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An Iconic Harlem Renaissance Frieze Is Crumbling in Brooklyn

Who will save Richmond Barthé’s Depression Era frieze from crumbling into dust? The 80-foot-long sculpture was an ambitious public art commission by the gay African American sculptor, but now public officials are reluctant to lend a helping hand.

Richmond Barthé’s frieze, which now sits in the Kingsborough Houses project in Brooklyn, is in danger of destruction (all photos by and courtesy of Michele Bogart)

Who will save Richmond Barthé’s Depression Era frieze from crumbling into dust? The 80-foot-long sculpture was an ambitious public art commission by the gay African American sculptor, who was also one of the Harlem Renaissance’s foremost artists. Designed as part of a planned amphitheater for the Harlem River Houses (a federal housing project intended for Black residents) Barthé imagined that his frieze would redefine the complex as a site of education and inspiration for its tenants. Upon the stone, he depicted Black people dancing and celebrating; he also illustrated the exodus of the Israelites.

Even in the golden age of public housing, Barthé, who died in 1989, was perhaps overly optimistic about the fate of his frieze. Unfortunately, the amphitheater was never built; instead, his works was shipped to Brooklyn’s Kingsborough Houses — a mostly white project back then — where it was installed outdoors. This was a disappointing turn of events for the artist, who had hoped to see his work installed in Harlem’s Sugar Bush neighborhood.

The Barthé frieze

Now, after weathering almost eight decades of brutal Northeastern winters, one of Barthé’s most significant works faces irreparable damage from the elements. Art historians have rallied around the frieze to spur conservation efforts to no avail; city and NYCHA (New York City Housing Authority) officials have done little to respond to their requests for action.

But Michele Bogart remains determined to salvage what remains of the Barthé frieze in Brooklyn. A former vice president of what is now the city’s Public Design Commission, Bogart has spent the last 30 years studying public art and currently teaches at Stony Brooke University. Bogart considers Barthé’s work incredibly important, both to the history of public housing in New York and to the broader African American experience in the city. The frieze is also listed as an NYC LGBT Historic Site.

In addition to Barthé’s original frieze, the wall’s opposite side also hosts a variety of community murals

Traveling to Brooklyn to see the state of Barthé’s frieze last week, Bogart was shocked by what she saw: open joints, hairline cracks, large holes, and disfigurations threatened to disintegrate whatever the ice, wind, and rain had left behind. Speaking to AMNY about the work, Bogart defined Barthé as someone who did things with sculpture that no one was even trying at the time, and he was certainly one of very few experimenting with the Black nude body. Such experimentation even got him into trouble with the city’s former kingpin planner Robert Moses who, according to Bogart, nixed the artist’s planned memorial to James Weldon Johnson at the entrance of Central Park because it included a nude figure.

View of the Barthé frieze
View of the Barthé frieze

Sadly, the question of who will conserve the Barthé frieze comes at a difficult time. Theoretically, NYCHA should oversee the work’s maintenance, but the organization is already facing an apocalyptic housing crisis that includes deteriorating infrastructure, lack of heat, and no hot water for many low-income residents.

“NYCHA would be happy to work with private donors who are interested in preserving these historic pieces of public art,” spokesperson Robin Levine told AMNY, “but the unfortunate reality is that with a $32 billion deficit, our first priority this winter must be keeping our residents safe and warm.”

Bogart recognizes the Housing Authority’s dire position, but she also notes that other city departments with experience conserving public art — like the Parks Department — are reluctant to lend their already-strained resources to work under NYCHA’s jurisdiction. Instead, she has tried to solicit action directly from city politicians like Brooklyn Borough president Eric Adams and the city’s first lady, Chirlane McCray. Responses, however, have not come.

“No public official I’ve tweet has grunted,” Bogart tells Hyperallergic. “Who is in a position to do anything? Is it even possible?”

View of damage on the frieze
View of damage on the frieze

Bogart notes the tragic irony that the Barthé frieze remains imperiled during an unprecedented art season celebrating Blackness at New York City’s top museums. There’s Jack Whitten at the Met Breuer and Charles White at MoMA. Betye Saar has a powerful exhibition at the New-York Historical Society, which joins the museum’s accompanying exhibition on the Jim Crow South. Farther uptown, curators are exploring the representation of Black models of 19th-century painters like Édouard Manet and Henri Matisse at Columbia University’s Wallach Art Gallery. And only 20 minutes from the Kingsborough Houses is the Brooklyn Museum, which is currently celebrating Black Power with its Soul of a Nation show.

Hairline fractures in the Barthé frieze
Hairline fractures in the Barthé frieze

A long-term solution for the conservation of the Barthé frieze, and other public works under NYCHA, would be the establishment of an endowment to fund future maintenance work. That’s what the Parks Department requires of any new public works constructed on its grounds.

Unfortunately, though, Bogart does not believe that the Barthé frieze has time to wait for a long-term solution. If the community does not come together to fund a conservation effort soon, she says, the stone relief is bound to fade away.

UPDATED, November 29, 2018, 2pm EDT: Swann Galleries auction house let Hyperallergic know they will be covering the cost of assessing the damage to the mural:

The gallery later elaborated, saying that it still expects that the Barthé frieze will have a costly restoration with a large amount of bureaucratic red tape. The biggest initial hurdle will be getting the connection with the Housing Authority and some entity that can take custodianship of the relief in the long term. “We hope that once that’s clarified we can help with a crowdfunding campaign and finding partners in the NYC arts world that will want to help.”

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