In 2019, New England museums upended ‘dominant’ narratives, and almost everything was political

Boston's ICA exhibited works by the Pakistani-born American sculptor Huma Bhabha.
Boston's ICA exhibited works by the Pakistani-born American sculptor Huma Bhabha.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

On a bright, snowy day last January, I took a drive up to Hanover, N.H. The Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College was just days from reopening after a three-year extreme architectural makeover. The building had generated plenty of attention, most of it not good. Fans of the architect Charles Moore, whose original 1985 Hood had been gutted and pried open by the New York firm Tod Williams Billie Tsien, were miserable, and said so.

But the most radical elements of the Hood’s redux lay inside, where director John Stomberg presided over what would qualify as museum-world sacrilege not long ago: The museum’s European collection, once front and center, was now tucked to one side in a purpose-built space where it would always remain. Meanwhile, the museum’s brand-new marquee galleries — luxurious expanses on the second floor, with vaulted ceilings and a ceremonial air — were filled with work by contemporary artists from Africa, Algeria, Iran, and the US, many of whom were either Native American or African-American.


Stomberg shrugged as he told me he’d “been yelled at by a professor of European art.” But, he continued, “350 years of one half of a continent being dominant doesn’t really make much sense.”

A gallery of contemporary works at the Hood Museum included (at right) "Attitudes Towards Globalization" by Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga.
A gallery of contemporary works at the Hood Museum included (at right) "Attitudes Towards Globalization" by Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga.Jessica Rinaldi

Looking back, it was a harbinger for how my year in the museum world would go. In the long-static realm of American museum culture, things were changing, and quickly. Narrow histories were being broadened, often uncomfortably; conventional wisdom was being pushed aside. Things were getting messy. It was time to choose a side. Three years and $50 million later, the Hood had done so, unequivocally. I was right there with them.

It’s hardly a radical position anymore, I know. The past few years brought extreme polarization across all disciplines, running parallel to the fractious political arena in which we dwell every day. You’d expect museums, with their outward mission of enlightenment and social progress, to be at the fore. The truth is: Yes, but. Change is hard, particularly with generations of baggage filled with partial histories and willful exclusions to lug around.


So it took a while — longer, maybe, than it should. But in 2019, I saw more than I’ve ever seen before. The MFA’s “Collecting Stories” series of pocket-size shows were intended as nerdy deep-dives into underexplored pockets of holdings, but its Native American installment, which I saw in January, was radical and damning of both American attitudes toward indigenous people and the museum itself. In February, the Peabody Essex Museum opened “Nature’s Nation,” a co-production with the Princeton University Museum of Art. But PEM’s version was entirely its own, with canny inclusions that steered the show from its environmental theme toward an unvarnished critique of American colonialism and its ravages on the Native American population.

In March, Harvard Art Museums opened a nervy show of Kara Walker’s work centered around “U.S.A. Idioms," a rough embodiment of the legacy of slavery, vividly alive in the here and now (Walker had made it in the aftermath of the violent white nationalist protest in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017). The show dovetailed with a grassroots exhibition down the road at the Center for Government and International Studies. Its point, like its title, was blunt: “Slavery in the Hands of Harvard," which called out the school’s historic ties with human bondage through art.


Kara Walker's "U.S.A. Idioms" was at Harvard Art Museums this past spring.
Kara Walker's "U.S.A. Idioms" was at Harvard Art Museums this past spring.Harvard Art Museums; © President and Fellows of Harvard College

Meanwhile, in the Museums’ curatorial offices, something else was brewing: Oliver Wunsch, a curatorial fellow, was leading a wholesale rewrite of the museum’s public wall labels, one by one. His work, too, was damning — for art history, for America, and for the museum itself. Among other things, it revealed the Boylston family, archetypal Boston Brahmins, to have been proud slave traders, going so far as to glorify the family business in a series of portraits by John Singleton Copley, now in the museums’ collection.

That same month, the ICA gave us Huma Bhabha, a Pakistani-born American sculptor whose abject, decadently-violent works formed a catalog of complaints against American incursions in the far corners of the third world.

Spring turned into summer, and Mass MOCA delivered “Suffering From Realness,” a group show centered on the abuses of American privilege and the manipulation of many at the hands of the few (a chilling example: Titus Kaphar’s “Seeing Through Time 2,” a re-creation of a historical European painting that depicts an African slave and her owner, with the white figure cut away).

Meanwhile, no less than three exhibitions, all slated for the fall, geared up to address the ballooning international migrant crisis: “When Home Won’t Let You Stay: Migration Through Contemporary Art,” at the ICA; “Crossing Lines, Constructing Home,” at Harvard; and “Migrating Worlds,” at the Yale Center for British Art. On my way to the ICA, I came across “Mock,” artist Pat Falco’s public art installation offering a salty critique of Seaport condo development run amok with his cross-section of a clapboard triple-decker, complete with a civics lesson on redlining and the city’s historic housing inequities.


By the time I got to Alicja Kwade’s “In Between Glances,” a cluster of visual puns with the cosmic order in mind at MIT’s List Center, it felt like relief. Or did it? I enjoyed its formal play, its mind-twisting mathy-ness. But after being slapped around all year by frank, political work, it felt like something was missing (Kwade has something to say about social systems and economic disparity, but it’s bundled up and buried deep). This year showed us something we should already know: that art exists in the world, not apart from it, and that all art is political — maybe even more so when it’s not.

Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte