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  • Writer's pictureKaitlyn B. Jones

The De Luxe Show of 1971: An Exhibition for the (Black) Elite

Opening Day of the "De Luxe Show" in 1971. Courtesy Menil Archives, the Menil Collection, Houston, Texas.

Opening Day

Three Black women stand in the foreground of a greyscale photograph, staring inquisitively at a wall to their left, off camera. The woman on the right of the trio lifts her chin as if to get a better look at the top of an art piece that hangs on the wall before her. The woman at the center of the group stands with her arms folded across her chest, her right pointer finger coming up to sit in between her front teeth, as if to help deepen her thought process. Her eyes follow the same path as the first woman’s, but her brow furrows as she tries to make sense of the artwork. The third woman stands on the far left, closest to the wall, but instead of looking at the art, her eyes lock onto the first woman, her face frozen in an all too familiar expression that reminds me of my mother when she has decided she’s had enough of the current situation. I can almost hear the words that drawled out of her mouth after the camera lens flashed: “Y'all ready to go?”.

All three women wear skirt sets that stop just above their knees, and although the photograph does not reveal their feet, it can be assumed that they are wearing heels. A layered strand of pearls adorn the neck of the woman whose lifted chin ironically gives us the opportunity to appreciate the gemstones. In the background of the photograph, a racially integrated group of people disperse throughout a small art gallery, conversing and walking between self-selected groupings of two to five people. Some groups choose to huddle near the entryway situated on the upper left hand side of the photograph, while others decide that being closer to the art displayed on the surrounding walls proved more intriguing.  In the furthest right corner of the gallery, a group gathers around a display plinth showcasing a small sculpture. Four Black children, appearing to be boys of middle-school age, congregate near the center of the photo. They are among the youngest people in the room and their loafers, belts and polo shirts tucked into their 70s era striped pants are indicative of caregivers who made it clear they were not attending this event to roughhouse.

Scattered throughout the room stood adult men, Black and white, dressed in two piece suits and ties, in conversation with other adult men and women dressed to the same caliber. In some groupings, men dressed more casually, sporting stereotypically 70s patterned button downs and bell bottom pants. On the far right of the photo, a man walks along the wall, nearly brushing against one of the largest works of art in the gallery, a collection of multi-colored, 50 inch, hexagon-shaped canvases. His baseball cap, tennis shoes, dark pants and white undershirt provide a stark contrast to the attire present throughout the rest of the room. The strolling man carries a large sack on his back, transporting mystery items to an unknown destination.

I suppose this diverse array of attendees is what the curator of this art exhibition, Peter Bradley, intended in 1971 when he envisioned The De Luxe Show in the heart of Fifth Ward Houston, Texas. And certainly Bradley’s accomplishment of curating one of the first racially integrated art shows in the United States proved to be revolutionary for an already racially charged America. But perhaps this photograph, taken on the opening day of The DuLuxe Show, is one of the most telling pieces of evidence regarding who actually attended the show in contrast to who the exhibition was intended for.

This essay is not a direct criticism of the The De Luxe Show’s content, nor is it meant to disregard the historical achievements of Peter Bradley with the sponsorship of the de Menil family. But I humbly and fervently offer my analysis of the elitism, classism, racism, and saviorism that exists among the undercurrents of this exhibition and its inception.

Socio-Political Context

In the 1940s and 50s, a fragment of Post World War II political discourse revolved around “downtown renewal” and the development of “Model Cities” across the United States (The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, 2011). The Federal Housing act of 1954 subsidized funding for public housing in urban areas across the country. Inner city residents could apply for a federal funding program which allowed them subsidies on a percentage of their rent if they met certain income requirements. Although the government had funded the construction of public housing developments, it left the cost of the building upkeep to its new residents.

While American city planners assumed that public housing population trends would favor an increase in inner city wealth, the massive "white flight" movement of wealthy urban white residents to the suburbs meant that those who could afford to pay a price for rent that covered regular building maintenance were no longer occupying public housing units. Rent costs increased in an effort to close the financial gap and suddenly public housing became unaffordable without more government assistance.

