Black colleges, white artists

Art: Curators at Howard, Fisk and other institutions needed to expose students to a full spectrum of quality works.

Fine Arts

November 23, 1999|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

In an article Sunday about the African-American art exhibition at Washington's Corcoran Gallery, I remarked that historically black colleges and universities were among the first to collect the work of African-American artists.

However, it's also true that these institutions had significant holdings of works by white American and European artists. In fact, works by early American modernists like Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keeffe constitute an important part of these collections.

The point is worth emphasizing because it clarifies the dual mission the black colleges and universities were attempting to accomplish through their collecting activities.

On the one hand, they wanted to counter the demeaning racial stereotypes that were ubiquitous in 19th-century America with the more humanistic treatments of black life as portrayed by African-American artists.

On the other hand, they also recognized that the training of black artists required students to be able to see original artworks that would inspire and enlighten in an era when opportunities for blacks to see such works in public institutions were often severely limited.

The HBCUs' collections of European and American modern art was thus prompted in large measure by their need to create departments of fine arts through which future generations of black artists could be trained.

One of earliest art departments at an historically black college was founded at Howard University in 1922. A few years later, Howard became the first black school to create a permanent art gallery.

Few of these institutions had the financial resources to buy modern art. Instead, they relied on philanthropic organizations like New York's Harmon Foundation, which was a major supporter of arts education at black colleges in the 1930s, and on the generosity of artists themselves, many of whom donated works to the schools.

O'Keeffe, for example, donated more than 100 works of her own and by her late husband, Alfred Stieglitz, to Nashville's Fisk University in 1949, largely due to the urging of Carl Van Vechten, the white photographer and author who chronicled many of the major figures of the Harlem Renaissance.

Van Vechten also donated many of his own works to Fisk's collection, including his celebrated portraits of such seminal figures as Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson and Billie Holiday.

In an era in which it was otherwise nearly impossible for blacks to get fine arts training, it would be hard to overestimate the importance of the development of fine arts departments at historically black colleges and universities.

The African-American commitment to fine arts education was an integral part of the larger social, cultural and political struggle to control the image of blacks in American society.

By creating their own images of black life and culture, African-American artists sought to refute the vicious stereotypes of American popular culture and reclaim the humanistic values denied to blacks by the principle of white supremacy.

In this effort, of course, the work of African-American artists was as much a protest as was the art of black writers like Hughes, Richard Wright and James Baldwin. This detracts nothing from their accomplishment, however.

If the art of African Americans has often been characterized by protest, it is because it reflects the experience of a people who have endured great suffering.

Yet it is also an art that celebrates the vitality and joy of life, the triumph of the human spirit despite seemingly impossible odds. It is a priceless cultural legacy not just for African-Americans but for everyone.

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