Collecting / Collective Identity
Collections and Remembering African American Art and History
Many collectors of African American culture declare rethinking American history as central to their endeavor. In their view, the African American story has too long been marginalized, first by historiography, then by educators and museums, and finally by the remembrance discourse in the public sphere. For many African American collectors, their project is not esoteric and removed from pressing economic, social, and even psychological problems confronting the African American community today. For them such a reframing of American history is a precondition for a positive imagination of African American collective identity. This mission demands for many of those collectors an imperative to share their collections with the public and to actively participate in education. One collection that exemplifies this approach is the Kinsey African American Art and History Collection®. Through sharing their collection with the public, the Kinseys disprove what they call the “myth of absence,” referring to African American social historian Lerone Bennett, Jr., who first coined the phrase in his African American history Before the Mayflower in 1962 and wrote in Ebony magazine in 1984:
In American history, as in American life, Black Americans are invisible presences. They are not seen, not because of their absence but because of the presence of a myth that prepares and requires their absence. The myth of absence, which expresses this idea and intention, operates not by misinterpretation and slander but by silence and exclusion.
Bennett’s demand, in response to the “myth of absence,” reads like a manifesto of the Kinsey Collection and would suit most prominent African American collectors: “And to grasp the American experience in
its fullness, we have to remember that Blacks were present and acting at almost every major event in American history.” Without this conscious effort of memory, the past potentially becomes a threat to African American consciousness and identity.
Walter Benjamin has defined the collector as a defender against the danger inherent to collective memory that he sees in the chaos of the past. According to him, collecting is the process of assigning an order to the disorder of remembrance, of making sense out of madness. The collector constructs “a dam against the spring tide of memories which surges toward any collector as he contemplates his possessions. Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.” This definition of collecting takes on a particular significance when considering marginalized histories and especially those that are replete with traumatic and painful memories.
Benjamin wrote his essay on collecting books in 1931 at the dawn of Nazism, which would eventually drive him into exile and suicide. But the future catastrophe of the Holocaust was only the culmination of ages of collective memories of anti-Semitism experienced during the Jewish diaspora. Likewise, the collector dedicated to African American memories of the African diaspora must contend with centuries of abductions during the slave trade and the subsequent ordeal of chattel slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and racism. Inevitably another one of Benjamin’s famous images comes to mind. Describing Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus, he imagined the angel of history:
His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
If we apply this image to the African American experience, the “single catastrophe” could be the Middle Passage. Since then “wreckage upon wreckage” has been piled up over the centuries until the “pile of debris” has grown “skyward.” Dominant discourse has called this tragic story “progress,” from the American Revolution to American global superpower status of the 20th and early 21st centuries. Collectors of African American culture “build a dam against the flood of memories” overflowing mainstream remembrance of development in the Americas from colonization to the present moment. They present a different perspective, an African American perspective, on that “progress.” Their collections have stood as one defense and counter-history against the marginalization of the African American past long before the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture opened on the National Mall in the fall of 2016.
This “progress” is what Ta-Nehisi Coates refers to in his much discussed letter to his son, first published in The Atlantic in 2015. At the essay’s beginning, Coates recalls a question by the host of a popular television show, who challenged him on the air:
Specifically, the host wished to know why I felt that white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and indistinct sadness well up in me. The answer to this question is the record of the believers themselves. The answer is American history.
Coates perceived the host’s challenge as a question “about the condition of [his] body.” The selective forgetting of the past presents a direct challenge to the black body, as it is the precondition of a long history of institutionalized violence visited upon African Americans, which gave rise to waves of resistance, from the antebellum Underground Railroad to the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013. African Americans were victimized by the “progress” of Western civilization, by the “progress” of the American nation and, finally, excluded from the remembrance of that Western and American history. These collective memories that form the foundation of the United States’ national imagination are shaped by ages of falsification, denial, and forgetting by authoritative history as well as institutional and private collections.
The practice of selective forgetting turns particularly dangerous when it is combined with the formation of collective identity out of personal experiences. Paul Ricoeur has called this process “active
For anyone who has crossed through all the layers of configuration and of narrative refiguration from the constitution of personal identity up to that of the identities of the communities that structure our ties of belonging, the prime danger, at the end of this path, lies in the handling of authorized, imposed, celebrated, commemorated history – of official history. The resource of narrative then becomes the trap, when higher powers take over this emplotment and impose a canonical narrative by means of intimidation or deduction, fear or flattery. A devious form of forgetting is at work here, resulting from stripping the social actors of their original power to recount their actions themselves.