In Houston, Texas, one of its largest public housing developments, Kelley Village, was situated at the heart of Fifth Ward, a section of inner city Houston denoted by government-backed redlining. For decades, Fifth Ward thrived as one of the most affluent Black neighborhoods in Houston, bustling with Black-owned businesses, churches, schools, and a community rich in history and culture until 1957, when the construction of Interstate 10 and US 59 intercepted the neighborhood, destroyed hundreds of homes, and submerged the area underneath two major highways. Black residents who were displaced due to highway construction began overcrowding housing units with multiple families at once. Increased rent and overcrowding led to minimal resources, which led to a rise in crime and police presence. By the 1970s, the once prominent Black neighborhood of Fifth Ward was now nicknamed “The Bloody Nickel”. As similar ripple effects occurred across the country and the quality of neighborhoods decreased in low-income, Black-majority areas, white suburban residents began associating crime, danger, and poverty with Blackness.

Black Art

Around the same time, in New York City, another discourse ensued. In 1969, The Black Emergency Cultural Coalition formed in response to Harlem on My Mind, an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that centered Black life and culture in Harlem, New York but excluded the contributions of Black artists from the Harlem community. Two years later, in 1971, the Coalition backed a protest against the Whitney Museum for their exhibition, Contemporary Black Artists in America. Protests were directed towards the museum’s misconstrued idea of “Black Art”. The Black Arts Movement, which began in 1965, was led by Black writers, poets, musicians, and artists who emerged in tandem with the Black Power Movement. As a result of the Black Arts Movement, the “Black Aesthetic” was established. Artists and writers who centered Black life and culture in their work fit the bill for a Black Aesthetic that became the assumed point of reference from which all Black creation emerges. However, some Black artists in modernist and contemporary visual art practices wanted their artwork to be judged for its aesthetic quality rather than its narrative and proximity to the Black or African-American experiences. Ideas about what can and should be considered “Black Art” emerged as opposing opinions: Is Black Art considered “Black” only if it speaks to the socio-political oppression of the Black diaspora? Or is Black Art “Black” simply because it is created by a Black artist?

Peter Bradley, one of seventy-five artists slated to participate in Contemporary Black Artists in America, withdrew his work in protest of the Whitney Museum. He, along with fourteen other Black artists who withdrew, preferred that their work speak to the latter question.

Some American History

In response to the protests at the Whitney Museum, Dominique and John de Menil, a prominent french couple who collected art in the Houston area, sponsored a show in February of 1971 at the Institute for the Arts at Rice University. This show, curated by white multimedia artist Larry Rivers, fell flat in its efforts to be progressive. Rivers’ artwork, which made up 41 of the 49 pieces chosen for the exhibition, showboated themes of Black death spectacle, Black diasporic racist stereotypes, and the Transatlantic slave trade. River’s intention behind creating work that depicted lynching, slave auctions, and the hypersexualization of Black women was presumptuously meant to parallel the efforts of John Brown, a white abolishionist executed by the United States government in 1859 for inciting a slave rebellion in Virginia (Childs, 10-11).

Charles Childs, the author of the opening essay in the Some American History exhibition catalog, praises Larry Rivers for his “sympathetic and constructive work [...] ready to correct the record and reveal the truth about history, [and] compliment black aspirations” (Childs, 10). Ironically, Childs admits that Rivers is indeed “trespassing into the boundaries of black life”, but not before he sings more praises about the accuracy of his depictions (Childs, 11).

What Childs, the de Menils, and Rivers failed to recognize are the obvious parallels between Rivers’ art as a result of his assumed proximity to Blackness and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s fetishization of a perceived idea of Blackness as exhibited in Harlem on My Mind. The remaining 8 pieces of art included in Some American History featured work by six Black artists, including Peter Bradley, who had started to become a favorite of the de Menils as an artist with a “keen eye [...] and an understanding that doesn’t mean compromise” (de Menil, 1).

John and Dominique de Menil during the exhibition Humble Treasures at the University of St. Thomas, Houston, October 1965. Photo: Hickey-Robertson, Houston. Courtesy Menil Archives, the Menil Collection, Houston, Texas.

