Oakland exhibit shows social movement through posters
on November 16, 2010
Michael Rossman had a thing for posters. He liked them so much, in fact, that he amassed 23,500 progressive social movement posters throughout his life as a free speech activist who also dabbled in arts, politics and science. Rossman, who lived in Berkeley, died after a short battle with cancer in 2008, but his legacy will live on through his mammoth collection—the Oakland Museum of California recently acquired it, and will be displaying it in a variety of ways over the next several years.
The posters range in scope from arty, colorful Andy Warhols to politically motivated drawings of Iranians struggling for independence in 1978. Some were made for a very specific purpose, like advertising the opening of local poetry readings or museum exhibitions. Others are national, even global in scale, such as David Lance Goines’ 1991 poster of a faceless man holding a skull. The text reads: No War. There are a number of political posters from 1960s and 70s California, including a Jerry Brown campaign poster from his first run for governor. Next to an image of the young Brown, it says: “The only used car you can buy from this man is his own.”
Lincoln Cushing, a poster artist and archivist who was a longtime friend of Rossman’s, will be working with the museum to display the collection. As the first step in the museum’s five-year plan to make the entire enormous collection public, Cushing is helping to create an online catalog with information on each poster. Cushing is a poster artist himself, and many samples of his work made their way into Rossman’s possession over the years.
“Michael realized pretty early on that posters were a great way to teach about the social movements of the 1960s and 70s,” says Cushing. “In 1977, he had a very small collection, and he asked an art historian friend about who else was collecting posters. Michael’s friend told him, ‘No one else is doing this.’ So, Michael kind of took it upon himself to start gathering them.”
Decades later, what Rossman ended up with is a collection titled “All of Us or None”—the most extensive of its kind. The collection contains posters representing almost every social movement in the U.S. from the 1960s to the 1990s. The theme, Cushing said, is oppositional culture, or any group or cause that raged the conventional. “There are a lot of posters about drug culture, leather bars, veganism, Black Panther posters, opposition to the Vietnam War,” said Cushing. “The central theme is, ‘We’re not normal Americans.’ America is broad and deep, and these posters reveal an eclecticism and variety of thought.”
According to Cushing, it was very important to Rossman that the collection not be split up after he died. Rene de Guzman, the Oakland Museum curator who spearheaded the acquisition effort, cited that as one of the reasons the museum was a strong contender in the eyes of Rossman’s family.
“The family wanted the collection to be kept as a single unit and they didn’t want it to broken up into bits and pieces. They also wanted to keep it in Northern California, where Michael was from,” said de Guzman. “They wanted to make sure this collection was made publically accessible. So, we drew up a proposal of how we’d display it, and they agreed to donate it to us.”
Michael Rossman’s family will be donating the collection to the museum in pieces over the course of five years. The plans for its display are extensive: First, the Oakland Museum is in the process of putting the entire collection online for maximum exposure. Museum staff hope to have a first installment of 1,500 posters up by spring, 2011; in five years, the entire collection will be online. The site will feature an interactive element so that the public can chime in with new information about the posters, or any history that might be relevant. “We’re very excited about marrying community collaboration with social media,” said de Guzman. “It will make for a rich, lively site.”
Plans for an exhibit at the museum are also in the works, and de Guzman is currently deciding how best to display the posters. In January, he’ll start things off with a series of lectures, poster-making workshops and other poster-related events to get the word out on the museum’s newest treasure. “The public is going to get sick of hearing about these posters,” de Guzman said. “But that’s OK—it really is a very valuable collection, a very important historical document.”
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