National Gallery of Art Adds 40 Works by Black Southern Artists to Its Collections

The “milestone” acquisition includes works by the Gee’s Bend quilters, Thornton Dial, Nellie Mae Rowe and James “Son Ford” Thomas

A quilt made of interlocking rectangles of dark green, gray, tan, with bright spots of light cyan, red and a tiny bit of yellow at the center
Mary Lee Bendolph, Blocks and Strips, 2002 National Gallery of Art / © 2017 Mary Lee Bendolph / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, D.C. has acquired 40 works by African American artists from the Southern United States. As first reported by Zachary Small of the New York Times, the collection includes pieces by 21 artists, including nine quilts from the celebrated Gee’s Bend quilters, monumental assemblage works by Alabama-born artist Thornton Dial and abstract sculptures by Lonnie Holley.

The museum purchased the works through Souls Grown Deep Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering racial equity in the arts and promoting black artists from the American South. Speaking with the Art Newspaper’s Gareth Harris, the organization’s president, Maxwell Anderson, described the acquisition as a “milestone” move.

“Like all museum acquisitions, this took a bit of time to carry across the finish line, three years in this case,” he says, adding that the selection of a list of works started “long before the murder of George Floyd in May.”

Final approval for the purchase came after Kaywin Feldman was appointed as the gallery’s director in December 2018.

“These exciting works by artists from the American South demonstrate remarkable qualities of imaginative and conceptual daring and material inventiveness across a wide range of media and styles,” says Feldman in a statement. “… [T]hese works offer powerful insights and perspectives on the compelling issues of our time, and we are pleased to be able to add them to our collection of modern and contemporary art.”

Many of the artists included in the acquisition did not have access to formal art education. Their work largely went uncollected by major museums during their lifetimes.

“These artists are out of the mainstream and don’t have traditional training,” senior curator Harry Cooper tells the Times. “They are Black and from the South, often facing hardships to create their work.”

Highlights of the collection include a 2002 quilt by Mary Lee Bendolph, one of the best-known quilters from Gee’s Bend, a celebrated group of black quilters based in a rural community along the Alabama River. The Gee’s Bend first started making their masterful, abstract creations in the mid-19th century. More recently, wrote Amei Wallach wrote for Smithsonian magazine in 2006, a series of national exhibitions of the group’s quilts helped raise the artists’ profile substantially. In 2003, 50 current members formed a collective and started selling their work to major institutions for tens of thousands of dollars.

In Bendolph’s quilt, “rectangles of brown wool and blue denim are juxtaposed with brightly colored strips and squares that play off the structural framework of the ‘Housetop’ pattern, a conventional design of concentric squares that is popular among the quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend,” says NGA in the statement.

Other works purchased include Testing Chair (1995), a throne-like sculpture that Dial created to memorialize the death of fellow artist Bessie Harvey, and a 1997 Dial drawing commemorating the death of Princess Diana: The Last Trip Home (Diana’s Funeral) (1997). Four “gumbo” clay busts from James “Son Ford” Thomas and folklore-inspired collages from Nellie Mae Rowe also appear in the collection.

As the Times notes, the acquisition arrives amid a national reckoning with systemic racism. In July, former and current NGA employees created an online petition that accused the institution of sexual and racial discrimination and called for broad changes to make the museum a more equitable, diverse and transparent workplace.

In an interview with the Washington Post’s Peggy McGlone at the time, Feldman agreed with some of the proposed changes and said that she would work to reduce the racial disparity among staff. (As of April, the museum’s 1,000-person staff was 46 percent people of color, but the curatorial and conservation staff were 96 percent white.)

For his part, Anderson says that he hopes this acquisition will help introduce many of these talented artists to larger audiences.

As he tells the Times, “For the artists involved here to be represented by this nation’s preeminent gallery is a testament to their talent and their pertinence to the canon of American art history.”

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