Much to the chagrin of Larry Rivers and the de Menils, Some American History received national criticism for its failed attempt at a progressive exhibition. Renowned Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes wrote that Some American History had the potential to be either “propaganda, radical chic [...] or simply an art show” (Greenberger). Black artists who participated in the show and some who worked directly with Rivers complained about the lack of proper credit for their contributions to the exhibition.

Without a doubt, the de Menil's next artistic investment was directly influenced by the backlash received for Some American History. On July 7th, 1971, the de Menils received a letter from Ronald Hobbs, a prominent African-American literary agent based in New York, who suggested the de Menils consider a “minor, yet effective exhibition, right in the heart of the Black Houston community” (Hobbs). Hobbs felt that if the de Menils could commission a local Houston artist to create a work of art in memory of children murdered by police brutality, or in honor of a prominent community leader, that it would incite community pride and dignity towards artistic achievement.

The de Menils considered Hobbs’ proposal, but instead of soliciting a local Houston artist, they contacted Peter Bradley, a permanent resident of New York, to curate what would be The De Luxe Show. John de Menil wrote back to Ronald Hobbs, expressing that “a show by black local artists would have been a pacifier [to the community] because [their work is] mediocre to bad” (de Menil). de Menil notes that the work curated for The De Luxe Show will be created by “good artists of the younger generation; black, white and brown all together”, a decision made by Peter Bradley of his own free will (de Menil).

Peter Bradley

In the 1970s, Peter Bradley’s work as a modernist painter and sculptor was heavily influenced by abstract artist Jules Olitski and engulfed in the ideas of the Color Field movement, an artistic practice that focused on color abstraction and expressionism. Bradley’s strong opinions about the Black Arts Movement proved promising to the de Menils. His personal opinion on what he considered “good” art heavily influenced the artists that he selected for The De Luxe Show

Peter Bradley in 1971. Courtesy of the artist.

In late July of 1971, Peter Bradley wrote a letter to eighteen artists who he believed were qualified to participate in the show. His qualifications were simple, yet rigid. In an interview with Simon Swan, a dear friend of the de Menils and owner of Withers Swan, the public relations company responsible for the publishing and distribution of The De Luxe Show catalog, Bradley states, “The De Luxe Show marks the very first time that good black artists share the attention [...] with good white artists. All the artists in the show certainly have paid their dues” (The De Luxe Show, 67). When Simone asks for clarity on Bradley’s definition of the word “dues”, he replies, “Living in poverty. Wondering where the next penny will come from to buy paint, let alone food. [...] As for the blacks, this is the first generation of serious black painters in America” (The De Luxe Show, 67).

Bradley raved at the opportunity to curate his own show--a show that would give him the “freedom to [...] select what [he considers] to be valid” (The De Luxe Show, 69). To him, “good” art was neat, clean, and unobstructed by Black political stances. “Bad” art felt primitive--a product of Black ethnic indoctrination. Bradley emphasizes that “no black artist of any worth [would] allow his work to be shown in an all black situation, even in an all black neighborhood” (The De Luxe Show, 68) . Bradley had the authority to grant local Black artists the opportunity to show their work as opposed to curating work from outside the Fifth Ward community, but he decided against it. The de Menil’s support of the exhibition and influential presence in the world-wide art community provided promising connections for anyone participating in the show. Bradley failed to recognize the unprecedented power he was granted to make “all Black situations” appealing rather than detrimental to a Black artist’s career.

The Black Elite

A 1971 memorandum, approved by Peter Bradley himself, advertised that The De Luxe Show would occur “without any involvement with the local black art establishment” (Withers Swan). In this instance, the word local references those who do not meet the standards of the supposed Black elite. But the elite is only defined by what it is not. 

In the Black community, there exists a large gap between the upper socioeconomic middle class and the lower socioeconomic class. More often than not, this gap is widened by access to higher education. The “underclass”, those who are categorized as having low socioeconomic status, can be defined as those who did not receive an education higher than a high school diploma, those unable to obtain or maintain steady employment, and most notably, those who are unable to assimilate into the white supremacist construct of what is considered “presentable” or “socially acceptable”.

