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Arts & Culture

Live Active Cultures

Orlando’s balance of old and new: 20th-century canvases and a world-premiere play just a few hundred yards apart.

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Orlando hasn’t an ancient history like European capitals, nor the avant-garde innovation of some American metropolises. But our city’s balance between old and new is itself often inspiring. Case in point: Last Saturday at Loch Haven Park, I enjoyed crucial canvases from the last century and the world premiere of a brand-new play, all within a few hundred yards of each other.

The city-owned Mennello Museum of American Art is among Orlando’s smallest museums, but it has some very big friends. As an affiliate of Washington, D.C.’s famed Smithsonian Institution, the Mennello receives touring exhibitions such as the current African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era and Beyond. But not every affiliate is visited by Virginia Mecklenburg, senior curator of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, who recently led a fascinating tour of the exhibit she assembled.

Mecklenburg’s relationship with the Mennello began more than a decade ago, when the late Marilyn Mennello loaned pieces from her folk art collection to a Smithsonian show. Mecklenburg has been collaborating with Mennello curator Frank Holt (whom she calls a “brilliant visual genius”) ever since, and praises Holt’s installation of the show. Originally exhibited on neutral backgrounds, the art hangs here on bold red and green walls, lending it “a different, powerful energy,” Mecklenburg says.

More sampler than comprehensive survey, the show features 43 African-American artists’ works, made between the 1920s and early 1990s. With no single unifying theme, Mecklenburg says they represent “multiple people with multiple voices” rather than a “single chorus all singing to the same score,” though some common ideas evolve and repeat throughout.

More than 50 patrons crowded the Mennello’s intimate galleries for Mecklenburg’s talk last Saturday, as she illuminated hidden details within a handful of the exhibit’s 90-plus works. Here are some of Mecklenburg’s insights to consider while exploring the exhibit, which ends its Orlando run April 28:

James VanDerZee’s portrait photos captured middle-class Harlem residents amid wealth and sophistication; the prominent telephone in one was the Gilded Age equivalent of flashing an iPhone.

During the Depression, the Works Progress Administration gave Robert McNeill gas money and some film. In only six weeks, he captured heartbreakingly heroic images of idled laborers for the book The Negro in Virginia.

Jacob Lawrence, best known for his 60-panel series on the Great Migration, was shocked into painting “Bar & Grill,” which depicts a watering hole wall dividing white drinkers from blacks, after witnessing New Orleans’ Jim Crow segregation; note which side got the ceiling fan.

Abstract painter (and Georgia O’Keeffe’s favorite conservator) Felrath Hines declared, “There is no such thing as black art – just art.” The skewed black square in his “Red Stripe With Green Background” resembles an unruly kid “sticking out his tongue.”

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