Art Collections

views updated

Art Collections

There are numerous collections of African-American art throughout the United States in institutional, corporate, and private possession. Some of the major collections were established before 1950, but many were formed in the late 1960s or after 1970. One reason that most African-American art collections have only been developed recently is the lack of importance given to art in post-Reconstruction African-American education. A major thrust of education, from Reconstruction onward, was training for manual labor. The study of literature and art was considered superfluous. African-American artists were few, for they had no support groups, patrons, or buyers. (This situation caused George Washington Carver to change his major from art to science.)

When blacks from rural areas began moving to cities after World War I they took advantage of the greater scope of activities that urban centers had to offer. In his book Modern Negro Art (1943), James A. Porter notes the following landmarks in the progress of African-American artists: the annual exhibitions held at the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library beginning in 1921, along with exhibitions held at Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., in 1922 (sponsored by the Tanner Art League) and the Chicago Women's Club in 1927, and those of the Harmon Foundation from 1927 to 1933. Because of the exposure and prizes offered at these exhibitions and by the magazines Crisis and Opportunity, there was hope that the work of African-American artists would be recognized and valued. That happened, but slowly, because the collectors themselves were black and also subject to the economic restraints imposed by racism.

Many of the collections described below also include extensive holdings of African, Haitian, or Caribbean art.

Collections in Universities and Libraries

Hampton University in Virginia (founded in 1868 as Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute) houses the nation's oldest African-American museum. Samuel Armstrong established an ethnographic museum at the same time he founded Hampton. He wrote, "I wish to make and have here the finest collection in the U.S. I think that by taking pains I can beat the other collections in this country." The Hampton collection of African-American art began in 1894 with gifts of Henry O. Tanner's Lion's Head (1892) and The Banjo Lesson (1893). Now comprising 1,500 paintings, graphics, and sculpture, Hampton's African-American art collection is second only to that of the National Museum of American Art of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

In 1967 Hampton University received a donation from the Harmon Foundation as it was dispersing its collection. In addition, Ida Cullen, the widow of Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen, sold twenty-six works from her husband's collection to Hampton University in 1986. She later donated three more works. Because of these acquisitions, the major artists of the Harlem Renaissance are exceptionally well represented: they include Richmond Barthé, Aaron Douglas, Palmer Hayden, Malvin G. Johnson, Augusta Savage, and Hale Woodruff. The collection includes eight more works by Tanner, as well as works by Romare Bearden, John Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, Allan Crite, Paul Goodnight, Felrath Hines, Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis, Richard Mayhew, Raymond Saunders, James Wells, Charles White, Benjamin Wigfall, and Ellis Wilson. In 1997 Hampton greatly expanded its gallery space, creating a permanent chronological exhibition of African-American art.

The Howard University Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., opened on April 7, 1930, two years after the board of trustees established it. The first exhibition was a traveling show sponsored by the College Art Association. Under its first two directors, James V. Herring and James A. Porter, Howard's gallery developed a program to acquire a permanent collection. Henry O. Tanner's Return from the Crucifixion was possibly the first painting in the collection and the last one Tanner did before his death in 1937. The Howard University Gallery of Art now boasts one of the most comprehensive collections of work by African-American artists, from Robert Duncanson, Edward Bannister, and Edmonia Lewis of the nineteenth century, to such contemporary artists as Richard Hunt and Sam Gilliam. The collection was further enriched by Alain Locke's bequest in 1955 of his holdings of paintings and African sculpture.

In the early thirties, Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, began amassing an art collection through gifts. Fisk's collection of art by African Americans now comprises about nine hundred paintings, prints, and sculptures. Murals and other works by Aaron Douglas, who taught at Fisk from 1937 to 1966, are exhibited in Fisk's library. A gallery named for Douglas features changing exhibitions. Works by Malvin Gray Johnson, William H. Johnson, David Driskell, Sam Middleton, Alma Thomas, and James Lesesne Wells make up a small part of the large Fisk University collection.

The Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries (Clark College and Atlanta University merged in 1988) had an unusual genesis. In 1942 Hale Woodruff, who had initiated Atlanta University's art department a decade earlier, instituted an annual exhibition. He wanted both younger and older artists to be able to exhibit their work on a national, juried basis, free of racism. He also wanted to bring art to the community. The exhibition's winning entries were purchased to form the collection at Atlanta. Charles Alston and Lois Mailou Jones were among the winners in 1942. The annual exhibition, which continued until 1970, accounts for three hundred of the Clark Atlanta acquisitions. This core collection has been increased by gifts from private individuals and institutions, as well as by purchases, including three Tanners in 1967. Gifts have included works by Romare Bearden, Beauford Delaney, Palmer Hayden, Malvin Gray Johnson, William H. Johnson, Jacob Lawrence, and Archibald Motley. In 1950 Hale Woodruff was commissioned to paint a six-part mural, Art of the Negro, for the Atlanta collection. The annual exhibitions not only created a major institutional art collection, but for twenty-eight years they provided an exhibition space and an atmosphere of artistic competition, free of racism, that engaged African-American artists and stimulated the public.

The University of Delaware became the repository of more than one thousands works by twentieth-century African-American artists in 2001 when Paul R. Jones of Atlanta donated his collection. Jones began collecting in the late 1960s when he noted that artists of color were rarely included in exhibitions of American art. Inspired by Atlanta University's annual exhibitions, Jones developed his collection to include both known and emerging artists. Jones's primary consideration was to see African-American art woven into American art, and he chose the University of Delaware for his gift because of its strong academic and conservation commitment to American art. In 2004 a multimillion-dollar restoration of a campus landmark, Mechanical Hall, was completed to hold the Paul R. Jones Collection.

Almost all of the Arts and Artifacts Collection of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a research center of the New York Public Library, consists of paintings, sculpture, and prints by African-American artists. Prominent white artists such as Alice Neel and William Zorach are also included in the Schomburg collection. By 1926, when Arthur A. Schomburg's collection of books, manuscripts, prints, and other artworks became part of the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library, the branch had been hosting annual art exhibitions for five years, selected by a committee that included W. E.B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson. This led to the library's beginnings as a repository for a major collection. As early as 1911, Schomburg commissioned a portrait of his wife from William E. Braxton, now in the collection with other works by Braxton. Most of the acquisitions, until the late seventies, were gifts of friends, patrons, and artists.

The Schomburg collection includes numerous works from the Works Project Administration (WPA), its paintings having been given to branch libraries when the WPA was dissolved in the 1940s. Works by Palmer Hayden, Malvin Gray Johnson, and Jacob Lawrence arrived this way. Works by all the important artists mentioned throughout this entry are represented in the Schomburg collection, as are works by E. Simms Campbell, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Claude Clark, Beauford Delaney, Rex Goreleigh, Sam Middleton, Sister Gertrude Morgan, Horace Pippin, Augusta Savage, William E. Scott, Charles Sebree, and Bill Traylor. As a result of the 1998 exhibition, Black New York Artists of the 20th Century, the Schomburg Center acquired forty-five works by forty-three artists who were not previously represented.

The Amistad Research Center, established by the American Missionary Association in 1966, is now located on the campus of Tulane University in New Orleans. Among its holdings is the Aaron Douglas Collection of nearly three hundred paintings and sculptures by African-American artists. This collection was assembled by David Driskell and Grant Spaulding for the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries, which donated it to the Amistad Research Center in 1983. Rich in work from the Harlem Renaissance, the collection contains twelve paintings by Aaron Douglas and seventeen by Malvin Gray Johnson. There are also seventeen paintings by the nineteenth-century artist, Edward M. Bannister. Both Bearden and Lawrence are strongly represented, and among other artists there are works by Wilmer Jennings, Alma Thomas, William E. Scott, Ellis Wilson, Sam Middleton, Keith Morrison, Vincent Smith, David Driskell, Mildred Thompson, and Walter Williams.

South Carolina State College in Orangeburg opened its I. P. Stanback Museum and Planetarium in 1980. By 1991 it valued its collection of African-American art, acquired through gifts, at nearly one million dollars. African art, photography, and works by students are also included in the collection, along with works by such prominent artists as Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence.

Museums and Cultural Institutions

The National Museum of American Art, part of the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C., has works of art by 105 African Americans. Although founded in 1829, the museum, reflecting American aesthetics and prejudices, did not own any African-American works before 1964. The first acquisition was James Hampton's room-sized 180-piece assemblage, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly. In 1966 IBM donated works by Sargent Johnson, Romare Bearden, and Charles Sebree. At the same time, the Harmon Foundation, a repository of black art for forty years, had to disburse its collection. Unable to find a taker in New York, it turned to the Smithsonian. This vast donation, plus purchases by the museum, paved the way for other donors, including a bequest of twenty-five paintings from Alma Thomas and a donation by Warren Robbins of many nineteenth-century works by African-American artists.

