Computer screen with people on a group call
Zoom screenshot of Black Arts Movement School Modality conceived by Romi Crawford, 2021.

New School: Romi Crawford Shares the Black Arts Movement School Modality with the Next Generation

The Terra Foundation provided funding for the Black Arts Movement School Modality through the foundation’s initiative Art Design Chicago, aimed at elevating the multiplicity of voices that have been central to the city’s artistic identity and cultural history. Jennifer Siegenthaler, Terra Foundation Program Director, Chicago Grants and Initiatives, spoke with BAM School Modality creator Romi Crawford about her work.

Over the course of two weeks in August 2021, an intergenerational group of students, artists, and scholars from across the United States and around the world met over Zoom to learn about the Black Arts Movement (BAM) from a group of creatives who were central to its flowering in Chicago during the 1960 and ‘70s. A nationwide movement led by Black artists and intellectuals, BAM called for creative expression reflecting pride in Black history and culture to awaken Black consciousness and assert liberation.

The course, dubbed the Black Arts Movement School Modality by its creator Romi Crawford, Professor of Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, explored ideas and knowledge structures that emerged from the movement in Chicago. Participants considered concepts as collaboration, experimentation, and improvisation, and learned about the influence of Festac ’77, a major pan-African cultural festival that drew several Chicago-based artists to Lagos, Nigeria, in 1977. The artists shared firsthand accounts of their experiences, formal processes, and social commitments, and suggested assignments and prompts for participants’ artmaking.

All in their 70s, 80s, or 90s, the artists also performed and incorporated artmaking, movement, and music into their lessons. For example, renowned dancer and choreographer Darlene Blackburn offered dance classes, and Art Ensemble of Chicago member, Roscoe Mitchell, played selections of his musical experiments.

In describing her goals for BAM School Modality Crawford said, “The idea of ‘school’ was an important and recurring motif for BAM artists who organized free institutes, workshops, and other teaching and learning experiences in tandem with their artmaking. I wanted to capture the weight of this impulse that was so central to the movement, and to create space for the artists to teach what they know, because universities have not made room for them for systemic reasons.”

Twelve BAM practitioners served as the core faculty:

Crawford enlisted additional faculty members who joined her in helping to frame and scaffold the experience for students:

  • Sampada Aranke (Assistant Professor, Department of Art History, Theory, Criticism, SAIC)
  • Romi Crawford (Professor and Chair of Visual and Critical Studies, SAIC)
  • Theaster Gates (Artist; Professor, Dept of Visual Arts and the College, University of Chicago)
  • Stefano Harney (Professor of Transversal Aesthetics at KHM, Academy of Media Arts Cologne)
  • Fred Moten (Professor, Dept of Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, NYU)
  • Krista Thompson (Mary Jane Crowe Professor of Art History, Northwestern University)

Crawford has a personal connection to the course topic. She grew up in Chicago surrounded by artists who were affiliated with BAM, notably her father, photographer Bob Crawford (1939–2015), and today is widely recognized for her scholarship examining race and ethnicity through the lens of American visual culture, including her writings on BAM (particularly on the movement’s iconic Chicago mural the Wall of Respect) *. Crawford is committed to what she describes as “socially inflected and service-oriented art history” and to “reaching people who may not have had opportunities to study in traditional institutions or be familiar with or comfortable going to art museums.” She created BAM School Modality with those ideas in mind—as an independent project operating outside of college and university structures and free for all participants.

In recruiting participants, Crawford reached across and beyond institutional boundaries, enlisting both unaffiliated individuals and college and university students from around the United States and abroad—from Nigeria, China, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Their institutions included Chicago State University, Howard University, Morehouse College, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Spelman College, Stanford University, University of Chicago, University of Oxford, University of Toronto, and Yale University.

“One of my goals,” Crawford said, “was to create a rare opportunity for an eclectic group of students, including those not enrolled in universities, to learn alongside one another.”

An important outcome of the course is that participants, who now refer to themselves as the “BAM Fam,” want to continue meeting and learning together. In the spirit of BAM’s tenet of generosity, Crawford and fellow BAM School Modality facilitator Fred Moten are underwrote free Saturday morning dance classes for the BAM Fam and others that will be taught by Blackburn this fall.

Crawford conceived of BAM School Modality as a pilot with subsequent regional iterations in mind. She is in discussions about offering similar courses focusing on BAM practitioners working in New York, Los Angeles, and other cities.

Central to the project’s appeal is that it enabled a remarkably diverse group of students to learn about a pivotal movement in art history directly from the shapers of that movement, and to reflect together on its agency and relevance today. The program offers a creative and inclusive model, and it’s heartening to know that the BAM Fam will live on and may continue to grow through future iterations.

BAM School Modality was supported through the Terra Foundation’s Art Design Chicago Convening Grants program. To apply or learn more, please see the grant guidelines.

*Notes: Crawford’s books referenced in the article are Fleeting Monuments for the Wall of Respect edited by Romi Crawford (2021, University of Minnesota Press) and The Wall of Respect: Public Art and Black Liberation in 1960s Chicago coauthored by Abdul Alkalimat, Rebecca Zorach, and Romi Crawford (2017, Northwestern University Press).

The two publications, along with BAM School Modality, were supported with grants from the Terra Foundation for American Art as part of its initiative Art Design Chicago.