“Official history” becomes dangerous when it engages in forgetting to manipulate collective identity. Ricoeur sees as the only response to this threat the reclaiming of individual agency to remember and narrate: “But the responsibility of blindness falls on each one. Here the motto of Enlightenment: sapere aude! Move out of the state of tutelage! Can be rewritten: dare to give an account yourself!” That means: dare to reclaim and tell your own story. This is the call that collectors of marginalized histories follow. The Kinseys and others present an alternative to the “canonical narrative” and provide mnemonic devices, cues to visitors of an exhibition to prompt and encourage them to rewrite their own histories and reimagine their collective identities.
Collecting and Collective Identity
Collectors of African American art and history are engaged in building and maintaining a collective memory, which in turn can contribute and shape a collective identity. It is not a coincidence that the practice of collecting shares the etymology with key terms of memory studies and identity politics. “Collecting” and “collective” derives from the past participle of the Latin verb colligere, “gather together,” which combines the Latin verb legere (to gather) with the Latin prefix com- (together). Thus, already the etymology suggests that the gathering of material items from the shared past of a social group is related to gathering memories, which will help define a shared identity. Legere also has the meaning of choosing, picking out, and reading, which explains that it is also the etymological root of the noun “lecture.” A “lecture” is a selection and organization of items from a body of related knowledge with a claim to make an authoritative statement about a field of study. Likewise, a “collection” is a selection of material objects from a class of related items with an implicit claim of authority to define and make a statement on the class of objects. Like a lecture, a collection is a reading and interpretation of a defined field to which the collection is dedicated.
Thus, the collector or the curator of a museum has influence on collective identities. If we consider, for example, national identity, it is hardly surprising that the state has had a significant interest in museums since the advent of the modern museum in the 19th century. In his study on the origin of the museum, Tony Bennett has shown how it functions as a Foucauldian disciplinary apparatus. The museum’s purpose is to “enlist active popular support for the values and objectives enshrined in the state,” which were located in city centers “where they stood as embodiments, both material and symbolic, of a power to ‘show and tell’ which, in being deployed in a newly constituted open and public space, sought rhetorically to incorporate the people within the processes of the state.” Looking at colonial empires and post-colonial nation states, Benedict Anderson sees the museum, along with the census and the map, as one instrument that “profoundly shaped the way in which the colonial state imagined its dominion – the nature of the human beings it ruled, the geography of its domain, and the legitimacy of its ancestry,” a practice that many post-colonial nation states continued.
In short, whoever controls the collection also controls the collective. This can be understood literally for the collector and the collection but also metaphorically for the discourse of a society in general. For example, we could see the curriculum in the educational apparatus, the selection of content in the mass media, and, finally, ideology itself as examples of collections. Just like any collection in the narrow sense, all those examples have gatekeepers, the items admitted receive symbolic value, and the set of values create an overarching meaning through the relation of the individual items.
In the United States the Smithsonian Institution and its nineteen national museums and galleries are the nation’s most important “exhibitionary complex” and a key apparatus to represent the imagined
national community. The U.S. government administers, largely funds, and thus controls the Smithsonian. Established in 1846, it is hardly surprising that for most of its history, the institution demonstrated little interest in collecting and representing African American history and culture, given the historical context of slavery, segregation, and structural racism in the United States. Of course, this changed to some degree with the establishment of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2003, which finally opened in 2016. However, one museum cannot address 170 years of neglect overnight. Moreover, it creates a new risk, as its very existence might serve to justify the relative scarcity of attention to African American themes and objects in the Smithsonian’s other 18 museums and 200 affiliate organizations, which include ten major museums on the National Mall alone. For example, the National Museum of American History devotes very little space to the histories of slavery, segregation, and racial discrimination; the Museum of American Art only began collecting African American art during the 1960s. Although it is probably the world’s most significant collection of its kind, African American artworks comprise less than 5 percent of its total collection, less than half of the percentage of African Americans in the U.S. population. This may help keep the false notion alive that African American history is not American history and that African American art is not American art. It is a fair assumption that the clear majority of museum visitors nationwide and on the National Mall, “the memorial core of the nation,” will continue to be exposed to an underrepresentation of African American history and culture in the exhibitions of national museums. Certainly, this may exclude those who do visit the African American museum, but nevertheless the new museum may ironically perpetuate and even further contribute to maintaining the dominance of whiteness within the U.S. national imagination as it is represented in most museums and collections in the nation.
