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At the MFA, a door opens to the history of Black art in Boston

In 1970, Dana Chandler Jr. delivered a manifesto demanding change to the museum’s director. Now, more than 50 years later, he’s making a grand entrance.

Benny Andrews’s "Wounded Sgt. (Wounded Sergeant)" (1970) and Dana Chandler Jr.’s "Fred Hampton’s Door 2" (1974) on view in "New Light: Encounters and Connections" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Benny Andrews’s "Wounded Sgt. (Wounded Sergeant)" (1970) and Dana Chandler Jr.’s "Fred Hampton’s Door 2" (1974) on view in "New Light: Encounters and Connections" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

As a child, Dana Chandler Jr. would trek the two blocks from his home in Roxbury to the imposing granite hulk of the Museum of Fine Arts with its towering neoclassical columns and grand staircase.

Seventy years later, what he remembers with crystal clarity, along with the European masterworks, is being followed closely by museum guards, eyeing him as he drank in what the museum had to offer. “They were watching me, this little Black kid, walking around on my own,” Chandler said. “So I went up to them, and I told them: ‘I’m going to show my work in this museum someday.’”

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It took decades, but that little boy made good on his word. At the MFA right now, “Fred Hampton’s Door 2,” which Chandler made in 1974, is installed as part of “New Light: Encounters and Connections,” the museum’s new show of recent contemporary acquisitions paired with longstanding works in its collection.

The piece is a doorway in more ways than one. Painted in the Pan-African flag colors of green and red, and shot through with bullet holes, it’s a ragged homage to Fred Hampton, the leader of the Black Panther Party murdered by Chicago police in his bed in 1969. But it’s also a passageway to another time, largely smoothed over in the genteel realm of museum-making, when activists including Chandler demanded change — and, at least for a time, got it.

“New Light” has a distinct and deliberate Boston angle, featuring other local artists as well: Stephen Hamilton’s remarkable tapestry works tie Black American culture to West African textiles; the ingenious Shelter in Place Gallery, built by Eben Haines and Delaney Dameron, houses pocket-size virtual exhibitions on Instagram in response to the pandemic shutdowns of last spring.

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But nobody here has a past with the MFA quite like Chandler’s. It’s tangled up in the MFA’s own history of exclusion, and it’s as complex and unresolved as the history of race relations in the city itself. That Chandler grew up and worked and raised his own family in Roxbury practically across the street from the museum is representative of the deep fissures in a city where divisions of race and class transcend simple measures of blocks and miles. For Chandler and his community, those two blocks may as well have been the distance between Earth and moon.

This isn’t the first time Chandler’s work has been seen here, though it has been more the 50 years, and we’ll get to that soon enough. But until now, the only Chandler work owned by the MFA had been a print acquired as part of a portfolio of Black Boston artists; it has never been shown, though it was included in the book “Common Wealth: Art by African Americans in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,” which the museum published in 2015.

“Fred Hampton’s Door 2″ wasn’t on the MFA’s radar until it surfaced in “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power,” the recent touring exhibition of Black American art organized by the Tate Modern in London. MFA curator Liz Munsell saw the exhibition when it was at the Brooklyn Museum in 2018 and initiated a conversation with Chandler, now 80, and his daughter, Dahna Chandler, who looks after his business affairs; it officially entered the MFA collection in December of last year.

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Dana Chandler and Dahna Chandler in 2018.
Dana Chandler and Dahna Chandler in 2018.Renee Ricciardi

“It’s really quite a homecoming, both for the piece and for Dana himself,” Munsell said. “He’s an absolutely seminal figure here, in creating a visual identity around the larger Black Power movement, and the activism of the ′60s and ′70s.”

It’s been a long timing coming. Despite being an influential muralist and studio painter, Chandler chafed at the city’s conservative art world establishment, devoted as it was to European historical art and only begrudgingly astride even mainstream American contemporary movements.

Chandler, who was a leading activist in the local Black Power movement, wanted to make change, not wait for it. He knew how culturally dynamic his community was, and he also knew how ignorant of it the MFA, the city’s dominant art institution, had chosen to be.

“When it comes to my people, I am easily pissed off when I see something that’s not right,” said Chandler, the recipient of an honorary doctoral degree from Simmons University, where he taught for more than 30 years.

“I had never seen a show of African American artists, even though the Museum of Fine Arts is across the street from the African American community,” he said during a sprawling two-hour phone call from New Mexico, where he now lives. “So one day I walked in there, and I said, ‘Where’s the African American art?’ And a curator there looked at me with a raised eyebrow and said, ‘When the work is good enough, it will be here.’ I did not say the words I had in my head. But I wish I had.”

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A self-portrait of Dana Chandler in his Boston studio in 1976.
A self-portrait of Dana Chandler in his Boston studio in 1976. Dana Chandler

From that exchange grew many more words, articulated in Chandler’s “A Proposal to Eradicate Institutional Racism at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts,” a manifesto delivered to then-MFA director Perry Rathbone on Jan. 15, 1970. The proposal included budgetary allotments; an acquisition, exhibition and storage plan for new works; and material backing for the fledgling National Center for Afro-American Artists (NCAAA), which had grown out of Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts a couple of years before. It was also an action plan: Chandler requested Rathbone’s response, in writing, within about two weeks’ time.

