New Light on Black Art

After an ambitious project of rediscovery and restoration, 180 important but little-seen works of art from historically black colleges and universities begin a national tour.

?William H. Johnson?s c. 1939 painting on burlap, ?Woman in ?Blue/Ida,? suffered from warps and cracks.

Credit: ?Courtesy of Williamstown Art Conservation Center

For several generations, many significant treasures of American art remained hidden from view at financially strapped, historically black colleges and universities. Paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, and photographs by such African-American artists as Henry O. Tanner, Edmonia Lewis, Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, William H. Johnson, Romare Bearden, and John Biggers were long neglected. Gallery space at the schools was wanting, storage conditions were inadequate, and some pieces were even believed lost.

An ambitious project to identify these works, conserve them, show them, and return them to six such universities–Clark Atlanta, Fisk, Hampton, Howard, North Carolina Central, and Tuskegee–will reach fruition on March 17, when an exhibition called "To Conserve a Legacy: American Art From Historically Black Colleges" opens at the Studio Museum in Harlem. The show, which will close in New York on June 27 and then travel for two years to seven other showings in the East, South, and Midwest, will bring to light 180 of more than 1,000 objects selected for conservation at the six schools.

For more than a century, these colleges have taken a lead in acquiring works by African-American artists, many of whom graduated from or taught at the schools. They have also quietly built collections that include works by other prominent artists, including Georgia O'Keeffe, Josef Albers, James Weeks, and Alfred Stieglitz. The generosity of donors and alumni has led to rich holdings in art, but limited budgets have made it difficult to build or maintain the kinds of facilities necessary to properly preserve and display them.

Some schools, such as Hampton University in Hampton, Va., and Howard University in Washington, D.C., have full-scale museums; others are able to provide only limited storage space in libraries and campus buildings, or have no galleries at all. This situation has led to a wide range of conditions in the works themselves. Some of them were fairly well preserved, and others were badly in need of immediate attention. In the worst cases, canvases had been rolled up for decades or inappropriately framed, photographs and prints were stained by poor-quality mats, and sculptures were shelved in back rooms, their contours gathering dust.

The exhibition, curated by Richard J. Powell of Duke University and Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale University Art Gallery, will "educate the public and ourselves not only about the fabulous works in these collections but what it takes to preserve them," Reynolds says. To that end, the larger curatorial project will help each of the colleges consider how to upgrade its exhibition and storage facilities, as well as how to care for the restored art when it returns from the show. The project also teaches conservation and museum studies to 12 students from the six institutions so that all works in the various collections can be well conserved.

Several of the universities have already made efforts to upgrade their facilities. Howard President H. Patrick Swygert oversaw a renovation of its art building and an installation of climate-controlled storage, and Hampton President William Harvey led a $5 million renovation of Hampton's library, creating a new gallery and an art storage facility that opened in 1997. Clark Atlanta has opened a new gallery as well. The process of identifying and conserving important works in the collections of all the universities is calculated, in part, to encourage donations from alumni and others for campus art facilities and conservation programs.

"What I like about this project," says Jean Ziedler, director of the Hampton University Museum, "is that it accepted each institution at its particular stage of development and worked from there. University budgets simply didn't allow conservation of all these works of art to be considered as top priority."

Seed money for the $1.2 million "To Conserve a Legacy" project came from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1995. Major grants from the Henry Luce Foundation, at&t and the Ford Motor Co., plus grants from smaller foundations, are helping to see the project through. The Studio Museum in Harlem and the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Mass., are running the project jointly, and the Williamstown (Mass.) Art Conservation Center has done the actual restorations and is offering the training programs to the 12 students. After opening at the Studio Museum, the show will travel to the Addison Gallery, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Art Institute of Chicago, the Clark Atlanta University Art Museum with Atlanta's High Museum, Durham's North Carolina Central University and Duke University Art Museum, Nashville's Fisk University and Tennessee State Museum, and the Hampton University Museum with the Chrysler Museum in nearby Norfolk, Va.

In preparing for the show, curators also discovered artworks that for decades had been believed lost. These in turn have helped to fill gaps in the comprehension of trends in American art. The rediscovery, for instance, of Charles White's c. 1940 mural "The Progress of the American Negro" at Howard University marks a real contribution to the understanding of the muralists funded by the WPA.

Many works found to have been severely damaged–suffering from cracked paint, creased canvas, warped backing, stained mats, and decayed lamination–presented a variety of problems for the conservators in Williamstown. Because the conservation process is central to the project, it is being documented with before-and-after photographs. A description of the treatment required for many of the works will appear along with these photos in the show's catalog.

The conservators must also evaluate what stress the works might undergo on the eight-stop tour. Prints, drawings, and photographs are particularly sensitive to light, and many in this collection have never been exhibited before. The light they'll be exposed to will dictate which works will be seen in each venue.

"If we use some of these images too much," says Thomas Branchick, director of the Williamstown conservation center, "they will be forced into more restricted access back at the colleges later on. That's not what we'd like to see happen."

"On the other hand," says Richard Powell as he holds up an Aaron Douglas ink drawing, "here's a work that's never seen the light of day in its original form. The show is about exposing the public to this art. We just have to hit some middle road."

Jock Reynolds opens the protective cover on a brilliant tempera, "Three Generations," painted by William H. Johnson in the mid-1950s. The rich bands of color in its modernist design inspire little gasps of admiration from the three men, who are reminded again of the importance of conserving and displaying these artworks. Without this project, they agree, some of the works would have faced decay and disintegration and others, at best, would have remained in storage.

"For years these institutions have been building these collections," says Tritobia Hayes Benjamin, director of the Howard University Gallery of Art, "as well as providing a forum for their appreciation. Now that the artworks are recognized as treasures, there's an even greater need to preserve them, and that helps underscore the stewardship of African-American art these schools have always provided."

Read more about African American heritage

For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.