Black Art—Ancestral Legacy: The African Impulse in African-American Art: An Interview with Jean Lacy
"Art Breakthrough: African-American exhibit is a triumph for city," read the caption of an editorial in the Dallas Morning News on December 5, 1989. Black Art-Ancestral Legacy was described as a "courageous effort on the part of the Dallas Museum of Art to make a statement on the tradition of black art in the U.S. and the Caribbean." The writer advised that the exhibition was one to be shared and enjoyed by "all members of the Dallas community" as well as a national audience through venues in Atlanta, Milwaukee, and Richmond, Virginia. It was a "gift to the nation" of which "Dallas should be proud." Curated by Alvia Wardlaw, Dallas Museum of Art Adjunct Curator of African-American Art, along with Assistant Chief Curator Maureen McKenna, the exhibition fulfilled its intention (stated in the catalog's foreword) to celebrate the "richness and diversity of American art and culture through the exploration of the connections between 20th-century African American artists and their African heritage." A number of prominent scholars contributed essays to the landmark catalog, and Museum Director Rick Brettell supplied an enthusiastic preface that reflected his wholehearted support for the project. A work by Dallas artist Jean Lacy was chosen for the catalog cover.
Lacy, an important part of the Dallas community and the Museum for decades, has participated in the Museum's docent and Go van Gogh® programs and served on Board committees on membership and collections. In January 2001, she took part in an oral history interview for the Dallas Museum of Art Archives. Excerpts from the interview follow:
Schatzie Lee: Jean, what brought you to Dallas?
Jean Lacy: Marriage to a young Methodist minister who went to Perkins School of Theology [at Southern Methodist University] ... in the 1950s.
SL: Do you remember the first time you visited the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts out in Fair Park?
JL: Marjorie Curry–then Marjorie Power–took me to the Museum and introduced me to Benetta Brudno, Head of Education, . . . a true liberal [who] wanted to have the Museum reach out to the black community.
SL: You were involved in the docent program, and that's the context in which you and I first became friends. Was Merrill Rueppel the director at that time?
JL: He was the director. After moving to Dallas from Los Angeles I was emotionally drained, unable to cope with the move. I didn't want to be here. Betty Brudno hired me as a part-time docent to conduct school tours. I believe I was probably the first African American docent at the Museum. I was not prepared to take this on at that time and decided not to continue. Then, in 1974, [DISD educator and DMFA trustee] Yvonne Ewell said, "Jean, I want you to come to lunch with me and the new director, Harry Parker, and not be defeated emotionally again."
SL: In 1974, Michael Kan from the Brooklyn Museum was the Eugene McDermott Visiting Curator who put together the African Art of the Dogan show.
JL: Harry Parker asked my former husband and me to organize several volunteers from the African American community to join the Museum's docents in giving tours of the African Art of the Dogan exhibition. Two of the docents touring the Dogan show were able to volunteer for the regular docent program. Again, it was not the kind of success that we needed. Harry gave this fantastic reception at the Museum and nobody showed up. Only a few of the volunteer docents attended the reception. I cried ,"Oh God, back to the drawing board."
SL: There was the fabulous Black Art—Ancestral Legacy exhibition that Alvia Wardlaw curated. You had two paintings in this exhibit, Welcome to My Ghetto Land and Little Egypt Condo/ New York City.
JL: [Little Egypt] became a cover design. Bob [Rozelle, Director of Publications and editor of the exhibition catalog] called me in and said, "Jean, your piece invites people to come in to see the exhibition." They could have picked so many people—John Biggers [for example]! This exhibit is important for me; this is really the introduction of me as an artist to the Dallas community.
SL: _Little Egypt Condo/New York City—_how did you come to that idea?
JL: This girlfriend of mine suggested [we] take a trip to New York and see what was happening in the museums and everything.There [in New York] is a wonderful renovated art deco building with .. . Egyptian details. It actually wasn't until I got back home that I decided to do this mixed-media collage piece—an ironic piece. What I've literally done is to bring our people back, Egyptian or whatever ... to reclaim this tenement. And on the side, that's Bacchus with his grinning face and there's graffiti. That just brings to mind all of the stuff that goes on in New York and went on during the [Harlem] Renaissance.
SL: Can you think of any particular works in the Dallas Museum of Art that influenced your work as an artist?
JL: [Curator of Ancient and South Asian Art] Anne Bromberg's expertise and her specialty in the ancient world, particularly Greek art, has influenced me an awful lot.
SL: In her show Seeing God, your work was right at the front.
JL: Yes, they had me welcoming again. I'm very proud of being [in the Museum's permanent collection]. I also want to say about those docents—we all became relatively close, and when Anne became Director of Education, we couldn't wait for her to have trainings over at her house. The woman can cook.
Schatzie Lee, “Black Art—Ancestral Legacy: The African Impulse in African-American Art: An Interview with Jean Lacy,” in Dallas Museum of Art, 100 Years, ed. Dorothy M. Kosinski (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 2003), Pamphlet number 66.