Three Exhibitions Building Cultural Equity

inExhibitionson April 27, 2021

This summer marks a milestone for the Music Maker Foundation. For the first time, we will have three exhibitions on view at three different museums around the South. “Our Living Past” is already on view in the Museum of the Birthplace of Country Music in Bristol, Tennessee. In June, the “Hanging Tree Guitars” exhibition will open at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. That same month, our “Blue Muse” exhibition opens in the Gallery Space at 536 Craghead Street, part of Virginia’s Danville Museum of Fine Arts & History.

Exhibiting photographs of our partner artists and trying to give them the public attention they deserve has, for almost a decade, been part of Music Maker’s educational mission — working to make our nation’s musical heritage accessible to the public. We’ve had exhibitions on tour since 2014. But our first exhibition happened almost accidentally — and it dates back to the very beginnings of Music Maker.

In 1994, one of our earliest supporters, the famed audio-equipment designer Mark Levinson, opened a showroom in Manhattan and asked Music Maker if we would decorate it with framed prints of co-founder Tim Duffy’s photography. Any visitor to that showroom would hear Tim’s field recordings of Music Maker’s earliest partner artists, played on Levinson’s high-end sound systems, and they would leave with a booklet of photographs and a CD of Music Maker’s artists.

“Some of those people became donors,” Tim says, “and a few of them have remained donors since our very first year.”

But it wasn’t until 20 years later that we began mounting exhibitions in earnest. Our first exhibition was called “We Are the Music Makers!” In it, we incorporated photographs onto panels that explained the history of the artists pictured. The exhibition’s first stop was at the New York Library for the Performing Arts, but before we retired it, it had traveled to 28 cities around the nation — including tiny towns like Purcellville, Virginia, and Mt. Airy, North Carolina. And along the way, it taught us a lot about how these exhibitions can create cultural equity for our artists, particularly in the rural communities where many of our artists were born and raised.

Tim Duffy’s photograph of Mr. Q from the “We Are the Music Makers!” exhibition

“I think for the people in these small communities,” says co-founder Denise Duffy, “when they go and see these artists on the wall that are also from small rural communities, that makes them reflect on, ‘Who are the community musicians right here, people I’m around?’ That gives people a sense of pride.”

The point is to help people make the connection between modern-day, 21st century life and the music and musicians they might think have “died out.”

A platinum-palladium print of Derek Trucks from the “Our Living Past” exhibition

Our next exhibition — “Our Living Past” — was the first to showcase platinum-palladium prints of Tim’s tintype photography. “This is 19th century technology,” Denise says. “So many of these artists and these musical traditions are rooted in the 19th century, and so is the photographic method. And yet, these artists are contemporary artists who really show us that the past is present. That’s why we thought that title was important. The photographic technique and these artists and their music build that bridge between the 19th century and today.” With its current showing in Bristol, “Our Living Past” has now appeared in 11 museums and galleries.

Our third exhibition, “Blue Muse,” opened in April 2019 at the New Orleans Museum of Art. It consists entirely of tintype portraits of Music Maker partner artists and friends. When the exhibition opened in New Orleans, it also included a public-art component. The museum mounted huge blowups of several photographs around the Crescent City, and two remain on view today, although the exhibition is heading for its June 10 opening in Danville. Denise will never forget how that exhibition broke down the barriers between the heady world of fine art and the young people of New Orleans.

A tintype photograph of John Dee Holeman from the “Blue Muse” exhibition

“NOMA’s signature piece of art is an 18th century portrait by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun of Marie Antoinette,” she says. “So who is on the walls of museums like these? Historically, it’s the wealthy, the kings and the queens.” But “Blue Muse,” with its tintype portraits of people who are very much alive, changed the dynamic between art and viewer. One of the portraits in “Blue Muse” is of Vania Kinard, the wife of Music Maker board member Dom Flemons.

“We were visiting the museum with Vania,” Denise recalls. “And so we walked up, and there was Vania looking at her portrait. This, this troop of schoolkids came through the galleries, and a little African American girl was looking at the portraits on the wall. I pointed at Vania and said, ‘Look! This is Vania, and there she is on the wall!’ And this kid’s face just lit up. She got it. She looked at Vania, she looked at the portrait, and said, ‘I want to be on the walls.’’ These kids get it; they can be on the walls and it’s no longer just for royalty.”

When our latest exhibition, “Hanging Tree Guitars,” was first mounted at North Carolina’s Greenville Museum of Art, it was in the earliest days of the pandemic. The show went on — with strict capacity limits and social-distancing requirements — and it was interesting to see how the show’s audience grew over time.

The “Hanging Tree Guitars” exhibition inside the Greenville Museum of Art

“The Greenville Museum of Art had never had very many African-American visitors,” Tim says. As word spread around Greenville about this exhibition, which couples Tim’s tintype photographs with the guitars and sculptures of artist Freeman Vines, who comes from the rural communities around Greenville, attendance began to rise.

“They had record numbers of people of color come to that exhibit,” Tim says.

The common element of every exhibition we’ve mounted is the drive to break down the barriers between high art and and common people, to prove that the work of the many musicians we’ve known over the years belongs among our nation’s treasures. And when the people from the communities where those musicians come from see people they know celebrated in this way, cultural equity is created. In the end, says Tim, “Cultural equity is why we do so many exhibitions.”

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