The Studio Museum in Harlem opened in 1968 in rented quarters above a liquor store and without a permanent collection. Its aims were to provide studio space for black artists and to serve as a venue for exhibitions of their art. In 1979 the New York Bank for Savings donated a vacant building in Harlem, which opened in 1982 as the Studio Museum. With its own building, the Studio Museum could acquire a permanent collection and present exhibitions, lectures, performances, workshops, concerts, and seminars. The organization also continued to exhibit and provide space for artists in residence. The Studio Museum's permanent collection includes over 1,600 items in all formats, including installations. It is particularly strong in the politically conscious art of the 1960s. Artists represented in the collection include Terry Adkins, Robert Cole-scott, Melvin Edwards, Richard Hunt, Norman Lewis, Betye Saar, and Nari Ward. The Studio Museum was accredited by the American Association of Museums in 1988. An expansion and renovation project that began in 2001 has added increased gallery space, an auditorium, a café, and other building improvements.

Affiliated with the Elma Lewis School in Boston, the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists was established in 1978. The museum was developed at that time in cooperation with the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The permanent collection began with a donation of more than two hundred works by Allan Crite, Richard Yarde, and John Wilson, among others. Prints and photographs by African Americans are also held.

The Amistad Foundation at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, was founded in 1987 with the acquisition of the collection of Randolph Linsly Simpson, who had amassed over seven thousand artworks, artifacts, and documents related to the black experience in America. The Amistad Foundation continues to strengthen its visual arts component by acquiring the works of such contemporary African-American artists as Ellis Ruley and Carrie Mae Weems. In June 1992 the Amistad opened its gallery at the Wadsworth Atheneum, thus becoming the first gallery in a New England art museum to be permanently dedicated to the art, culture, and history of African Americans.

The Museum of African American Art in Tampa, Florida, opened in April 1991. It houses the Barnett-Aden Collection of 171 paintings, sculptures, and lithographs, representing eighty-one artists reaching back to the nineteenth century. The Barnett-Aden Gallery was started in 1943 by James V. Herring and Alonzo J. Aden of Howard University. It was open to white artists, although an objective was to collect and preserve the art of African Americans. Adolphus Ealy, to whom the collection was bequeathed, sold it to the Florida Endowment Fund for Higher Education in 1989 for six million dollars. Many major artistsTanner, Bearden, Woodruff, Bannister, Catlettare included in this collection, which spans almost a century of African-American creation (1860 to 1955).

The Afro-American Cultural Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, will become the new home of the works of art collected since 1949 by John H. and Vivian D. Hewitt. Strong in works by twentieth-century artists such as Charles Alston, John Biggers, Romare Bearden, Ronald Joseph, Richard Mayhew, Ann Tanksley, Virginia Smit, and Frank Wimberly, the collection also includes six works by Henry Tanner. Bought by the Bank of America Foundation in 1998 as a promised gift to the center, the collection will be housed in a newly renovated gallery at the Charlotte institution after a national tour that is scheduled to end in 2006.

Other museums that exhibit African-American art include the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago, established in 1961, and the California African American Museum (CAAM) in Los Angeles (1975). The former has a permanent collection of eight hundred works from the WPA period and the black arts movement of the 1960s. A new wing that opened in 1993 increased the DuSable's gallery space. The CAAM is home to the Palmer C. Hayden Collection and Archives, as well as a substantial collection of nineteenth-century landscape paintings by Edward M. Bannister, Robert S. Duncanson, and Grafton Tyler Brown. Recent renovations have added three galleries and a sculpture court to accommodate its burgeoning holdings of modern and contemporary art. The museum has a strong collection of work by California artists, such as Betye Saar, John Outterbridge, and Sargent Johnson.

Corporate Collections

Several significant collections of art are held by large African Americanowned companies. An early example is the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company. Founded in Los Angeles in 1925, it began its art collection in 1949 to celebrate the dedication of a new building. The artists Charles Alston and Hale Woodruff were commissioned to paint two murals depicting the history of African Americans in California. Alston's panel, Exploration and Colonization, showed historic events from 1527 to 1850; Woodruff's Settlement and Development covered the years 1850 to 1949. Golden State's Afro-American Art Collection has become a showplace for the works of, among others, Charles White, John Biggers, Hughie Lee-Smith, Richard Hunt, Beulah Woodard, Betye Saar, Henry O. Tanner, and Richmond Barthé.

