Giving black artists their due


Couple's donation to Walters reflects need for recognition

Art Column

May 21, 2002|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

The black historical experience in the United States is a vital part of this country's experience from its beginnings," wrote the black historian Benjamin Quarles. "Would America have been America without her Negro people?"

Quarles, who died in 1996 after a long career as a professor of history at Morgan State University, believed along with his great predecessor W.E.B. DuBois that African-Americans, through their own efforts, had woven themselves "into the very warp and woof of this nation."

I was reminded of Quarles' pioneering work by the announcement last week that a black couple, Eddie and Sylvia Brown, had donated $500,000 to the Walters Art Museum to purchase works of art by African-American artists. Before the Browns' gift, the Walters hadn't a single work by a black artist in its permanent collection.

The great flowering of African-American art occurred during the 1920s and '30s in the heyday of the movement known as the Harlem Renaissance, when black poets, writers, musicians and visual artists set about creating a new image of black people in America. Centered in New York City, the movement's influence ultimately was felt throughout the country as well as in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Yet black Americans had distinguished themselves as artists from the earliest days of the Republic. Throughout the 19th century, for example, black artists like sculptor Edmonia Lewis and painter Edward Mitchell Bannister, whose works the Walters recently acquired as a result of the Brown gift, were making important contributions to American art and history, not just black history. Their achievements became part of what DuBois called the "warp and woof" of the nation's cultural heritage.

This is why it seems so important that the art museum, as a principal institutional caretaker of that legacy, recognize the role played by black artists in its collections. Too often, African-American art has been treated as the orphan stepchild of American art - as an aberration or a curiosity only tenuously related to the mainstream of artistic development in this country. And yet just the opposite is true: Since the beginning, black artists have worked in tandem with their white counterparts to develop the methods and materials that eventually would define the mainstream tradition of art in this country.

For most of our history, the contributions of black visual artists have gone mostly unrecognized, and what recognition there was usually took the form of grudging, condescending judgments that relegated African-American art to its own separate institutional ghetto. The idea that a work by a black artist like Lewis or Bannister could possess aesthetic or historical interest comparable to the great masterpieces of European, Asian or ancient art probably would have been all but incomprehensible to William and Henry Walters, the father-and-son industrialists who founded the Walters Art Museum.

Given this history, some people undoubtedly were surprised that the Browns chose to give money to the Walters (and, earlier, to the Baltimore Museum of Art as well) rather than to institutions like the historically black colleges and universities, which traditionally have made it part of their mission to preserve works by black artists.

Yet the nation's artistic legacy is the common responsibility of all our institutions: There's no separating it institutionally by race, class, gender or religion - simply because our national history has woven all these separate strands into one grand, inseparable multicultural fabric. The concept of our nation as a historically multicultural society, which Quarles did so much to pioneer, holds that diversity is one of America's richest historical endowments.

The question now is whether other donors will follow the Browns' lead, and already the Walters has reported some encouraging signs. A portion of the funds used to make the Lewis and Bannister purchases came from matching gifts prompted by the Browns' generosity. If this trend continues, the museum could be well on its way toward rectifying what has long been a glaring historical omission.

During an interview last week, the Browns said they hoped the new acquisitions made possible by their gift would attract more African-American visitors to the museum. I share that hope, but it's important to point out that having works by black artists in the museum doesn't just benefit African-Americans. The contributions of black artists have enriched all Americans, and all Americans stand to benefit from a more accurate and inclusive vision of their cultural heritage. Ultimately, I believe, that enhanced vision will be the Browns' greatest gift to the people of Baltimore, and also the most enduring.

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