The historical and continuing shortcoming of the state when it comes to integrating African American history and culture in collections and hence within the national imaginary places a tremendous burden on private collectors and institutions. Although it is hard if not impossible to compete with the government with regard to funding and general resources, private citizens, mostly of African American descent, have stepped in and have assembled remarkable collections at least since the Harlem Renaissance. Particularly in recent decades, this task increasingly fell to the wealthy, since a significant collection inevitably requires the acquisition of valuable artworks and historical artifacts, just as it was the case with the great collections of European and American culture amassed by the likes of Henry Clay Frick, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Solomon Robert Guggenheim, Joseph H. Hirschhorn, and Dr. Albert C. Barnes. Likewise, the most significant collections of African American artists were gathered by some of the wealthiest African Americans, such as television mogul Robert Johnson and entertainment celebrities such as William H. Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, and Harry Belafonte, as well as white collectors such as real estate developer Jim Petrucci or the prolific collectors of contemporary art Don and Mera Rubell. In the following, I will provide a brief historical overview of African American collections before evaluating the most important contemporary examples.
Collecting and Exhibiting African American Art
From the beginning, collecting African American art and history could not be divorced from considerations of African American collective identity and politics. Racial identity politics are evident, for example, in the identity and biographical background of the collectors, the historical and institutional context of the collections, the strategies of collecting, and discourses of specific exhibitions. Furthermore, inclusion in a collection or exhibition has had an existential function for African American artists, who have had few venues to show their work, to receive recognition, let alone to sell their work and to earn income from their art practice. In addition, exhibitions of African American art have provided a sense of community, as African Americans saw themselves represented in the assembled works, an experience that surely contributed to the development of African American collective identity.
At the most fundamental level, the inclusion of an artist in a collection represents nothing less than an acknowledgment of his or her existence as an artist. Particularly institutional collections, such as those housed in public and private museums, have authority over the aesthetic and art historic value of an artwork, an authority that important private collections are also able to project over time. Perhaps the first time this honor was bestowed upon an African American artist was at Hampton University, a historically black college in Virginia, which acquired two works by Henry O. Tanner in 1894, including The Banjo Lesson (1883), which remains one of the most famous African American paintings even today. This appreciation may at least in part be due to the reflection of Tanner’s African American background in the subject matter of the painting. This is ironic since Tanner himself posed the question, “Now am I a Negro?” referring to the fact that his heritage is three-quarters English and only one quarter African. He questioned the definition of race in the United States and the role it played in the assessment of his legacy: “Tanner’s wish for his own legacy is clear: he hoped for us to experience the Christian faith through his art. Instead, Tanner and his paintings continue to be critically examined primarily through the lens of racism.” Despite his wish, it is hardly a coincidence that his work was first purchased by an African American institution and that this included a representation of two African American figures, even though almost all his paintings depict biblical themes, studies of white figures, scenes at sea, or landscapes. A few years later, Tanner was also the first African American to be included in a major American art museum collection when the Philadelphia Museum of Art acquired The Annunciation in 1899.
The first important exhibitions of African American Art in the United States are closely linked to the Harlem Renaissance, when a new African American consciousness fermented in the interaction of intellectuals, authors, musicians, and artists such as Langston Hughes, W. E. B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, Alain Locke, Claude McKay, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Aaron Douglas, and Marcus Garvey, among others. Following World War I, a more self-confident and assertive African American identity found expression in writing, music, and the visual arts, demanding political equality and an end to segregation. Langston Hughes’s influential essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” summarized the implication of the New Negro Movement for African American artists: “I am ashamed, too, for the colored artist who runs from the painting of Negro faces to the painting of sunsets after the manner of the academicians because he fears the strange unwhiteness of his own features. An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he must choose.” In contrast to most of Tanner’s oeuvre, many visual artists coming out of the Harlem Renaissance embraced Hughes’s dictum to include the representation of African Americans in their work (Figure Intro.1).