The Atlanta Life Insurance Company of Atlanta, Georgia, celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary in 1980 by dedicating new corporate headquarters. Believing the community should have cultural enrichment as well as economic stability, president Jesse Hill Jr. established the Atlanta Life First National Annual African-American Art Competition and Exhibition. Winning works of the competition, for which $15,000 was provided, became part of the collection. Modeled on the annual juried exhibitions that formed the basis of Atlanta University's art collection, the Atlanta Life exhibitions give exposure and encouragement to up-and-coming artists rather than to those already established. The first planners and advisers included Margaret Burroughs, founder of the DuSable Museum, professors of art, and collectors. Jurors over the years have included E. Barry Gaither, Samella Lewis, Richard Long, Lowery Sims, and Robert Blackburn. The Atlanta Life Insurance Company now owns over three hundred pieces of art in many media, including photography. On display in the vast lobby is an impressive body of work by young or local artists, as well as by historical figures such as Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Ed Dwight, Jacob Lawrence, and Hale Woodruff.

The Johnson Publishing Company of Chicagothe publisher of Ebony and Jet has amassed one of the most important collections of African-American art. According to articles in Ebony (September 1972, December 1973), "It is the world's largest and most representative corporate collection of work by African American artists what we intend is that the building and art collection combine as a really bold positive statement about the company's commitment to the black people it serves." By 1980 the collection consisted of about 250 pieces, displayed in the public spaces and the editorial offices of the building. The building, which opened in 1971, was designed by African-American architect John Moutoussamy. A number of the artists represented in the Johnson Publishing collection were born either in Chicago or have a connection to the city. The artworks include paintings, sculpture, drawings, and lithographs in all media. Richard Hunt was commissioned to create the bronze, Expansive Construction (1972). Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Charles Alston, Hughie Lee-Smith, and Hale Woodruff are some of the well-known artists in the collection. Others include Eldzier Cortor, Charles White, Robin Hunter, Geraldine McCullough, Valerie Maynard, Frank Hayden, and Jeff Donaldson. The Johnson Publishing collection also includes African and Haitian art.

Private Collections

It is impossible to provide a comprehensive list of private collections of African-American art. In 1980 Richard V. Clarke, former chairman of the Studio Museum in Harlem said, "I find it rare, now, to go into someone's home and not see black art" (Wilson, 1980, p. 39). Clarke started his own collection in 1958. It is strongest in works by Romare Bearden, Hughie Lee-Smith, Jacob Lawrence, Eldzier Cortor, Norman Lewis, Henry Tanner, and Hale Woodruff, who consulted in the development of the collection. James Audubon, Betye Saar, Wilfredo Lam, Edward Bannister, and Howardena Pindell are also represented, as are sculptors Richmond Barthé, Elizabeth Catlett, and Sargent Johnson. Clarke's collection also includes Haitian paintings, African masks and figures, and photographs.

Another important private collection of African-American art is held by Walter and June Jackson Christmas. Although each began collecting in the 1940s, their purchasing increased after their marriage. Their first purchase together was Ellis Wilson's Three Kings. The Christmas collection spans the twentieth century and includes works by Bearden, Lawrence, Tanner, Ellis Wilson, Norman Lewis, Ernest Crichlow, and Selma Burke. Also represented are Vivian Browne, Calvin Burnett, Frank Wimberly, Virginia Smit, Robert Blackburn, and Ronald Joseph. There is also a portrait of Walter Christmas, himself an artist, painted by Georgette Seabrook Powell. Modern South African artists, such as Hargreaves Entuckwana, are included, as are artists from Haiti, Brazil, and Jamaica. The collection includes two watercolor designs for costumes painted by Derek Walcott, the 1992 Nobel laureate for Literature, for one of his plays. Contemporary sculpture by Gordon Christmas and Clarence Queen, and from Burkina Faso, adds an extra dimension to the Christmas collection.

