Just Above Midtown Was a Haven for Black Artists

A new exhibition spotlights the gallery that championed Black avant-garde art in the 1970s and ’80s

Senga Nengudi performing Air Propo at Just Above Midtown in 1981
Senga Nengudi performing Air Propo at Just Above Midtown in 1981 Courtesy of Senga Nengudi and Lévy Gorvy

During the 1970s and ’80s, ignored by the predominantly white New York art world, Black artists debuted groundbreaking sculptures, abstract paintings and performances in exhibitions at Just Above Midtown (JAM). Founded by artist and social activist Linda Goode Bryant, the gallery—visited by the likes of Stevie Wonder and Miles Davis—became a beacon of Black creativity and a laboratory for artistic innovation.

This fall, JAM will become the subject of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Curated by Thomas (T.) Jean Lax, “Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces” will showcase materials from JAM’s archives, as well as art presented at the gallery’s three locations during its 12-year run.

JAM opened in 1974 on 50 West 57th Street in an area already deluged by white art dealers. It rarely made “major sales,” but it “acted as a crucial node within an ecosystem of Black artists,” wrote ARTnews’ Alex Greenberger last year.

Linda Goode Bryant and Janet Olivia Henry at Just Above Midtown in 1974
Linda Goode Bryant and Janet Olivia Henry at Just Above Midtown in 1974 Photograph by Camille Billops / Courtesy the Hatch-Billops Collection, New York

Instead, the philosophy of JAM was to create “an artist-driven institution,” per the New York Times Aruna D’Souza, rather than a commercial space. That freedom is what made the gallery so compelling for artists. As photographer Lorna Simpson tells the Times, working in an “unapologetically Black” environment gave her “license to dream my own work.”

Looking back, Goode Bryant credits the community’s “innate ability to use what we have to create what we need,” per MoMA’s website. The gallery, particularly before becoming a nonprofit, operated without much funding; the exhibition will even include old unpaid bills and collection notices.

Despite financial hardship, JAM never compromised on its commitment to its artists’ imaginations. “Invitations were free-form and open-ended, driven by artists’ intellectual curiosities instead of market demands,” writes the Times. What resulted from this artist-first mission was some of the most notable avant-garde art of the 20th century.

Janet Olivia Henry’​​​​​​​s The Studio Visit, 1983
Janet Olivia Henry’s The Studio Visit, 1983 Courtesy of the artist

One such example is Lorraine O’Grady’s performances as “Mlle Bourgeoise Noire,” a persona the artist would adopt. This character, per ARTnews, was “a fictional beauty queen who crashed art-world receptions and opined about the state of Black art.” Many remember when O’Grady appeared in character at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in 1981, but she actually debuted the performance at JAM one year earlier.

In 1980, due to a rent hike, the gallery left its home above Midtown. It moved to TriBeCa and then to SoHo before getting evicted from its final space in 1986. After JAM shuttered, Goode Bryant went on to become a documentary filmmaker and a founder of the urban farm organization Project EATS.

Goode Bryant had no intention of reviving JAM for an exhibition—and certainly not at MoMA, she tells the Times. While the museum was only four blocks from JAM’s West 57th Street location in the ’70s, MoMA was “yet a universe away.”

Randy Williams’ L’art abstrait, 1977
Randy Williams’ L’art abstrait, 1977 Courtesy of the artist / Photo by Mark Liflander

To mirror JAM’s “improvisational, process-oriented approach,” the museum will host performances, screenings and other public programs alongside the exhibition, per the Times. For example, in January, former JAM artists will discuss the artistic and social impact of the gallery in response to Goode Bryant’s prompt: “What do you carry with you from JAM?”

In a similar spirit, the exhibition will also showcase art at locations outside the museum.

“I loved the idea that people could look out their window and engage the work on their own terms, whenever and however they wanted,” Goode Bryant tells the Times, “without setting foot in MoMA.”

Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces” will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City from October 9, 2022 to February 18, 2023.

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