Robin Holder: Public Artist

Michele Cohen, Ph.D.

Just as the New Deal expanded opportunities for women and African American artists and brought regional artists to national prominence, the civil rights movement brought still further visibility to African American and Latino artists, especially in art for the New York City public schools. With the civil rights movement came the decentralization of the City's school system and a more overt assertion of cultural identity, best illustrated in the collection of artworks commissioned for Bedford-Stuyvesant's new Boys and Girls High School.15

Holder remembers this time:

The era when I was a teenager and young adult was pregnant with conflict, expectation, re-identification, passion for cultural expression. There were the: anti war, women's lib, integration, psychedelic drugs, eastern, interest in Eastern religion, black power, non violent, Black Muslim movements. It was very charged, saturated and exciting. People were involved in expressing and defining themselves, reclaiming the truth about history and demanding justice.16

In 1963, the same year as the March on Washington, planning started for the school that was to replace Brooklyn's Boys High School. This large new high school designed by Max O. Urbahn Associates for a site off Fulton Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, part of the Fulton Park Urban Renewal Area, was to provide 4,500 seats, extensive athletic fields, an auditorium and be fully equipped for training in academic and vocational subjects. Also included in the program was the unprecedented provision for artwork by nine African American artists, a response to community pressure and the architect's own progressive impulse. Martin Stein, the lead architect, recognized that the public art for this school had to be closely tied to the community and responsive to political issues of the time, so following discussion with the community, he reserved the approximately $120,000 allocated for art to commission work by a group of African American artists.17 Clearly there was a sense that the community should represent itself, rather than be represented by an outsider. Until this project, Charles Alston had been the only African American artist to receive a commission for a public school mural, which he completed in 1964 for P.S. 154 in Harlem. Fittingly, Alston served on the Art Commission that reviewed the designs for Boys and Girls High School.

To facilitate the selection of artists and assist in the coordination of the project, painter Ernest Crichlow became the art consultant and lead artist. A lifelong resident of Brooklyn, well-known painter, book illustrator, educator, and community activist, Crichlow had a history of supporting other African American artists, founding with Romare Bearden and Norman Lewis the Cinque Gallery in 1969 to provide exhibition opportunities for younger black artists. Holder recalls learning about the gallery from Richard Mayhew when she was at the Art Students League and her early aspiration to exhibit there.18 Once the locations and scope of the commissions had been determined, Crichlow assembled an impressive group of artists, representing different generations and aesthetic philosophies. They included sculptors and painters practicing a range of figuration and abstraction, artists new to public art and public art veterans, artists engaged in the dialogue about "black art," and artists engaged in the debates of modern art. The final product is a stunning display of some of the best work produced by African American artists at that time.

The artists were painters Norman Lewis, Eldzier Cortor, Vincent Smith, Fern Stanford, and Crichlow himself and sculptors Edward Wilson, Chris Shelton, Todd Williams, and Camille Billops. In undertaking the project, the artists formed a corporation under the name Fulton Concepts, Inc., following a then current trend of black artists uniting around various concerns. Between 1963 and 1971 several groups emerged, including Spiral Group, Africobra, Black Emergency Cultural Coalition [BECC], Women Students and Artists for Black Liberation [WSABAL], and Where We At Black Women Artists.19 For the commissions at Boys and Girls High School, there were practical benefits. By forming a group, the nine artists were able to pool the costs of legal fees and insurance and coordinate a unified look in the installation.