The Tishman part of this show's title comes from New Yorkers Paul and Ruth Tishman, who made millions in real estate. Between the late 1950s and the early '80s, they built one of the world's most important private collections of African art. Unlike many collectors, they were always eager to share their treasures with a wider public. The catalogues of the landmark museum shows drawn from their collection came to be the gospels -- and the textbooks, literally -- of African art history in the United States.
The Walt Disney angle comes from an African pavilion planned for the "World Showcase" part of the entertainment company's Epcot Center in Florida, which opened in 1982, 16 years after Disney himself had died. At a certain point, the Tishman objects were to be included among the attractions at the pavilion, alongside an African "river ride" and "heritage village." By selling their works to Disney -- in 1984, for about a million dollars (perhaps a 20th of what it is worth now) -- the collectors hoped that the art's inclusion in the project would guarantee it maximum public exposure.
The pavilion never happened. Which is lucky, judging by the cheesy, cliche-stuffed artist renderings for it reproduced in this show's catalogue. The idea that a for-profit entertainment complex in Central Florida would try to pack the culture of an entire continent into one pavilion -- Epcot's 10 completed pavilions are all dedicated to single countries, some as small and uniform as Norway -- is enough to give you indigestion. (For full-blown ulcers, consider the fact that Disney's more recent plans for the Tishman works demoted them to being decorations in the lobby of its Animal Kingdom lodge. Luckily, those plans were scrapped, too, perhaps because of concerns about "juxtaposing zoological specimens with the story of African peoples," as the exhibition catalogue delicately phrases it.)
Finally, in 2005, Disney gave all 525 Tishman objects to the National Museum of African Art. The museum has now put 80 of the collection's most impressive works on view, and has promised to always display at least 60 of them.
-- Blake Gopnik