Martin Luther King, Jr., looks out at crowd in Montgomery, Ala., 1965 | Courtesy Stephen Somerstein


ART MUSEUMS ACROSS THE UNITED STATES are celebrating the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., on Monday, Jan. 21, the official federal King Day holiday. This year’s commemoration of King’s birthday marks 90 years since he was born on Jan. 15, 1929, in Atlanta.

The Washington Post published an interesting article that sheds light on a little-known fact about the civil rights leader. When King was born, he was named “Michael,” which was his father’s original name, too. After an international tour in 1934 that included stops in Rome, Tunisia, Egypt, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Berlin, the elder King, a prominent Atlanta pastor, had an eye-opening and inspiring religious, political, and cultural experience. In the Post, Deneen L. Brown reported:

    King arrived in Berlin a year after Adolf Hitler became chancellor. During his trip, the senior King toured the country where, in 1517, the German monk and theologian Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg castle church, challenging the Catholic Church. The act would lead to the Protestant Reformation, the revolution that would split Western Christianity.

    All around him in Berlin, King Sr. was seeing the rise of Nazi Germany. The Baptist alliance responded to that hatred with a resolution deploring “all racial animosity, and every form of oppression or unfair discrimination toward the Jews, toward coloured people, or toward subject races in any part of the world.”

When King Sr., returned home the same year, he decided to adopt a new name, “Martin Luther,” and also changed his son’s name at the same time. It would be more than two decades, however, before the moniker was official when the younger King’s birth certificate was finally updated in 1957.

Through artworks, photographs, and special programming, art museums are exploring many other stories and aspects of King’s life, work, and transformative contributions to racial and economic justice in America and human rights around the world.

Many museums regularly provide free for all admission. Some are waiving admission fees on the King Holiday and/or offering free admission to furloughed federal employees during the partial government shutdown.


HARRY ADAMS, “Dr. King at Freedom Rally, Wrigley Field, Los Angeles,” May 26, 1963 (digital image from a photographic print). | Courtesy of the Tom & Ethel Bradley Center at California State University, Northridge via CAAM

California African American Museum (CAAM), Los Angeles

Admission is always free at CAAM. The museum has planned a full slate of family-friendly King Day activities. In addition, the museum is currently presenting “Los Angeles Freedom Rally, 1963,” an exhibition that explores a major King address through photographs and ephemera. The May 26, 1963, speech before nearly 40,000 people at Wrigley Field in South Los Angeles occurred three months before the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and “was one of the largest civil rights rallies in the country.” The following art exhibitions are also on view at CAAM: Robert Pruitt: Devotion,” and “The Notion of Family.”

Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD), San Francisco

Admission is free at MoAD on Jan. 21. In addition to presenting a series of King-related programs throughout the day, the museum just opened two new art exhibitions—Sadie Barnett: Phone Home,” a solo show of works by Oakland, Calif.-based artist Sadie Barnett, and “Black Refractions: Highlights from the Studio Museum” in Harlem. MoAD is the first of six venues hosting “Black Refractions,” the blockbuster touring exhibition showcasing more than 100 works by about 80 artists from the Studio Museum’s collection.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)

Sponsored by Target, LACMA is offering free King Holiday admission on Monday, Jan. 21. The museum is currently presenting “Outliers and American Vanguard Art,” an expansive exhibition that features 250 works by more than 80 self-taught and trained artists including William Edmondson, Lonnie Holley, Horace Pippin, Betye Saar, Bill Traylor, and Kara Walker.

Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, Baltimore

The museum is usually closed on Mondays, but will be open on Jan. 21 to host an MLK Day Celebration and Day of Service, with reduced admission of $5. The special King Day programming includes unveiling a newly acquired painting by Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald. In addition, the museum’s current exhibitions are on view—”Romare Bearden: Visionary Artist” and “Roland Freeman’s Arabbers: Life in the City Streets,” a photographic presentation.


DAWOUD BEY, “Untitled #4 (Leaves and Porch),” 2017 | Rennie Collection, Vancouver. © Dawoud Bey via Art Institute of Chicago

Art Institute of Chicago

The museum is staging a daylong King Day Festival and encourages visitors to view its latest photography exhibition, “Dawoud Bey: Night Coming Tenderly, Black.” The show features 25 large-scale black-and-white photographs by Chicago-based Dawoud Bey. The series, his latest body of work, reimagines Underground Railroad sites in Cleveland and Hudson, Ohio, the final stop for those who sought freedom in Canada. The festival is free to all and museum admission is free to Illinois residents.

Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, Charlotte, N.C.

The museum has organized a free MLK Day Celebration, including art-making, a film screening, performances, a panel discussion, and town hall. The special programming coincides with museum’s ongoing exhibitions, including three shows that explore freedom, democracy and the black male experience. “Hank Willis Thomas: What We Ask Is Simple” is currently on view, along with two additional presentations co-created by New York-based artist Hank Willis Thomas, “Question Bridge: Black Males” and “For Freedoms.”

Institute of Contemporary Art Boston (ICA Boston)

Several Boston museums are offering free admission on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, including ICA Boston (timed tickets are required). The holiday coincides with the last day of the museum’s presentation of “Jason Moran.” The exhibition is the first solo museum show of New York-based Jason Moran, the artist, pianist, and jazz composer. In addition, artist Nina Chanel Abney just installed a new mural at the museum.

New-York Historical Society Museum & Library, New York, N.Y.

During the partial government shutdown, the New York Historical Society is waiving admission for furloughed federal employees. Ordinarily closed on Mondays, the institution is open on Jan. 21 in honor of the King Day holiday. There is plenty to see related to the rights and democratic ideals for which King fought. Exhibitions include “Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow,” a special presentation called “Witnesses to History: African American Voting Rights,” and “We The People,” a site-specific installation by Nari Ward. In addition, “Betye Saar: Keepin’ It Clean” presents washboards by Los Angeles artist Betye Saar, made between 1997 and 2017. CT


The Association of Art Museum Directors has published a list of member museums noting those that regularly provide free admission and others that are offering free entry to furloughed federal employees for the duration of the partial government shutdown.

Across the nation, although some museums are closed on Mondays, many others are hosting King Day activities. Check with your local museum for more information about any special programming.


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