Longtime NCAAA director Edmund Barry Gaither, who had been installed just months before, found himself in the middle of a rising standoff. The museum had lent some support to the NCAAA, but its financial commitment — $30,000, as spelled out by Chandler’s manifesto — was “less than superficial at best,” Chandler said in his proposal, which the MFA posted on its website earlier this year. Gaither recalled that the arrangement was never formalized, “because if it failed,” he said, “the MFA wanted to be able to get out of it.” (The MFA’s financial support to the NCAAA continues to this day.)

It all thrust the MFA, a decidedly non-radical place, into a suddenly radical moment. Chandler had taken his demands to the press, forcing Rathbone into a public response. Prompted by MFA board chair George Seybolt, a deal was struck: The MFA would host an exhibition of African American contemporary art as a gesture of good faith. But Chandler was still wary. “Dana was really emerging as an artist who was enlivened by challenge and confrontation,” Gaither said. “He was afraid that if the Museum of Fine Arts didn’t commit to a show, more or less right away, they would find a way to wiggle out of it.”

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A date was set for May of that year, 1970 — “very grudgingly,” Chandler recalls. Gaither, who had arrived in Boston just months before, was charged with curating. Given five months, it would be a short runway for any project, let alone an unprecedented one with the delicate task of balancing the anxieties of a stodgy, traditionalist institution with the desires of energized young artist-activists agitating for quick and substantial change.

It was an era in which Black culture, alongside the growing influence of the Black Panther Party, was demanding more space, and to some degree getting it: Gaither’s show would join a growing field of “Black art” exhibitions cropping up all over the United States, a critical phase in the nation’s cultural history that deserves more attention than I can offer here: A holistic overview can be found in the recent documentary “Black Art: In the Absence of Light.”

In Boston, Gaither enlisted the help of painter Barnet Rubinstein, who had been planning a small show of Black painters in New York. Together, they settled on a show that brought Black artists from the two cities together: “Afro-American Artists: Boston and New York” opened in May 1970, an immediate hit. It included 30 artists, many of whom are museum world staples today: Alma Thomas, Bob Thompson, Joe Overstreet, Loïs Mailou Jones, John Wilson. In a nice bit of symmetry, Chandler’s “Fred Hampton’s Door 1,” a small painting that preceded the piece at the MFA now, was among his pieces included (it was stolen years ago and never recovered).

In his exhibition essay, Gaither called it “the largest and most concentrated” exhibition of Black American artists, ever. It was reviewed broadly. It had context and lineage, both analyzing and establishing the history of Black art in America through the common threads of self-possession and resistance.

On May 24, 1970, The Boston Globe reported on an exhibit in the Museum of Fine Arts featuring works by 70 African American artists. At top left, curator E. Barry Gaither, and at top right, Elma Lewis, director of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, museum director Perry Rathbone, stage producer Bill Wilson, and his ballerina wife, Sonja Van Beers. At bottom left is Dana Chandler’s artwork “Bobby Seale, Prisoner of War.”
On May 24, 1970, The Boston Globe reported on an exhibit in the Museum of Fine Arts featuring works by 70 African American artists. At top left, curator E. Barry Gaither, and at top right, Elma Lewis, director of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, museum director Perry Rathbone, stage producer Bill Wilson, and his ballerina wife, Sonja Van Beers. At bottom left is Dana Chandler’s artwork “Bobby Seale, Prisoner of War.” Boston Globe Archive

The MFA could have owned the success of that exhibition, proudly promoting itself as an agent of change. It didn’t then, and even now no trace of the show can be found on the museum’s website. None of Chandler’s proposal was adopted; I was struck by the fact that I was hearing about all of this for the first time. Without the museum putting Chandler’s work on view this summer, maybe I never would have heard about it at all.

Gaither characterized the 1970 show as a starting point; he would spotlight other Black artists at the MFA. Chandler, meanwhile, would establish the African American Masters Artists-in-Residency Program at Northeastern University in 1974. But in time, the mainstream museum world return to its mean of canonized art history and academically sanctioned contemporary art, the vast majority of it by white men.

“Fred Hampton’s Door 2” is a critically important piece in the history of art in Boston, an emblem of a cultural moment in the city long since faded away. Why did it fade? Because institutions with resources to preserve and promote its memory chose not to.

Chandler’s experience speaks to that. “There had been a history of the MFA not treating the legacy of Dana’s work with, I believe, all the respect that it deserved,” Munsell said. “It took the MFA basically 50 years to acquire a major work by him.”

Chandler’s work being here at all is, finally, testament to an institution now open to admitting its long-ago shortcomings and invested in making amends. (On the collections page for “Fred Hampton’s Door 2,” the museum says that “Equity and representation for Black artists, staff, and other museum stakeholders still remains an urgent and unsolved issue fifty years later.”)

Chandler, of course, has been making work all those years in between — much of it bright and figurative, celebrating Black culture and frequently critical of white hegemony.

It begs a question: “I started out with pieces at the MFA 51 years ago,” Chandler said. “And I’m thrilled with this acquisition, I really am. But what happened in the interim? What took so long?”


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