Harmon and Harriet Kelley began their collection in 1987 after attending a museum exhibition of African-American art. Thrilled by the beauty of the work and unnerved that they had never heard of these artists, the Kelleys decided to collect so that their daughters would know this aspect of their heritage. The Kelleys started with nineteenth-century artists, such as Tanner, Duncanson, Bannister, and Joshua Johnson. They then moved to more modern but not well-known artists, including Charles Sallee Jr. and Dox Thrash, a pioneering printmaker. Giants such as Bearden, Lawrence, Eldzior Cortor, Norman Lewis, and Archibald Motley Jr. are also represented in the Kelley collection, as is a work by Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Leon and Rosemarie Banks of Los Angeles began collecting art in the 1950s when Banks was a U.S. Air Force surgeon in England and was able to visit the museums and galleries of Europe. Banks describes his collection as "mainly contemporary and American and while it doesn't reflect any specific trend, it does lean to more abstract styles" (Black Enterprise, December, 1975, p. 47). Both African-American and white artists are represented in the collection, including Richard Hunt, Mel Edwards, Sam Gilliam, Henry O. Tanner, and Bob Thompson among the former, and Alberto Giacometti, Willem de Kooning, David Hockney, and Robert Motherwell among the latter. Most of the purchases, however, have been of artworks by younger, less established artists.

The Walter O. Evans Collection of African American Art was started in the late 1970s. Evans, who lived in Detroit, met Romare Bearden and was inspired to collect art. At that time he purchased only paintings that portrayed African Americans because he almost never saw any in the museums he visited. Evans also commissioned Bearden and Richard Hunt to create album covers for his record label. Since then he has broadened the collection to include the major African-American artists of the nineteenth century, although their landscapes have no human figures. Artists such as Robert Duncanson, Edward Bannister, Charles Porter, and Henry O. Tanner are well represented in the Evans Collection. About half the works in the collection were painted for the WPA during the 1930s. Haitian painters and sculptors are also included in this collection, which is often exhibited. Selections from the Evans Collection have been on continuous tour since 1991, and have been exhibited in numerous museums and galleries throughout the United States. Evans has also established the Walter O. Evans Foundation for Art and Literature to disseminate knowledge about African American cultural achievements.

Other prominent private collectors included Arthur Ashe and his wife Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, Harry Belafonte, Camille Billops, Jacqueline Bontemps, Kenneth Clark, Bill Cosby, Wes Cochran, Robert H. Derden, David Driskell, Laura Hynes Felrath, Warren Goins, Russell Goings, Danny Glover, Edmund Gordon, Earl Graves, William Harvey, Jacqueline J. Holland, Spike Lee, James W. Lewis, Reginald and Loida Lewis, Peter and Eileen Norton, Regenia Perry, Joseph Pierce, Sidney Poitier, Beny Primm, Meredith Sirmans, E. T. Williams, and Reba and Dave Williams.

See also Art; Museums


Armstrong, Samuel C. Personal letter, dated August 7, 1868. Archives, College Museum, Hampton Institute, Virginia.

Barnwell, Andrea D. Walter O. Evans Collection of African-American Art. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999.

Clines, Francis X. "Connoisseur of African-American Art Finds New Home for Collection." New York Times (February 15, 2001): A24.

Deacon, Deborah A. "The Art & Artifacts Collection of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture." Bulletin of Research in the Humanities 84, no. 2 (Summer 1981): 145261.

"Dr. and Mrs. Leon Banks: Collectors Living with Art." Black Enterprise (December 1975): 4647.

Duplessis, Laurel T. Hampton's Collections and Connections, Part 1: Returning Home to Hampton. Hampton, Va.: Hampton University Museum, 1987.

The Harmon and Harriet Kelley Collection of African American Art: Exhibition. San Antonio: San Antonio Museum of Art, 1994.

Holmes, Steven A. "Collecting Works by Black Artists, Blacks Add Details to Their Heritage." New York Times (May 29, 1995): 11, 17.

Ingalls, Zoe. "Space to Tell the Story of African American Art." The Chronicle of Higher Education (May 2, 1997): B89.

Perry, Regenia A. Free Within Ourselves: African-American Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art, 1992.

Porter, James A. Modern Negro Art. New York: Dryden, 1943. Reprint, Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1992.

Wilson, Judith. "The Bullish Market for Black Art." Black Enterprise (December 1980): 3441.

Zeidler, Jeanne. "1993Anniversary Year for Three Renowned Paintings." International Review of African American Art 10, no. 3 (1993): 2022, 6063.

betty kaplan gubert (1996)
Updated by author 2005

About this article

Art Collections

Updated About content Print Article