In the ’70s, she transformed the art world with her gallery Just Above Midtown, the subject of a new retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. But that, it turns out, was just the beginning
It’s difficult to pinpoint when Linda Goode Bryant became a farmer. If you ask her when she knew she was an artist, she’ll say always, so it’s possible she has also always been a farmer. There is an art to farming, Goode Bryant tells me as she surveys the half-acre plot of crops nestled behind a men’s shelter on Randall’s Island, a peninsula-like strip of land in New York off the coast of the Bronx where the Harlem and East rivers meet. There are tomatoes and carrots and neat rows of scallions, cabbage, parsley, and kale, all tended to carefully by a crew of urban agriculturalists. There are white irrigation tents, tall mounds of soil, and a picnic table under a tree, which serves as a makeshift office.
The farm is one of five in the city run by
Project Eats, which Goode Bryant, 73, started 14 years ago. The nonprofit develops and operates organic farms in areas where people don’t have access to—or can’t afford—fresh produce. Goode Bryant, who had been a gallerist and filmmaker, came up with the idea for Project Eats while working on a short film about the 2008 global food crisis. She’d stumbled upon footage of people in Haiti eating “mud pies”—a dried mixture of a particular kind of mineral-rich mud with honey or salt and margarine—because the cost of food, the vast majority of which had to be imported, had risen beyond their reach. She found that there were a lot of people in New York whose circumstances weren’t that different. She started Project Eats as a way for people in those communities to achieve food sovereignty, where they locally grow and distribute the food they consume.
Goode Bryant has a mantra: Use what you have to create what you need. “I think it comes from being Black at a time when we lived in communities that were isolated, segregated communities, no matter where we were in this country,” she says. It’s about a firm belief in the power of resourcefulness but also, she explains, an ethic of independence that she has lived by since she was a kid in Columbus, Ohio. Goode Bryant grew up in a historically white neighborhood filled with old Victorian and Italianate homes that was undergoing a shift, as Black families and businesses moved in and white families and businesses moved out. Racial tensions were high, but they also helped shape her sense of identity. “I’ve always had a fundamental belief that no one has power over me that I don’t give them,” she says. “Why would you let this person who knows absolutely nothing about you and couldn’t care less—why would you acknowledge them as being able to define who you are?” she says. “That’s part of freedom and power—that you do that for yourself.” I ask Goode Bryant how she understood that at such a young age. “I don’t know,” she says, “other than it didn’t make sense to do the other. Compliance doesn’t make sense to me.”
It was that impulse that led Goode Bryant in 1974 to found Just Above Midtown—or JAM, as it came to be known—an alternative art space on 57th Street, which was then the heart of Manhattan’s commercial gallery district. JAM, the subject of a retrospective this fall at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, occupies a near-mythic place in the art world. At a time when Black artists were largely marginalized by mainstream institutions and galleries, JAM provided a platform for a diverse range of talents: people like David Hammons, Senga Nengudi, Howardena Pindell, Lorraine O’Grady, Maren Hassinger, Suzanne Jackson, and Butch Morris, who made work that hammered away at preconceived notions of what art—and art made by Black artists in particular—could or should be. The exhibition, “Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces,” opens October 9 and explores JAM’s role in not just incubating a generation of groundbreaking Black conceptual artists but also redefining what an art gallery did and how one operated.
Goode Bryant staked JAM on the premise that what was considered “Black art” wasn’t a “genre” or defined by an aesthetic or subject matter. To her, it was an expression of community and experience, and she cultivated artists and collectors who bought into that value proposition. JAM didn’t have a fixed stable of artists and showed ones from both the East and West coasts. Unlike more conventional galleries, it was about not just the exhibiting and selling of art but the making of it too. For his first solo show at JAM in 1975, Hammons installed a work on the ceiling made from brown paper bags, grease, chicken bones, and hair; he refused to include any text or signage, insisting he was fine for people who entered the gallery to not see it. Nengudi’s 1977 piece R.S.V.P. was made from pantyhose filled with sand, which she manipulated in a series of performances informed by her first pregnancy.
“At the time JAM came into being, we were kind of at the tail end of the heated conversation around ‘the function of Black art,’ with some—like [the writer and poet] Amiri Baraka—strongly advocating that Black art needed to be the visual arm of the Black cultural revolution, creating positive and revolutionary images for the Black community,” says photographer Dawoud Bey, who showed at JAM early in his career. “Those artists often referenced a mythic Africa in their works. Others were arguing for freedom for Black artists that was free from the constraints of race or a racial narrative—that the role of art was largely an expressive one,” he explains. “JAM was a breath of fresh air because it broke with both of these two rigid notions and proposed that there was another way, a third or fourth way, that Black artists were pursuing.”
For artist and cinematographer Arthur Jafa, who has known Goode Bryant since the early 1980s, the gallery’s focus on conceptualism expanded his sense of what was possible: “It was like a break away from the given that Black art was always figurative or pseudo-documentary—that what Black artists did was fundamentally bound up with some sort of given reality,” Jafa says, “as if Black people couldn’t imagine the universe and we could only be in the universe.”