Black people who are able to assimilate into white spaces understand that in order to achieve success in America, they needed to distance themselves from any mannerisms, attire, occupations, or vernacular that could assumably categorize them among the Black underclass. In the art world, Peter Bradley’s chosen way of doing so is by distancing himself as far away from the stereotypical Black aesthetic as possible. This is not to say that Bradley’s options and artistic practices are invalid, but rather offer insight into a potential underlying cause for his utter disdain for any art that suggests proximity to Blackness or the Black experience.

Texas Southern University (TSU) professor Jefferee James, acclaimed writer Steve Cannon, and Houston activist Mickey Leland, were among the “elite” Black people acceptable enough to collaborate with Peter Bradley on the production of The De Luxe Show. All three men, having received university degrees and achieved notable success in their respective fields, were quickly approved as worthy of contributing to a show produced by the affluent de Menil family.

Jeffree James, with ties to the collegiate community, provided a connection between The De Luxe Show and the youngest members of the Black elite as he oversaw public relations efforts among Black-owned news outlets. Steve Cannon, a published author, scholar and good friend of Peter Bradley was selected to write the opening remarks for The De Luxe Show’s exhibition catalog. George Thomas "Mickey" Leland, known for his outspoken political stance against white supremacy in South Africa and his advocacy against homelessness in the Houston community, seemed the perfect fit for the type of Houstonian

The de Menils and Peter Bradley were interested in connecting with. Leland, whose office was located just a five minute drive away from The De Luxe Theater, decided upon the site for which Peter Bradley’s art show would take place.

The De Luxe Theater, a premier movie theater in Fifth Ward, Houston, Texas, opened in 1941 for Black community members who could not attend the “whites only” theaters elsewhere in town. The De Luxe quickly became the most popular location on the historic Lyons Avenue, and thrived so abundantly that it was nicknamed the “Cotton Club of the South". In 1964 when the Civil Rights Act was passed and movie theaters became racially integrated, the De Luxe Theater saw a drastic decline in business. Black Fifth Ward residents, no longer forced to patronize businesses that served only Black communities, sought assimilation into a new type of patronage; one alongside the people who once ostracized them. In 1969, The De Luxe Theater closed its doors and the Houston climate catalyzed its structural decay, leaving it tattered and abandoned, a dilapidated shell of the glorious cultural site it once was. 

In 1971, When Mickey Leland offered The De Luxe Theater as the site for Peter Bradley’s exhibition, Bradley became ecstatic at the audacity of the run-down location as a juxtaposition to the art that would be on display. The de Menils hired a Black contracting firm, Jones and Bynum, to oversee the renovations. Per Peter Bradley’s instructions, only the inside of the building would be renovated so that the outside could “preserve its historical relevance to the Fifth Ward community” (Black Press Service, 1971). If preserving historical relevance was truly Peter Bradley’s intention, he would have asked for the entire De Luxe Theater to be restored. Instead, he valued the contrast of the withered remnants of the building against his pristine art exhibition more than he valued the community that would still be on Lyons Avenue after he returned to New York City.

Installation view of “The De Luxe Show,” 1971, at the De Luxe Theater, Houston, Texas. Courtesy Menil Archives, the Menil Collection, Houston, Texas.

The Code Switch

The most interesting note on Peter Bradlley’s character is how he prides himself as the curator of The De Luxe Show. The way he speaks of his role to white audiences is not the same manner in which he speaks to his Black peers behind closed doors, when he is most comfortable. Though acclaimed for his stark views on modernism and color theory, one cannot ever forget that in America, Peter Bradley is Black before he is anything else.

Throughout generations of Black genocide and systemic oppression, a survival mechanism among Black and African-American communities has become as innate as breathing. “Code-switching”, or altering one’s personality to assimilate into a particular group at a certain time, is a learned response to white supremacist social constructs as a means to aid the comfortability of white people. Prolonged code-switching is emotionally draining and can lead to increased depression and anxiety among Black people who regularly inhabit predominantly white spaces. Within these spaces, however, exists a sub-category of elite Blackness that is only accessible by those who have proven experts at code-switching and assimilation into white America’s construct of the model minority.

