MS. REBECCA SHEIR
As Paul Tetreault points out, art can be a challenging thing. It can make us think outside our own box, you know, see a new perspective, perhaps even make us change our minds. Well, up next we'll visit a visual art exhibit that offers its own challenges. All the works in the exhibit come from Donald and Mera Rubell, who've made it a practice to spend a quarter of their income on art.
MR. DONALD RUBELL
And we consider a quarter to be a very good controlled number and sometimes it become -- it's worse than that.
Piece by piece, the Rubell's have amassed one of the largest private art collections in the world. They have more than 5,000 contemporary works, 76 of which are now at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in a show called, "30 Americans." Emily Friedman has more.
MS. EMILY FRIEDMAN
All of the artists in "30 Americans," are African-American, but there's a reason the Rubell's didn't point that out in the title.
This show did not exist because they were African-American artists. The show existed because their work was so exciting and so good.
Mera Rubell says it was about five years ago that they took note of a trend going on in their own collection.
MRS. MERA RUBELL
With this proportion number of these exciting artists, who were these young African-Americans, and invariably we would ask them, Well, who was your inspiring force in your work? And to our delight and surprise, many of those artists were already in our collection.
After realizing they were in possession of a huge web of interconnecting artistic influences, perfect material for an exhibit, they decided it would never work.
We certainly didn't want it to come across as ghetto-izing. How would that be received?
Turns out the artists were totally fine with it. To them, an all African-American show is a celebration. A celebration sure, but the work itself deals with some complex topics. Picture opening night, more than 800 people are waiting to climb the grand staircase in the Corcoran's Gallery. And if you look up the stairs, the only thing you can see is a bright glimmering noose.
MS. SARAH NEWMAN
When we put it up, we were like, oh my gosh, what have we done to make that so central?
This is Sarah Newman, the show's curator. She's talking about a sculpture called, "Duck, Duck, Noose" by Gary Simmons.
It's a haunting work, it's a chilling work. It's really hard to take, but we thought that that is a huge part of the conversation.
Newman counterbalances the piece with what you see next, Nick Cave's "Soundsuits."
They're these elaborate, ornate costumes that are meant to be worn so they refer to African ceremonial costumes and Mardi Gras costumes and they are the strangest things. They look like alien visitors that have just landed into the galleries.
These costumes bring lightness to the show that at times forces some tough questions on the viewer. Photographs by Hank Willis Thomas show a black basketball player's ankles shackled to a ball and chain, only the ball is a basketball. Another photo shows a man's head branded with the Nike swoosh. Most of the artists in the show work and live in New York, though there are a few with roots in this neck of the woods, such as D.C. native Iona Rozeal Brown.
MS. IONA ROZEAL BROWN
I am indebted to this town. My mom -- we always went to the museum. Like, we were always in the museum. I didn't know anything but the museum.
Her painting explores how hip-hop culture spread around the culture, specifically to Japan. In her painting, "Sacrifice," she draws an African-American woman sleeping on a bed of Japanese textiles and she has this gorgeous hairdo that's piled on top of her head.
And you can't get it messed up because you've paid all this money and so you, you know, you kind of have to sleep like this, you know, with your head resting on your hand.
To keep her hairstyle from getting messed up, the woman is sacrificing a good night's sleep. This is something Brown researched in geisha culture and in something she recognized in her own culture.
And I found that this was similar and I thought, well, that's really funny.
Baltimore native, Shinique Smith, has two sculptures in the show, both of which use everyday objects like jerseys, rugs and cut up linoleum flooring to get it how material goods can connect us to one another.
MS. SHINIQUE SMITH
I never experienced Jim Crow. I wasn't alive during the civil rights movement. They're not of my experience. For me to make work with that as the overt theme, I would feel inauthentic.
Smith says she's thrilled to see a show that is full-on contemporary African-American art.
I bet many people come and many school tours will come and, you know, just like when I was a kid, you know, I'm tearing up right now. I just realized that when school tours and young people come to the museum to see the show, there will be kids who have experience like me of going to the MoMa and seeing Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems...
Who are both older, black female artists.
You know, feeling like I could be in this museum and now we're together in this one. So I think it's an amazing thing.
Both for her, she says, and for the emerging artists of the next generation, I'm Emily Friedman.
30 Americans opens October 1st and runs through the middle of February. You can see some of the artwork you just heard about on our website, metroconnection.org.