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Loring Cornish and Evergreen Museum spar over cancelled show and the legacy of the March on Washington

May 7, 2013
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CornishOn May 11, the Evergreen Museum and Library of Johns Hopkins University was supposed to host an exhibition of the work of Loring Cornish (see our 2005 profile) to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, but a disagreement between Cornish and James Abbott, the museum’s curator, has led to the show being cancelled.

The impasse revolves around two pieces that Cornish wanted to include in the show: a cross and a mosaic of the word “Jew.” James Abbott has not returned City Paper’s repeated calls or responded to emails, but in an email he wrote to Cornish, it is clear that the Evergreen Museum wanted a show that dealt directly and solely with the African American experience.

The Evergreen show, which was supposed to feature 11 panels in an outdoor installation, has a long history. Cornish first presented some of the work at Morgan State University in a show that coincided with the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2008. Cornish added a number of Jewish-themed works after he went to the home of collectors Ellen and Paul Saval to pick up some pieces for the show.

Cornish explained the situation to City Paper in 2011, when a subsequent show of the same work, In Each Other’s Shoes, opened at the Jewish Museum (where Cornish was the first African American to have a solo show): “During the few hours I was there [at the Saval house], I felt like I had gained two close friends, like they were kindred spirits. Ellen had cooked a meatloaf dinner, but I had to get back home to work on the Morgan show, so she packed it up as a sandwich. As I drove home, I took one bite of that sandwich and I knew I had to include the Jewish struggle in my show. We hadn’t even talked about anything Jewish, but just being in their presence let me know that the Jewish struggle was the same as our struggle.”

photo(6)The experience changed the tenor of the show at Morgan State, which came to be titled Pre-Inaugural America: Jews and Blacks Ascending. For In Each Other’s Shoes, three years later, Cornish further expanded on the connections he saw between the Jewish and African American experiences, creating two-sided pieces like “Target/Shalom” on one side of which were photos of Martin Luther King and John and Robert Kennedy and on the other the word “Shalom.”

Cornish says that after arranging for the show at Evergreen, he spent three or four months cutting many of the pieces he created for those two exhibitions in half, eliminating all of the “Jewish” pieces but one, which he felt it was important to include.

When Abbott informed Cornish that the Evergreen Museum wished to exclude the mosaic that reads “Jew” or the cross, Cornish responded on May 3: “I disagree with your decision not to include the cross and Jew in the exhibit. Since this show is focused on the March on Washington 1963 please read these last words from the speech given by Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on that day.”……..we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty we are free at last.’  Just from these last few words alone the cross and Jew are substantiated to be included in this exhibition.  I have literally ripped my show apart to give you what you requested, however on the matter of these two works I’m strongly requesting that they are included.”

Cornish went on to write, “if you still disagree with my decision I must request a face-to-face meeting with you and your immediate supervisor and those parties who funded the show.  If all parties agree on your decision then I will have no choice but to reluctantly agree with your decision.”

Abbott responded to an intermediary that night: “With the below understood, I regret that Evergreen is going to have to bow away from exhibiting Loring’s artwork. We do not want the artist to be unhappy, while at the same time we do not want to deviate from the initially discussed and agreed upon exhibition. We are sorry that this had to happen, but the Museum cannot accommodate Loring’s wish. Again, Evergreen Museum & Library will not be exhibiting Loring’s work.”

“I want the word ‘Jew’ in the show,” Cornish explained to City Paper yesterday, “because, there used to be signs that said ‘No Jews, no Negroes, and no dogs,’ all across America. And in the show, there is a huge piece that says the word ‘Negro’ in broken plates. And so to accompany that, there is a word that says ‘Jew’ because of those signs.”

Cornish went on to say that “The Jewish people have always been in my corner as a black person and very apropos for the show.”

(Photos: Top, Cornish with the image of the cross; lower, the word “Jew” at the center of the dispute.)