Deep in the Menil Foundation’s Collection Archives exists a 161 page manuscript recounting the creation of The De Luxe Show through Peter Bradley’s Black, elitist lens. Steve Cannon, who was specifically instructed by Bradley to write the opening remarks for the exhibition catalog without reference to the show’s political and historical relevance, details conversations and interactions leading to the opening of the exhibition in American Notes/A Matter of Taste: An Art Exhibition in Houston. In his manuscript, Cannon recounts conversations with Peter Bradley where Bradley boasts about denying Black artists the opportunity to show work at The De Luxe Show because their work that exhibits Black aesthetics are “late” in comparison to his forward thinking color field aesthetic (Cannon, 4). 

During The De Luxe Show publicity interviews with Simone Swan, Peter Bradley is composed and ready with witty and articulate answers to her questions. But in American Notes/A Matter of Taste, Steve Cannon recounts Bradley as arrogant and gleefully aware of the privilege his association with the de Menils grants him. Their conversations are flippant but brotherly, letting slurs roll off their tongues with ease and rearranging word tenses as one does when they are fluent in African American Vernacular English. There’s even a moment where Steve Cannon recalls Peter Bradley talking in a “low, on-the-lookout for cops voice” when he called to solidify travel details to Houston (Cannon, 8). This call, occurring from the Perls Gallery in New York City where Peter Bradley worked, was carefully scripted so as not to give away evidence that Bradley was taking a personal long-distance call on the boss’ dime.

Evidence of Peter Bradley’s code-switching capabilities is not shocking to those of us who have mastered its necessary skill. But his bootstrap mentality towards artists who have yet to “pay their dues” and his unchanging attitude towards the underclass is detrimental to the reality of Black life in Fifth Ward, Houston.

Framing Fifth Ward

In 1971, Fifth Ward was a fertile ground for Black nationalism and Black pride. On August 21st, 1971, the day before the opening of The De Luxe Show, Voice of Hope, a local Black-owned newspaper that carried an ad for the art exhibition ran the headline: “Black job applicants denied at MacGregor Park” (Voice of Hope, 1971). This news about MacGregor Park, a popular public tennis facility, rang through Black communities during the peak of professional tennis player Arthur Ashe’s career. At the time the paper was published, Ashe had become the first Black player ever selected for the United States Davis Cup team and had won two Grand Slam singles titles at the Australian Open. This headline, almost dystopian against the printed ad for The De Luxe Show, is a reminder that a single art show cannot counteract the systemic oppression that Black Houston residents faced and are still facing today.

Marketing and Publicity

Much to Peter Bradley’s wishes, The De Luxe Show was not solely marketed as a racially integrated show. In fact, Peter Bradley’s intended audience for the show were Black children ages 7 to 12 because he believed they hadn’t yet had the opportunity to be “indoctrinated by bad [ethnic] art” (The De Luxe Show, 69). But despite his intention, The De Luxe Show received its most notable tagline from Clement Greenberg, a renowned visual art critic, friend of the de Menils, and new fan of Peter Bradley. Greenberg’s support of the exhibition boosted the show’s credibility to the art world. In an interview with Simone Swan, Greenberg notes that “sophisticated art [was] being brought to presumably unsophisticated tastes” and recalled that art had been brought to “poor neighborhoods before. But not hard contemporary art. And with such an entire absence of condescension” (The De Luxe Show, 65).

Flyer for the historic De Luxe Show (1971). Courtesy of Menil Archives, The Menil Collection, Houston, Texas

And so “hard art” became the show’s cornerstone. The words “hard art” were on every piece of publication. Posters, press releases, newspaper headlines, and even bumper stickers emphasized “Hard Art at The De Luxe Show”. But the lack of condescension that Greenberg claimed was present in Fifth Ward is actually a direct reflection of his own privilege and ignorance as a temporary visitor in a community that he doesn’t even know. In the same interview, Greenberg boasts that the presence of “hard art” brought new life to the neighborhood. But more likely than not, he mistook appeased childhood boredom for enthusiasm and interest in visual art.

