June 28, 2019 - May 17, 2020
National Portrait Gallery
“One Life: Marian Anderson” shifts the attention from Anderson’s historic 1939 performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to underexplored moments in the contralto’s career. The exhibition examines the ways artists, concert promoters and others wielded her iconic likeness as a powerful symbol in the pursuit of civil rights. The paintings, photographs, personal effects, and archival materials provide a more nuanced understanding of how Anderson’s many roles, as singer, diplomat, and muse, helped shatter segregationist policies on and off the stage. Leslie Ureña, the National Portrait Gallery’s associate curator of photographs, is the curator of the exhibition.
Smithsonian Music spoke with Dr. Ureña about the upcoming exhibition.
How did this project get started?
I started working at the Portrait Gallery in 2016, and as I was thinking of exhibitions, I thought of our One Life gallery, which is a space devoted to one person, in which you have the opportunity to delve into their life and career. I was intrigued by the concept of examining highlights in a person’s biography, and how one could approach other compelling topics through one individual’s story. In my graduate research I had focused on how constructions of race have impacted different art forms, specifically photographic representations. In looking at our collection, and thinking of how to combine my research interests and the Portrait Gallery’s mission, Marian Anderson rose to the top of my list.
Much of what I knew about Anderson before starting my research was about her 1939 Lincoln Memorial performance. She had been denied the right to sing by the DAR [Daughters of the American Revolution] at Constitution Hall, and I learned, also by the DC Public Schools. However, it seemed clear that there was more to her story than this. We have several objects in the NPG’s collection, including two paintings, one of which references the ’39 performance, and several photographs from throughout her life. I also looked across the Smithsonian’s collections, which are also rich, and include the outfit she wore at the 1939 Lincoln Memorial performance, held by NMAAHC, and one of her mink coats, held by the Anacostia Community Museum. As I researched more and more, I came across a treasure trove at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. They have her papers, including programs and letters, as well as artworks.
As I delved into the archives, I started looking into how she was depicted in photographs and paintings, and in visual culture, including advertisements and magazine covers. How do you portray someone of her stature, and also the history that went along with her? She became a symbol of the civil rights movement, but she was also not overtly referencing the movement at every moment. I wanted to explore this tension further.
I’d like to talk a little bit about that, actually. I saw when I was doing my preliminary research that she actually said several times that she didn’t see herself as an action figure. It sounded like she didn’t want to be a Civil Rights Movement leader, and yet she was. She was a huge figure.
There’s this tension with her. She gave her voice, not to make too much of a pun here, to the cause by performing at, for instance, the March on Washington in 1963. Throughout her life she also navigated and worked against segregationist policies. She gives her name to different initiatives along the way; however, she did not necessarily organize things herself.
That tension has fueled my research, because how do you live as a person who’s a symbol, yet at the same time not entirely embrace an overt role?
Would you say the events in 1939 made her more open to an active role?
Up to that point, she had of course experienced discrimination, yet ’39 attracted national attention. Howard University, the NAACP, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, were all involved after the DAR refused her the stage. At the end of the concert itself, as she explained in her autobiography, she was overwhelmed. Throughout her career, she was also always reminded of the concert. As she later noted, Constitution Hall was then “opened to other performers of my group. There is no longer an issue, and that is good.” She was grateful to those who had taken a stand, but also focused on the act of singing. Again, she knew she had played a role, and continued to play one, but she always brought the attention back to the music itself. In retirement, however, as was reported in the Chicago Defender, Anderson would “[take] a more active role […]”
Her career as a vocalist was built on sound. Will there be an audio component to the exhibition?
We are including a kiosk, with a selection of video and audio clips from various performances from 1939 and onwards. One of the clips will also include Anderson at home, on her farm in Danbury, Connecticut.
In terms of the objects, we will include photographs, paintings, magazines, and a few concert programs and announcements, ranging from when she was a toddler to several years before her death.
What is the most interesting thing you have found while preparing for the exhibition?
I go back to the tension between the symbol and the individual and getting to know a person through their archive. She was of course a performer, training for hours a day and touring worldwide, and an icon. Going through her papers, however, has revealed the human dimension to it all, as well as the way she influenced not only classical music and the civil rights movement, but also diplomacy and the arts. She had her farm and her cats, she and her husband exchanged silly greeting cards, she loved to cook and sew, and she was even an amateur photographer. In many of the letters she exchanged with her family, one can also see she was caring for them, not only financially, but also emotionally. She did this, and all the while she was also a delegate to the United Nations, and much more. Seeing beyond the stage persona has therefore been fascinating.
What do you hope audiences will take away from the exhibition?
I hope that people will take into account her musical training and the influence her life has exerted on American history, beyond 1939. There were so many limitations imposed upon her, and she still trained and performed in Europe, and by the late 1930s was a star. How did people react to her other barrier-breaking moments? How did she effect change? How can we see performance differently based on her history?
If visitors come to see "One Life: Marian Anderson," are there any other exhibitions around the Smithsonian that they should make time to see that you think would complement this exhibition?
Well they should definitely go see Anderson’s outfit at NMAAHC, which will be on view through July 2020. We also have many objects across the Institution that are accessible through our website. I would also suggest visiting different places where she performed here in DC, including Constitution Hall and the Lincoln Memorial. At the Department of the Interior, one can also visit a mural commemorating the 1939 Lincoln Memorial performance.
Is there anything else we haven’t talked about that we should know?
In part, the exhibition started with looking at photographs of the audience and seeing how segregation worked there. So how do we tease that history out, through the objects and through talking about Anderson, all the while weaving her influence on the performing arts and American history more broadly.
One Life: Marian Anderson will be on display at the National Portrait Gallery from June 28, 2019–May 17, 2020. This exhibition is also part of the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative, “Because of Her Story” and the Smithsonian’s Year of Music.
“One Life: Marian Anderson” has been made possible by the Guenther and Siewchin Yong Sommer Endowment Fund. The project also received support from the National Portrait Gallery’s Women’s Initiative Leadership Committee including Capital One and the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative. Additional support for the interactive kiosk was provided by the Smithsonian Women’s Committee.
This interview was conducted and edited for clarity by Kate Duffus Stein, on behalf of Smithsonian Music.