What set JAM apart, though, wasn’t just the gale-force talent that blew through the gallery; it was the way so many of the people connected to it seemed to view art as an exquisitely jagged, intensely personal, inherently social part of life. Goode Bryant reveled in throwing together artists who worked in different disciplines for experimental collaborations, like Hammons, the dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones, and the multimedia artist Phillip Mallory Jones, who joined forces for a series of performances at JAM in 1983. JAM had a magazine, B Culture, co-edited by Village Voice critic Greg Tate. Bey and his former wife, Candida Alvarez, got married at JAM in a wedding modeled on a Yoruba ceremony. The gallery hosted a “Brunch with JAM” series on Sundays, which connected artists and collectors, and offered a 30-week course called “The Business of Being an Artist.” A group of staffers—many of them single mothers—started a preschool together.
“Linda’s intuitive sense as a curatorial mind, as an artist herself, was very keen,” says Lorna Simpson, who had one of her first shows at JAM in 1986. “I really see her as making this genuine effort to create meaningful culture at a time when things were really open but also very shut down and segregated too—in some ways, very similar to the time that we’re in now.”
MoMA curator Thomas (T.) Jean Lax, who collaborated on “Changing Spaces” with Goode Bryant, says when they began work on the exhibition in 2018, they were searching for ways to activate what JAM stood for in the present. But as they watched the pandemic take hold and the mass mobilization of the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020, the urgency became more than apparent. “Two-plus years into the diversity, equity, and inclusion plans and workshops that have been put in place at historically white museums, there is a story about art that remains undertold,” Lax says. “JAM was a desegregated space that prioritized values that emerged from Black culture and was open to people of all racial, educational, and generational backgrounds. It was a space that celebrated the collective process out of which art emerged.”
We’re sitting on a bench in Central Park, not far from the Upper West Side apartment where Goode Bryant has lived since 1977. It’s late June, and the Supreme Court has just overturned Roe v. Wade. Goode Bryant has been thinking about how years of advancement—for women, for people of color, for a country that not long ago had its first Black president and legalized gay marriage—has been seemingly undone in the blink of an eye. “I have to say that there was never a moment that I ever thought I’d be reliving the past, and that’s what I feel right now,” she offers. “It does seem like we’re going backwards. And I just wouldn’t have imagined that was possible because of all the work that was done to go forward.”
Goode Bryant first arrived in New York in 1972, after graduating from Spelman College in Atlanta with a degree in painting. She was 23, recently separated from the father of her two young children, and searching for a way into the art world.
Back in Columbus, Goode Bryant’s own father, Floyd, was a plasterer. Her mother, Josephine, was a statistician for the Ohio State Bureau of Unemployment Compensation. The Goodes owned a duplex that they lived in with Linda and her brother, Paul, and one of Floyd’s sisters and her family. Floyd’s mother was active in the Pentecostal church and would take Linda to services.
Goode Bryant’s interest in art was evident early. When she was six, her parents enrolled her in a program at the Columbus Museum of Art. By the time she was 11, she was enthralled with Picasso. At her father’s urging, she applied and was accepted to Spelman. Atlanta was then at the center of the civil rights movement, and Goode Bryant got involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. But she had always wanted to come to New York. As a kid, she’d imagined living in one of those apartments she saw in Shirley Temple movies, with endless rooms and a river view. When she finally got to the city with her two-year-old son, Kenneth, and infant daughter, Brienin, they moved into a tiny place on West 80th Street for $275 a month, which she could barely manage.
Goode Bryant got an internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and frequently came to work wearing fatigues, with Brienin at her hip and Kenneth by her side. She eventually applied for a fellowship, which required an interview with the Met’s director, Thomas Hoving. When Hoving asked her what she wanted to get out of her time at the museum, she told him she wanted to burn it down. (She got the fellowship.)
Goode Bryant, though, soon left for a job running the education department at the Studio Museum in Harlem. It was during a trip to Chicago for a conference that she met Hammons, whose body prints she’d become enamored with at Spelman. She asked Hammons when she’d be able to see his work in New York. Hammons replied that he didn’t show in white galleries. She told him she’d have to start her own gallery then. “You do that,” he said.
Goode Bryant opened JAM in a 724-square-foot space on the fifth floor of 50 West 57th St. She leased it from one of the building’s owners, Bill Judson, who was an art collector. He gave it to her for $300 a month, which is all she said she could afford (he was asking $1,000), despite the fact that his partners thought the gallery wouldn’t last six months (JAM lasted 12 years) and she wouldn’t be able to pay the rent (she often didn’t).
Goode Bryant was still working at the Studio Museum when she started JAM with a group of other moonlighters, including Lowery Stokes Sims, the future curator of contemporary art at the Met, who would later also serve as director of the Studio Museum. “We were very hands-on,” Sims recalls. “I even got my brother, who was a contractor in San Francisco at the time, to come and do the renovation work in the space.”