The summer of 1971 was probably the most active summer that Fifth Ward neighborhood children had seen in years. The children could not have been drawn to The De Luxe Theatre for “hard art” because the context of the word “hard” on all publication text is vague and esoteric. Although news of the show spread quickly throughout the Houston community,  none of the marketing materials distributed ever mention Bradley’s specific intent for The De Luxe Show to be an artistic engagement for children. The contracting team renovated the building’s air conditioning unit, hoping to draw audiences inside from the Texas summer heat. Additionally and somewhat randomly, the show marketed movie screenings in addition to the visual art exhibition. During an academic presentation on his book, 1971, A Year in the Life of Color, Dr. Darby English makes an assumption that the films screened during The De Luxe Show’s exhibition dates were most likely there to “attract audiences to The De Luxe Theater and then maybe, if they felt like it, they would walk into the next room and see the art” (Darby). Still, despite Greenberg’s recollection of the excited and joyful energy buzzing in and around The De Luxe Theater during its last minute 18-day renovation, marketing efforts of The De Luxe Show continued to paint the Fifth Ward as a decrepit community in need of saving.

The official Withers Swan press release advertised the exhibition as occurring in “Houston’s ‘bucket-o-blood’ section of Fifth Ward” (Withers Swan). A Texas Observer article noted that The De Luxe Theater is located in “one of the seediest and most rundown areas of Houston” and Dominique de Menil herself expresses that the show “makes art available and easily visible to people [...] who would probably feel uncomfortable with ‘institutional formality’” (Butterfield). Even Jefferee James offered a press release to the Black Press Service that praised the show for “accomplishing true urban renewal” (Black Press Service, 1971).

Art as a Community Revitalizer

Art as a community revitalizer is not an original concept, nor is the desire for art to be accessible to all communities. However, the problem ensues when those who attempt to introduce art operate under the assumption that those who are not familiar with art within an institutional context require saving. Art museums and galleries have a reputation of only being accessible to the white upper class population. Peter Bradley most likely assumed that because The De Luxe Show was curated and coordinated by a mostly Black team that its presence would be readily welcomed into the Fifth Ward community. Bradley’s intentions were to help inspire the Black community of Fifth Ward to elevate to the elite caliber of an art enthusiast simply by allowing them to view art he defined as worthy of display.

The De Luxe Show itself was highly accessible to audiences, with free entry and daily viewing schedules that extended past regular work hours and didn’t overlap with church on Sundays. However, there were no exhibition guides, no gallery tags, no artist talks, and no docents present throughout its exhibition. The audience was simply meant to interpret the art as they saw it without preparation or context. This method of displaying artwork is ironically concurrent with the current gallery practices at the Menil Collection, a museum in Houston, Texas founded in 1987 and dedicated to displaying the vast collection of artwork and relics of colonialism owned by the de Menil family. However, this method of display further isolates those who are not familiar with viewing or interpreting art.

Viewing art is not equivalent to connecting with and understanding it. For some Fifth Ward residents, The De Luxe Show may have been just as exciting as a trip to the grocery store, or simply an excuse to get out of the Texas heat for a few moments.

The De Luxe Theater in 1971. Courtesy Menil Archives, the Menil Collection, Houston, Texas.

Community Programming

One of the only efforts to truly involve the Fifth Ward community in The De Luxe Show was the arrangement for Wheatley High School Students and Alumnae to visit the exhibition during their annual reunion, “Wheatley Day”. Phyllis Wheatley High School, one of the largest Black secondary schools in the country prior to integration, was situated on the same street as the De Luxe Theater, one block away. In preparation for Wheatley Day, Mickey Leland, a graduate of Wheatley High School, came up with the idea to decorate the lobby of The De Luxe Theater with recent photographs taken during the exhibition’s installation process. These photos depicted the Fifth Ward neighborhood surrounding The De Luxe Theatre and images of the installation team hanging art alongside neighborhood children who became engulfed in the renovation process. He felt that displaying these images would help Fifth Ward residents relate to the art, insinuating that he, too, had doubts about The De Luxe Show’s perception among the Fifth Ward community (Cannon, 127).

Archival photographs from “Wheatley Day” paint the false picture that The De Luxe Show was the children’s success that Peter Bradley insists that it was. Images of children on school buses cheering as they approach The De Luxe Theater and stills of the Wheatley High School Marching Band parading in the streets circulated throughout the press. Even Barbara Jordan, another graduate of Wheatley High School and the first African-American elected to the Texas Senate, is pictured standing on the front steps of The De Luxe Theater next to Mickey Leland amidst a group of children.

