Summary and Keywords
The Midwestern United States is home to several major public museum collections of Haitian art. These collections were established within a short period between the late 1960s and early 1970s. Similarities between the contents of these collections and their formations point to particular dynamics of visual-art production in Haiti and cross-cultural interactions in which works of Haitian art were collected abroad. This examination of particular collection histories of two Midwestern U.S. museums, both in Iowa, demonstrates shifting cultural narratives that have contributed to generalized definitions of “Haitian Art.” Considering the dearth of Haitian-American communities in the state and its far-flung geography, the fact that so many works by Haitian artists reside in the Midwest may appear to be a curious occurrence. However, these collections arose from individual bequests from local collectors who began acquiring Haitian art during the second “Golden Age” of Haitian tourism in the 1960s and 1970s. North American travelers who visited Haiti at this time sustained a market for Haiti’s artists and helped maintain international interest in Haitian visual culture. The common characteristics of these two collections—in the cities of Davenport and Waterloo—and the history of their development speak volumes about cultural intersections between Haiti and the United States, especially in relation to the effects of tourism and international travel on the production, circulation, and reception of Haitian art. More broadly, these histories exemplify wide-ranging shifts in North–South relations in the late 20th century.
In the United States, Iowa is home to two of the largest public collections of Haitian art in the country, one in Davenport at the Figge Museum of Art and the other about 130 miles away in Waterloo at the Waterloo Center for the Arts. Considering both distance and regional context, the Midwest’s relationship to Haitian art may seem incongruous. Almost 2,000 miles separate Haiti from the region, and the largest enclaves of the Haitian diaspora reside in major urban centers like Miami, New York, Boston, Montreal, and Chicago. Additionally, stereotypes of the region as provincial and culturally unsophisticated accompany the Midwest’s reputation and add to the intrigue surrounding the seemingly uncharacteristic presence of Haitian art in regional museums. In order to better understand such seemingly random cultural linkages between Haiti and Iowa, we must examine the routes and circuits through which art objects in these collections have traveled, the individuals who facilitated such movements, and the distances, both physical and conceptual, between artists’ studios in Haiti and museum context in the American Midwest.
For audiences in the United States, the word “Haiti” often accompanies news headlines focusing on one of the country’s many crises: political instability, mass migration, natural disaster, poverty. The focus on Haiti’s many challenges of the past decades obscures the fact that in several key periods in the 20th century the country attracted a steady stream of “First World” visitors. With Haiti only a short plane ride away from the United States, travelers were drawn not only to Haiti’s tropical climate and the many upscale hotel accommodations of the time, but also to the country’s cultural offerings, which included a thriving environment of visual art production. A cottage industry producing paintings, sculptures, and handicrafts greeted tourists, journalists, academics, researchers, and other visitors. Some of these souvenir-ready items could be easily dismissed as cheap, mass-produced “tourist art,” but a great many of them reflected an originality and creative quality that emerged within the supportive context of the “Haitian Renaissance.” Haitian visual arts struck many of these art-buying travelers to such a degree that they would make many return visits to Haiti, amassing enough work that would eventually make up collections of art back in the United States. The cross-cultural interactions of these traveling collectors can be framed through a study of the art objects they collected and their interactions with Haitian artists and arts institutions. Focusing on individual case studies reveals broader trends in the international reception of Haitian art and how collections in Iowa and elsewhere were established.
Beginning in Davenport, whose Figge Museum of Art is the earliest established public and permanent collection of Haitian art in the United States, this examination of collection histories will shed light on how global, regional, and individual contexts and circumstances contributed to Haitian art’s presence in Iowa and its reception abroad. In addition, these collection histories highlight connections among collectors, artists, and other active participants in the circulation of Haitian in the period of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The second example considers the origins and development of the Waterloo Center for the Arts’ Haitian collection and demonstrates one institution’s efforts to connect Haitian art objects with local audiences. Both case studies also underscore histories of engagement between the United States and Haiti, as well as issues that museums have grappled with concerning their Haitian art collections and the shifting circumstances of art production in Haiti.
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