June 19, 2020

Today the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art and Cornell University commemorate Juneteenth, the American holiday of independence and freedom. June 19 marks the day in 1865—155 years ago—when enslaved African American individuals in Galveston Bay, Texas, were liberated. 

Juneteenth is an occasion to think about how the scourge of slavery impacts our present day, as our country confronts its history of racism and oppression. As tens of thousands of people across every major city, and in smaller ones like Ithaca, peacefully protest for racial justice and equality for Black individuals, families, and communities, we too are imagining new futures and considering the role we can play in creating a more equitable society.

There are things we at the Johnson Museum commit to doing immediately, and in the coming months and years:

  • teach with Museum collections in support of antiracist curricula at Cornell University and in our public schools;
  • strengthen partnerships with Black organizations on campus and in our local community;
  • mentor Cornell students to work alongside staff as we critically examine museum practice and challenge historical gaps in assembling, interpreting, exhibiting, and conserving works of art;
  • acknowledge the colonial histories embedded in objects and the routes they traveled and promote new research in the historic arts of Africa and the Indigenous Americas; and
  • actively invite multiple perspectives in our decision-making and build a diverse staff.

As we celebrate the cultural achievements of Black Americans, I invite you to learn more about related work currently underway through our photography initiative with Cornell Library. In my first year as director at the Johnson Museum, I continue to learn about the collections in our care, even now at a distance. I invite you to explore, along with me, our significant collection of works on paper by Black luminary artists on eMuseum. These include Henry Ossawa Tanner, Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence, Margaret T. Burroughs, Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, Emma Amos, Thornton Dial, Sr., Joseph Norman, Joyce J. Scott, Renée Stout, Faith Ringgold, Willie Cole, Sam Gilliam, John Wilson, Alison Saar, Kara Walker, Kerry James Marshall, Julie Mehretu, Rozeal, Kehinde Wiley, Laylah Ali, among others.

I am eager for the day when we can safely reopen our doors, and pore over these stunning works of art together in person, one at a time. Looking closely at these works is one step toward opening up conversation about the Black experience and the role of art in activism, in healing, and importantly, in raising difficult questions that might bring us closer together. I understand that I will never understand the Black experience, but I commit to work, listen, and show up.

Jessica Levin Martinez
The Richard J. Schwartz Director