Interestingly enough, there are no photographs of this large group of enthusiastic children inside viewing the exhibition, even in the Menil Foundation Collection Archives.

Show Reviews and Bradley’s Response

The De Luxe Show attracted an impressive 4,700 visitors during its 41 day exhibition. The show was so popular among the Houston community that its exhibition dates were extended from four to six weeks. However, the turnout was not at all indicative of the artistic critique from Peter Bradley’s colleagues. In January 1972, an art critic writing for the Village Voice wrote, “The Harlem-on-My-Mind award for the most condescending show of the year goes to the De Luxe Show in Houston, Texas. An old movie theater was gutted instead of revived in order to bring the people[…]a luxurious catalog” (The Village Voice). Other reports noted the audience’s responses to the art were somewhat confused or skeptical. To the disappointment of Peter Bradley, it seemed as if the art world was more focused on why the exhibition was located in Fifth Ward rather than the kind of art that was exhibited. When he didn’t receive the response he expected, Bradley doubled down on his belief that young children are the only people who could have possibly appreciated the show for its aesthetic qualities. He completely ignores the fact that modern and contemporary art, dropped in the middle of a low-income Black neighborhood without context, further demeans an already disadvantaged community.

Whenever he was asked about what the partially renovated space should be used for after the show concluded, Peter Bradley avoided the question. He was clearly more concerned with the show, not its after-effects. At one point, it was suggested that Bradley try to convince John de Menil to turn The De Luxe Theater into a place for rotating exhibitions, to which Bradley swifty replied, “He doesn’t have the time. You see how busy he is” (Cannon, 103). Steve Cannon, in an attempt to change Peter Bradley’s mind about talking to John de Menil, reminded him that it was unfair to “give people a silver spoon and then take it away” (Cannon, 103). To these recommendations, Bradley remained unphased and before the show even ended, he was already back in New York City. When the art left, the contracting team removed the newly renovated air conditioning unit, and The De Luxe Theater was abandoned once more, left to continue decaying after being host to yet another historical milestone.

Afterwards, many ideas circulated about what was to become of The De Luxe Theater. One intention was that the building could revitalize into a Black Arts Center for the Fifth Ward. There were even rumors that John de Menil was going to purchase the theater, but those intentions fell to the wayside. Plans to completely renovate the building did not come about until 1998, when the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation purchased The De Luxe Theater and worked with the city of Houston to reconstruct what sits at 3303 Lyons Avenue today.

Harrison Guy, Director of Arts and Culture at The De Luxe Theater, in front of the newly renovated building. Photography by Karen Warren for the Houston Chronicle.

In 2015, The De Luxe Theater opened its doors once more to the Fifth Ward community, and in 2021 celebrated 50 years since the opening of The De Luxe Show with their own exhibition, Art for the People: Celebrating 50 Years of the De Luxe Show and the 5th Ward Community. Unintentionally mirroring the original De Luxe Show, Art for the People attracted such a positive response and The De Luxe Theater had to extend its exhibition dates from two weeks to three. Fifth Ward residents who remembered the original The De Luxe Show were overtaken with nostalgia. Some had no idea that the show was so historically important and had just considered it to be a moment in time, nothing more. A few remembered being inspired by the art, but others recalled the show as a disruption to the community--a sudden wave of new faces, here one day and then gone the next.

Although the original show did not travel, the participating artworks circulated in and out of exhibitions across the country. In 2021, concurrent with the 50-year anniversary tribute at

The De Luxe Theater, the Parker Gallery in Los Angeles and Karma in New York City paid homage to Peter Bradley’s curatorial contributions by exhibiting the show’s original artworks in their own spaces.

Currently, The De Luxe Theater serves as a performing arts space, film screening site, and event rental facility. In a short discussion with Harrison Guy, the Director of Arts and Culture at the newly revamped De Luxe Theater, he mentioned that The De Luxe is bringing visual art into the space once more by being a site for touring exhibitions. They are dedicated to continuing the history that The De Luxe Show brought to Fifth Ward in 1971. It is my hope that The De Luxe Theater can honor the contributions of Peter Bradley without neglecting the rich artistic community that exists right in its own neighborhood.


