MoMA Celebrates Linda Goode Bryant’s JAM
In 1974, Linda Goode Bryant left her position as an arts educator at the Studio Museum in Harlem to open a small 5th floor gallery on West 57th Street focusing on Black and underrepresented artists. Just Above Midtown, or JAM as it became known, is now an establishment of lore, highlighted in the blockbuster traveling show Soul of a Nation that debuted at the Tate and widely acknowledged for its groundbreaking experimental programming. Run on a shoestring budget, and perpetually in debt, JAM was evicted from each of its three locations over 14 years – something well covered in a current MoMA exhibition and perhaps implied in its title Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces. The show almost joyfully presents this act of defiance and survival as part of Goode Bryant’s rebellious, anti-authority nature, even including a full wall plastered with delinquency and debt notices.
That Goode Bryant is conflicted about the institutional interest in JAM, and the market forces that may be behind it, is reflected in her interview “Can JAM be JAM at MoMA?” with current Studio Museum Director Thelma Golden, included in the catalogue. Here, she emphasizes that her gallery was actually not created in response or opposition to existing white institutions. Rather, “JAM was an autonomous Black space because it was about our ideas, our visions, our creativity, the things we made, the things we felt, the relationships we created that supported us as individuals and collectively.” This spirit is conveyed in the feel of the exhibition and the palpable sense of community conveyed through documentary material as well as interviews and quotes from those involved.
The compact and lively presentation includes excellent works by artists who exhibited at JAM, including the now-famous: Dawoud Bey, David Hammons, Norman Lewis, Howardena Pindell, and Lorna Simpson. As Lowery Stokes Sims, an early JAM volunteer who went on to curate at the MET for almost 30 years, notes in the catalogue, “JAM was a no-holds-barred, rule-breaking experiment in highlighting the work of artists who, at the time, wouldn’t have gotten any recognition from either a conservative art world or an advanced art world. It spawned many of their careers so that they could go on to become superstars.”
Press coverage of a Black gallery was so rare in the mid-1970s, that one MoMA wall label acknowledges Arts Magazine for reviewing JAM’s 1976 exhibition In Recognition – a show that was conceived to “recognize” eight diverse women artists whom the contemporary artworld would otherwise overlook. Including works on paper and small constructions by Barbara Chase-Riboud, Shelley Farkas, Suzanne Jackson, Valerie Maynard, Senga Nengudi, Pindell, Betye Saar, and Wendy Wilson. Barbara Cavaliere’s review in Arts Magazine touched on contributions by each artist, including a work in the MoMA’s current exhibition, Jackson’s drawing, Talk (1976). Jackson ran her own experimental arts space in Los Angeles between 1968-1970 which served as a precedent to JAM, and her piece depicting two figures blending into each other while in face-to-face conversation highlights her belief in art’s ability to further social progress.
While it’s understandable why Goode Bryant might be hesitant to see JAM at MoMA, it’s hard not to be impressed by this important exhibition and the window it gives into a pioneering woman, her experimental approach to the artworld, and the community of artists she fostered. When art goes out into the world it becomes open to public discourse, a place where Goode Bryant – to the viewer’s benefit – finds herself now.
Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces is on view through February 18, 2023 at Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street)