Remembrances of Betty Blayton-Taylor, Studio Museum Co-Founder and Harlem Arts Activist

Posted by: Kevin Coyle

This article was curated from a post written by for Hyperallergic

I first met Betty sometime in late 2012 or early 2013. As curator of AARP New York’s first-ever art exhibition, Lasting Legacy: The Journey of YOU, I was tasked with finding artists who exemplified the campaign’s themes of discovering one’s unique talents, exploring new possibilities, and creating lasting legacies. After coming across Betty’s work and meeting her at her home, I knew I wanted her in the exhibition. She embraced me with such warmth — a local legend entrusting her work to the vision of a young, novice curator.

As part of my curatorial research, I wanted to get some insight into Betty’s background. Who was this energetic woman with a home full of art? It turned that out she was, and remains, a big deal. A native of Williamsburg, Virginia, Betty relocated to New York and graduated from Syracuse University in 1959 with a degree in fine arts. After a teaching stint on the island of St. Thomas, she moved to New York City and continued to hone her skills as an artist. It was at this time that she began to merge her interests in art and activism.

Betty became a founding member of the Studio Museum in Harlem and served on its board from 1965 to 1977. Her mission in co-founding the organization was to advance the careers of artists of African descent and to utilize institutional resources and the arts to serve the broader Harlem community.

In collaboration with Victor D’Amico, (director, department of education at the Museum of Modern Art) and Harlem School of the Arts, Betty established the Children’s Art Carnival, an arts education program designed to engage disadvantaged Harlem youth in the arts. (The program was an outgrowth of annual arts workshops held at MoMA from 1942 to 1969 under the same name.) A young Jean-Michel Basquiat was one of the Carnival’s students, and both legendary playwright and director George C. Wolfe and Afro-Caribbean dance icon Marie Brooks taught workshops there. Betty served as executive director from 1969 to 1998, and she remained heavily involved for many years thereafter. In addition, she was a co-founder and board member of Harlem Textile Works, an offshoot of the Children’s Art Carnival in 1984, which offered fabric design workshops, arts education, and job opportunities. Additionally, she served on the board of the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop.

As an artist, Betty had a productive career as a painter, printmaker, illustrator, and sculptor; her work can be seen in the public and private collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Studio Museum in Harlem, Fisk University, Spelman College, David Rockefeller, Reginald Lewis, Sidney Poitier, and more.

Despite such an illustrious career, her death went largely unnoticed by the mainstream art world, the press, and even some of the institutions and artists she helped build and elevate. Yet her impact reached across space, time, and spheres of influence. She was a groundbreaking force in helping to establish organizations that have advanced artists and communities. And she laid the foundation for much of this in the 1960s and 1970s, in an America polarized by race and gender politics.

Betty deserves to be remembered, honored, and celebrated. On November 19, a memorial service was held at SGI-USA, Culture Center and the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art & Storytelling in New York City. Her work will be included in the exhibition Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today, curated by Erin Dziedzic and Melissa Messina, which will open at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri, in June 2017. The Children’s Art Carnival is planning two exhibitions inspired by her work, and hopefully more commemorations are to come.

In the meantime, we called upon Lowery Stokes Sims, Marline A. Martin, Omo Misha, robin holder, and Thelma Golden to reminisce about Betty Blayton-Taylor: the artist, activist, friend, mentor, and all-around arts warrior.

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