While it may be human nature to categorize things, it is also human to resist labels and the constraints on identity that come with them. Hence why Henry Thaggert, noted DC art collector, confesses, “in a literal sense, I do collect art, but like a lot of younger collectors, I am uncomfortable with the label.”

by Liz Georges

Lately, however, Thaggert has been taking on a different role -- Committee Chair, heading up the group that is organizing programming and outreach in connection with the 30 Americans exhibition, which opened October 1st at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

This question of roles, identity and labels lies at the heart of 30 Americans. The exhibition, drawn from the extensive Rubell Family Collection, is a wide-ranging survey of some of the most important African-American artists of the last three decades, and explores issues of racial, sexual and historical identity in American culture. Yet even the title is a conscious rejection of the idea of labeling the works presented with any specific racial identity. Originally shown in Miami, 30 Americans has been, according to the Corcoran, “reconceived” for its presentation here.

And although Thaggert is quick to remind you that he had little to do with the decision to bring 30 Americans to the Corcoran, he is certainly involved in the “reconception” of the show. “[The Corcoran] thought it would be helpful to have input and advice from a diverse group – not just black people—a diverse group who bring different perspectives to the table about artist outreach, marketing to a broader public, and the sensitive issues that come up when dealing with an exhibition like this.” He says. Heading that committee, he says, ”is a huge honor and a huge challenge.”

It’s important to Thaggert that visitors leave 30 Americans with a new understanding of the artists. “I know nearly all these artists. I know the quality of their work. I hope 30 Americans will pull back the curtain.” He hopes that visitors will question why these artists aren’t being shown on more occasions in Washington and elsewhere. “I hope it’s revolutionary in terms of how the man on the street thinks about the placement of African American art in museums and in collections.”

During its four and a half month stay, the Corcoran’s 30 Americans programming will pay specific attention to the notion of community and its influence in art. WPA will be partnering with the Corcoran to put on Under the Influence on November 17th, a presentation where local artists discuss their own work and how it has been influenced by the work of one of the artists whose work is in the show. An open call for artists’ presentations is available on the WPA website.

And what about Henry Thaggert’s influences? Given how much we’ve been talking about the perils and limitations of labels, it’s natural that he should cite to an exhibition and catalog from the Center for African Art from 1989 called art/Artifact that explores how one labels an object as art. “It was an exhibition and catalog about how westerners transform non western utilitarian objects into art. And [the author] meticulously described and documented how that happens at a place like the Met versus a place like the Museum of Natural History, and how by changing the lighting, the labels, the vitrine you can transform these objects into masterpieces. And it speaks to our intentions as observers. It’s a book that I go back to over and over again. It’s very important.”

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October 6, 2011