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Biographical Note | A Finding Aid to the Harlem on My Mind exhibition records, 1966-2007

Harlem on My Mind exhibition records, 1966-2007

Biographical Note

Allon Schoener (b.1926) is a writer, cultural historian, consultant, and organizer of exhibitions that focus on topics such as African Americans, Italian Americans, Jewish Americans, and the history of the Lower East Side. His best known exhibition was the highly controversial show "Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America." A graduate of Yale University, he currently lives in Los Angeles.
"Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America 1900-1968" was a 1969 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art organized by Allon Schoener. The exhibition documented life in Harlem through the use of photographs, film and audio recordings. It was created under the directorship of Thomas Hoving and contributed to the exhibition model commonly known as the "blockbuster" show.
At the time, the exhibition was much reviled, having received harsh criticism from critics, politicians, and the public alike. The initial spark was an essay in the accompanying book by 17-year-old Harlem high school student Candice Van Ellison. The essay contained prejudicial remarks about members of the Jewish, Irish and Puerto Rican communities. The book was quickly removed from the Museum and pulled from bookshelves by the publisher.
Additional criticism focused on several key issues, including the exhibition's multimedia platform; the lack of paintings and sculptures, particularly by African-American artists; and a thematic presentation that used documentary techniques that focused on sociological and cultural issues. Such criticism was compounded by the Harlem Cultural Council's withdrawal of support.
Schoener wrote that the objective of the exhibition was to "demonstrate that the black community in Harlem is a major cultural environment with enormous strength and potential? that this community has made major contributions to the mainstream of American culture in music, theater and literature." The exhibition documented Harlem from its beginnings in the early 20th century as a prosperous white neighborhood, through the influx of southern African-Americans, up to the civil rights movements of the late 1960s.
After the original exhibition ended, Schoener spent the next several decades working intermittently on re-creations of the exhibition, some of which failed to see fruition. Others succeeded, culminating as shows at Columbia University and the I. P. Stanback Museum. Schoener participated in numerous panel discussions, events and conferences, including the Schomburg Center and Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM).
His book, Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, was reissued after a prolonged struggle to obtain the rights from its original publisher. Editions were published in 1979, 1995 and 2007, with forewords by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and U.S. Congressman Charles B. Rangel.