Several years ago, an art curator in search of a work by an African-American artist visited the gallery of a leading historically black university. He was anguished by what he discovered. "I saw major works by Romare Bearden, Wifredo Lam, Edmonia Lewis, William H. Johnson, and others stacked cheek to jowl," without benefit of a climate-controlled environment or proper storage. The painting he sought was punctured and torn.
That experience stayed with Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale University Art Gallery, and inspired him and Richard J. Powell, chair of the Department of Art and Art History at Duke University, and a host of their colleagues to launch a project to conserve the art collections at black colleges.
The ambitious undertaking involved the collaboration of six universities, several museums, corporate donors, art experts and student interns, and significant hands-on work at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center in Massachusetts. After five years, the participants had repaired and preserved some 1,400 artworks and assembled an eye-opening touring show of 260 of them titled "To Conserve a Legacy: American Art from Historically Black Colleges and Universities."
Now on view at the Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta through September 24, the exhibition spans more than a hundred years, from mid-19th-century works such as Edmonia Lewis' neoclassical sculptures and Robert Duncanson's pastoral landscapes to more contemporary pieces like the 1960s-era color-drenched Jazz Musician by James Weeks (shown above) and the brilliantly hued Spring Flowers Near Jefferson Memorial, a mosaic-like canvas by Alma Woodsey Thomas.
Such a feast for the eyes should stimulate interest in the artistic treasures at black colleges and encourage support of conservation, Powell said. "Ultimately, we hope we have planted a seed about the importance of preserving one's legacy."
By Marian Smith Holmes