a conversation with MFA Boston curator Liz Munsell.
It’s poetically just — and a testament to the power of Chandler’s advocacy — that some 50 years later, his manifesto is the centerpiece of an MFA Boston exhibit. Today, Chandler can visit the same museum that he frequented in childhood and view his works in its permanent collection. But the continued relevance of his 1970 proposal also presents a searing critique of museums today. “It feels so timely, right? But it isn’t,” Thüring told Hyperallergic. “In many ways, it could have been written today.”