Local museums are striving to increase their holdings


August 04, 1991|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

You can find them in the current exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art. You can find them at the Maryland Historical Society. You can even find them at the Baltimore Museum of Industry.

"They" are works by and about African-Americans, which in recent years have been added significantly to area museum collections.

And while the BMA's exhibit, "African-American Art: Selectionfrom the Museum Collection," contains works by artists such as Jacob Lawrence and Vincent D. Smith, Lorna Simpson and Roy DeCarava, the scope of materials on display in the area is as varied as the locations showcasing them: DeCarava's photograph "Coltrane at Half Note" and the papers of Eubie Blake, a collection of books by 19th century black women authors and the clothing of industrial workers, a photographic album rescued from a garbage can and portraits by the early 19th century painter Joshua Johnson. Museums today are out there seeking everything from fine art to relics of the ordinary life.

The BMA has been collecting African-American art at least since the 1940s. In a 1990 show of highlights, "Baltimore Collects: African-American Art," works by artists who have achieved classic status such as Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence and James Van Der Zee mingled with more recent artists including Robert Colescott, William Earle Williams and Max Belcher, Joyce J. Scott, Roland Freeman and Thomas Miller.

A majority of the exhibit's works were acquired in the 1970s and 1980s, but the third largest number came to the museum in the 1940s, and current BMA director Arnold L. Lehman said credit for that should probably go to his predecessor, the late Adelyn Breeskin. "I'm going to guess that Adelyn, in typical fashion, was ahead of her time."

A museum such as the BMA, said Lehman, must seek collection diversification while balancing priorities. "Within the context of a traditional museum . . . we all need to have a heightened awareness and sensitivity to an increasingly multicultural world around us."

The BMA's latest strategic plan, now being worked on, states that the museum should "actively pursue collecting, programming and exhibitions relating to increasing our African-American audience," the director said.

By singling out the African-American community, the museum isn't ignoring other groups such as American Indians and Latinos, Mr. Lehman said, but simply takes cognizance of the numbers. "Of our regional community [by] far the largest and most actively involved [minority group] historically is African-American."

The Maryland Historical Society got into the business of collecting African-American material more recently than the BMA. In fact, says chief curator Jennifer Goldsborough, until about 12 years ago collecting was done "entirely by gift and largely by an elitist group of people." In recent years the society's staff has striven to overcome that image and seek out African-American material.

Among the historically significant works the society owns is a portrait of "The Children of Commodore John Daniel Danels" (about 1826). Unlike the usual portraits of the time, which would have shown a black as a servant, this one shows a black child playing with the white Danels children and another black looking through the door. It is not a fiction. "Commodore Danels promoted equality between the races," said Ms. Goldsborough. "He took three black children into his home, and treated and educated them as his own children." The painter of the portrait, Robert Street, was an abolitionist.

More recently, the composer Eubie Blake left the society his papers and other memorabilia, a huge collection including "handwritten music by the roomful, books, doctoral gowns, recordings of his music, photos and his Presidential Medal of Freedom." Among relics of other famous Marylanders, the MHS owns material of the 18th century scientist Benjamin Banneker, including an almanac and a surveying instrument.

But the MHS is not only interested in the great names, Ms. Goldsborough said. Recently, it was delighted to receive furniture owned by a middle-class black family in the 1920s. In fact, the ordinary is often more desirable than the extraordinary -- children's play clothes rather than the wedding gown or christening dress, for instance. "People save and tend to give what is symbolic, not what life is all about," said Ms. Goldsborough.

Another museum that collects a wide variety of African-American material is the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis. A state-funded institution run by the Commission on Afro-American History and Culture, it was inaugurated in 1984 and occupies a former African Methodist Episcopal church built by free blacks in 1874. Named after Banneker and the 19th century leader Frederick Douglass, it collects materials that "tell a story of the African-American experience," said acting director Barbara Jackson.

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