There were ultimately three iterations of JAM. After Judson sold his interest in 50 West 57th St. in 1978, the gallery moved to a bigger space at 178-180 Franklin St. in TriBeCa, and when that lease wasn’t renewed, it relocated in 1985 to a building at 503 Broadway in SoHo. Goode Bryant’s vision for that final version of JAM involved extensive renovations. She wanted to build studios she could sublease, offer paid residencies for artists to create experimental work, and install a video-production facility to rent out to commercial clients. But overly ambitious landlords, combative neighbors, and Goode Bryant’s own disaffection with the art market spelled the end of JAM, which closed in 1986. “I wanted it to be a space where artists had access to everything and anything they needed—including technology,” Goode Bryant says. “I really wanted to create a space for artists to create and push beyond their recent work, which wasn’t happening, because the dominant infrastructure was all about the market by that time.”
“From the beginning, I think Linda saw that JAM was as much a laboratory space as a commercial gallery,” says Sims. “It was an alternative space plunked down in the midst of the commercial sector of the art world. It was provocative in that sense, but in retrospect that was probably the only way the artists Linda championed would have gotten the attention they did.”
Jafa believes the sea change that was ignited has yet to be fully acknowledged. “Save Jean-Michel [Basquiat], there really weren’t any Black artists in the art world, in the mainstream, but there was incredibly rich and complex Black art culture that existed independently of the mainstream,” he says. “I’ve asked people in the art world, dealers and whatnot who I love and respect, ‘How come you never had any Black artists?’ And the ones who are honest just say, ‘We just didn’t see them.’ Even though they were all around, like invisible men and women.”
In her post-JAM life, Goode Bryant turned to filmmaking. She co-directed the 2003 documentary Flag Wars with Laura Poitras, about gentrification in Goode Bryant’s old neighborhood in Columbus, where white members of the LGBTQ+ community had begun moving in and chafing with the Black residents who had been there for decades. The idea came about after Goode Bryant went home to visit her family and noticed rainbow flags and Pan-African flags on all the streets. “A Black Nationalist flag and a rainbow flag are these symbols of pride, a celebration of community,” says Poitras, “but were clearly being used as sort of more around the marking of territory.”
Goode Bryant and Poitras were interested in looking at how two communities that have both experienced discrimination in society at large were able (or unable) to coexist. They ended up working on the film for four years. “Neither of us had made a feature film before and naively thought that we could do this quickly,” says Poitras. “For me, it was completely transformative. It’s how I learned filmmaking—full stop.”
Goode Bryant has grand ambitions for Project Eats. She wants to replicate its work in other parts of the country and the world. (She only half-jokingly refers to the plan as “Eighty in Haiti”: for Project Eats to have farms in Haiti by her 80th birthday.)
Last year, she also made a return to the art world. For “Social Works,” a group exhibition at the Chelsea outpost of Gagosian gallery in New York, she collaborated with architect Elizabeth Diller on an installation called Are we really that different?, which included an operational indoor farm. “She was like, ‘I really want to make this artwork. I’ve been thinking about this artwork for about a decade and I really need to just get some ideas out,’” says the show’s curator, Antwaun Sargent. “It ended up being this installation of a hanging communal garden with a projection of sort of four decades of her being in community with artists. And you can take away the food as a gesture and so the artwork becomes a part of you,” Sargent explains. “In some ways, it was about allowing Linda space in a traditional gallery setting when she’s had to previously give others space,” he says. “With Linda’s work, what she’s trying to do is really sort of bring us together. The artistic gesture is community, and so I wanted to honor that.”
Project Eats has been called a form of mutual aid or activism. It has also been described as a “living installation”—a kind of social sculpture in the mode of the German artist Joseph Beuys that exposes inequities and political constructs. In some ways, it’s both. Senga Nengudi, who has a standing phone call with Goode Bryant every Sunday, says that all of Goode Bryant’s activities are connected. “If you’re a visual artist and you’re in your studio, then you’re doing that, but when you combine it with other things, then these sparks begin to happen,” Nengudi says. “Linda shifts the lens and says, ‘Okay, let’s look at this another way.’ ”
Jafa says Goode Bryant’s worldview feels deeply rooted in the art of the Black diaspora, which often had to be made in ever-shifting contexts, and out of necessity, using whatever materials were on hand. “Nam June Paik had the best quote: ‘The culture that’s going to survive in the future is the culture that you can carry around in your head,’ ” he says. “And if you look at African American cultural expressivity, it’s such a demonstration of that.”
The week before we spoke, Goode Bryant gave a talk at the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture in Maine. She asked the audience to take three seconds to identify the dominant shape in the room. “We’re typically inside a space, and the dominant shape is a rectangle because we live in man-made environments that are rectangular for the most part,” she says. “And why? There are so many other shapes.” She gestures at the bench where we’re stationed. “It’s got rectangles up the yin-yang. But I probably wouldn’t create it with rectangles. I would do it some other way,” she says. “And I’ve just always been that way.”
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