I think often about the three Black women pictured in the iconic opening day photograph of The De Luxe Show. I wonder if they happened to be Fifth Ward residents, students at Texas Southern University, or folks who had traveled from the suburbs of Houston to view the artwork everyone was talking about. Their age suggests they were not Peter Bradley’s intended audience, but their race and attire, in proximity to the additional attendees captured in the photo, suggests they were of the academic and social caliber that Peter Bradley hoped to gain acclaim from.

The institutional formality that Dominique de Menil claimed The De Luxe Show was doing away with, was extremely prevalent in the temporary occupation and swift abandonment of a Black cultural space. Although The De Luxe Show proved to be a historical moment for art in Fifth Ward, I believe Pater Bradley missed a vital opportunity for deeper community engagement. His ego and desire to attain a certain level of recognition among his white colleagues clouded his ability to see the potential of a community already wealthy in artistic endeavor.

In August 2021, The New York Times published a story on Bradley as they, too, commemorated 50 years since the opening of The De Luxe Show. At 81 years old, Bradley is still vehemently opposed to the Black aesthetic. “​​Stupid figurative Black art”, he rants, “A bunch of slaves on boats” (Kazakina). When asked about The De Luxe Show, Bradley is somewhat dismissive, wanting to focus on his lifelong achievements as an artist rather than one moment in his career. 

In 1971, Peter Bradley had a remarkable chance at curatorial decision-making power with the support of affluent art enthusiasts and artists, so he took it. One cannot blame him for accepting that opportunity. I can only hope that the art world does a better job at recognizing the subtle racial, economical, and elitist nuances at play each time an exhibition is conceptualized.


Citation List

Butterfield, Jan. “The De Luxe Show.” Texas Observer, 1971.

Binkovitz, Leah. “One of the Country’s First Racially Integrated Fine Art Shows Gets an Overdue Update.” Texas Monthly, 2021.

“Black Job Applicants Denied at MacGregor Park.” Voice of Hope. August 21, 1971. 

Cannon, Steve. Ms. American Notes/A Matter of Taste: An Art Exhibition in Houston. New York City, 1971. 

Childs, Charles. Some American History. Houston, 1971.

Darby English, Ph.D., on 1971, A Year in the Life of Color. The Menil Collection, 2017.

de Menil, John. Mr. John DeMenis to Ronald Hobbs, July 1971. Letter. From Menil Collection Archives.

English, Darby. “Chapter 3: The De Luxe Show.” Essay. In 1971: A Year in the Life of Color, 193–229. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016. 

Foster, Hannah. “The Black Arts Movement (1965-1975).”, 2014.

Frederick, Candice. “On Black Aesthetics: The Black Arts Movement,” July 15, 2016.

Glueck, Grace. “15 Of 75 Black Artists Leave As Whitney Exhibition Opens.” The New York Times, 1971.

Greenberger, Alex. “How a ‘Revolutionary’ Racially Integrated Art Exhibition in Texas Changed the Game.” ARTNews, 2021.

Harrison Guy, interview by author, Houston, September 30, 2021.

Hobbs, Robert. Ronald Hobbs to Mr. and Mrs. Jean de Menil, July 7 1971. Letter. From Menil Collection Archives.

Kazakina, Katya. “Is Peter Bradley Ready for Round 2 in the Limelight?” The New York Times, 2021.

Kleiner, Diana J. Kleiner J. “De Luxe Show.” TSHA. Texas State Historical Association, 2020.

The De Luxe Show: Exhibition Catalogue. Houston, Tex, 1971.

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth . Directed by Chad Freidrichs. Unicorn Stencil, 2011. Accessed November 12, 2021.

Unknown Author. “Art.” The Village Voice, 1972. 

Wallace, Caroline V. “Exhibiting Authenticity: The Black Emergency Cultural Coalition’s Protests of the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1968-71.” Art Journal 74, no. 2 (2015): 5–23.

Withers Swan. “Hard Art at The De Luxe Show.” Houston, Texas, 1972.

Withers Swan. Memorandum. Withers Swan, 1971. 

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