For 10 years, the artist Paul Rucker obsessively collects artifacts that factually illustrate the systemic racism that underlies American society, perpetuating racial inequality to the present day.
Today he is the recipient of a $2 million grant from the Mellon Foundation and the Art for Justice Fund, and plans to use the money to open a multidisciplinary arts space and lending library in Richmond, Virginia to house, exhibit and share this archive. Called To advanceit is expected to open in fall 2024.
“It’s an interpretive arts center operating at the intersection of art, artifacts and history,” Rucker told Artnet News. “And it’s a work of art that I want to have a life of its own.”
In addition to exhibiting artifacts, Cary Forward will also give artists the opportunity to create works responding to difficult materials, such as Ku Klux Klan robes, lynching postcards mailed to commemorate the public murder of black men and all kinds of trinkets depicting black people. like garish caricatures.
There’s even the vintage interior of a 1930s bank that Rucker reassembled for a traveling project, Banking all in black. Rucker uses the interactive display as an educational tool about Black Wall Street, the thriving community that once existed in Tulsaas well as similarly nicknamed communities in Richmond and Durham, North Carolina.
The work premiered in Tempe, Arizona this spring and will travel to Baltimore next year. “You need an 18-wheeler to haul it,” he said. “Oh wow, does it cost much to move it now!”
In total, Rucker estimates that Cary Forward will house over 20,000 objects. (The collection has grown at the incredible rate of around 2,000 artifacts per year.)
“I’m always on the lookout for things — at estate sales, thrift stores, garage sales and online auctions,” Rucker said. He believes he is amassing archives that fill gaps in the holdings of our nation’s major museums, which have traditionally focused on documenting a more “positive” account of United States history.
The ever-growing archive will become a lending library. Additionally, there will be a live work studio for an artist or scholar-in-residence program and a for-profit cafe to help fund the operation.
The name Cary Forward comes from Cary Street, where the facility will be located. (It’s not far from Richmond’s old Black Wall Street neighborhood or the James River that once carried enslaved Africans through the city.)
“It’s about passing on information, but it’s also about making the Cary name your own,” Rucker said. The street is named after Archibald Cary, a Confederate supporter and slave owner whose daughter, Constance Cary Harrison, is credited with sewing one of the first Confederate battle flags.
The artist, who is also an assistant professor and iCubed researcher at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, purchased the two-story building for the project two years ago. He carried out piecemeal repairs and renovations — fixing the roof for leaks and other necessities — but didn’t have the money to cover a full renovation.
Grant money will now begin to make this work possible, but Rucker estimates he will need an additional $3 million to get the operation started. It is seeking nonprofit status and ask for donations.
For now, Rucker leads the fledgling organization with an assistant, contractors and rotating VCU positions. The long-term plan is to have a team of about six people, including a development officer, archivists, an administrative assistant and a janitor.
Rucker — whose last job at the museum was as a janitor at the Seattle Art Museum — will serve as founding executive director, but eventually plans to hire someone for the role, to focus on his art practice.
Cary Forward’s mission, of course, is deeply connected to the art that Rucker has made from the beginning, investigating the legacy of slavery in the United States and how that history came to be in our socio-political moment. current.
The work is also educational, resurrecting horrific incidents of racial violence such as red summerwhich saw race riots and massacres in 38 cities in 1919. These events became the basis of The Rucker Show 2019 of the same name at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, with newspaper clippings and lynching postcards from the time.
“These are things we didn’t know about growing up as kids,” Rucker said. “My mom wanted to stop me from finding out about Emmett Till, even though we all need to know about Emmett Till.”
Rucker is a source of racial history, speaking off the cuff about largely forgotten incidents like the 1898 coup in Wilmington, North Carolina, which saw white supremacists violently overthrow the locally elected government of black businesses and their white political allies.
“A lot of people say Jan. 6 is an anomaly, but it’s happened a lot in our country,” Rucker said. “There’s a whole story of black communities being destroyed, burned, and that’s just not part of the narrative. Elections canceled by mobs are also not new. The Wilmington coup of 1898 is an example where election results were not held due to mob violence.
The Cary Forward Archive aims to expand that historical record — even if it might ruffle some feathers — by showcasing artifacts and documents that tell stories of racial struggle that might otherwise pass from living memory.
“The current governor of Virginia ran to abolish teaching critical race theory,” Rucker said. “For some people, critical race theory is everything that makes white people feel bad about themselves. But whenever I have a conversation about race, I stick to facts and history.
In our age of trigger warnings, Rucker knows the artifacts he’s collected will be hard to watch. (York College of Pennsylvania closed its traveling exhibition “Rewindto the public in 2017, due to concern over visitor reaction to historical images of lynchings and the artist colorful dresses of the Ku Klux Klan following recent white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia.)
But Rucker thinks the ugliness of these objects largely illustrates why our nation is the way it is, the underlying factors that have given rise to socioeconomic inequalities along racial lines and the mass incarceration of African Americans.
“As a society, we pretend to be better than we are – or have ever been,” he said.
And yet, Cary Forward is a celebration of the African-American community and its perseverance, despite all it’s been through since the first enslaved men and women were brought here against their will in 1619.
“This center is not just going to talk about terror, it’s not just going to talk about lynching,” Rucker said. “He will also talk about resilience. I have original photographs by Frederick Douglass and WEB DuBois that are autographed. I have photos of the 369th Infantry of the Harlem Hellfighters from World War I.
Rucker wants to remember and celebrate the vibrant black communities that have existed throughout American history, not just the fact that so many of them have been destroyed by racially motivated violence.
“I learn something new every week, an amazing or a horrible story,” he said. “We need to know more about these things and they need to be part of the conversation if we’re going to talk about repair.”
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