As early as 1919, galleries showed a growing interest in visual art by African Americans, when Knoedler Gallery, one of New York City’s oldest galleries, showed works by Tanner, who was living in Paris at the time. Then, Tanner was already looking back at a very successful career, with exhibitions throughout the United States and Europe, which started while he was still studying at America’s oldest art school, the prestigious Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts (1879–1885). However, his work had not been collected or exhibited as an expression of African American history and culture. This time, the recognition by an important midtown gallery coincided with a historical moment that was ripe for the awakening of a new and proud African American consciousness.
Figure Intro.1 Laura Wheeler Waring. Family, 1928. Oil on board, 8 x 8 in. Courtesy of the Kinsey African American Art and History Collection® and the Bernard & Shirley Kinsey Foundation for the Arts & Education.
The Tanner show was followed in 1920 by a series of exhibitions of African American artists in the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library, which continued throughout the 1920s and provided a platform to more than 100 artists. In his 1931 book The American Negro as Artist, Alain Locke concluded that the largest impact on African American art was the establishment of the art prize by the Harmon Foundation in 1926:
Most influential of all, the Harmon Foundation has, by a five-year series of prize awards for Negro artists, with an annual New York show and extensive traveling exhibition of a considerable section of the same throughout the country, not only stimulated a new public interest in the Negro artist, but incubated more young talent in these last five years than came to maturity in the last twenty.
The Harmon Foundation was set up in 1922 by the white real estate developer William E. Harmon (1868–1928), who was interested in the blossoming of African American culture during the 1920s and wanted to support its further development and recognition. Originally established as a charity to support education and the disabled, it became a major patron of African American arts, with the establishment of the prize and the organization of the first traveling exhibitions, which toured museums and other public venues throughout the United States. Many of the prizewinners went on to become major artists of the 20th century and are represented in the important collections today. For example, twelve Harmon Prize artists are included in the Kinsey collection, reflecting the impact that the prize has had on the history of African American art. The collection includes works by the first two winners from 1926, Hale Woodruff and Palmer C. Hayden, and at least one recipient from each of the five years in which the prize was awarded.
Figure Intro.2 Harmon Foundation Exhibition catalogs from 1931, 1933, 1935. Courtesy of the Kinsey African American Art and History Collection® and the Bernard & Shirley Kinsey Foundation for the Arts & Education.
Another seminal exhibition during the 1920s was The Negro in Art at the Chicago Art Institute, as Locke put it:
In 1927, public-spirited citizens of Chicago pioneered with a special “Negro in Art Week” series of talks and exhibitions of the work of Negro artists, a programme that has been repeated at centers as far south as Atlanta and Nashville, as far north as Boston and Rochester, and as far west as San Diego and Los Angeles.
This program was organized by the Chicago Women’s Club, an organization founded in 1876 and dedicated to social and self-improvement. The club’s aim was to improve race relations with the groundbreaking The Negro in Art exhibition and a series of lectures, dinners, and concerts. The events were very well received and featured two of the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance, James Weldon Johnson and Alain Locke, as special guests, who validated the project. Locke concluded that by the end of the 1920s, in large part thanks to these efforts, African American art had achieved a national and even international reputation. In his 1928 essay “Race Prejudice and the Negro Artist,” Johnson went so far as to claim that African American artistic achievement and recognition during the Harlem Renaissance had dismantled prejudices and reversed both the image African Americans had of themselves and how they were imagined by white Americans.
In this way the Negro is bringing about an entirely new national conception of himself; he has placed himself in an entirely new light before the American people. I do not think it too much to say that through artistic achievement the Negro has found a means of getting at the very core of the prejudice against him, by challenging the Nordic superiority complex […] The connotations of the very word “Negro” have been changed. A generation ago many Negroes were half or wholly ashamed of the term. Today they have every reason to be proud of it. For many years and by many methods the Negro has been over-coming the coarser prejudices against him […] we are justified in taking a hopeful outlook toward the effect that the increase of recognized individual artists fivefold, tenfold, twentyfold, will have on this most perplexing and vital question before the American people.
Given the decades of struggle for civil rights and against prejudice that followed, not to mention the persisting racism today, it is obvious that Johnson overestimated the impact of the arts. At the very least, however, his assessment gives a vivid insight into the positive sentiment and optimism in the historical context of the Harlem Renaissance.
Howard University and the Barnett Aden Gallery
Howard University in Washington, D.C., was established after the Civil War in 1867 by Congress and became one of the preeminent historically black universities in the country. Howard would hold a prominent place in the history of African American art if only for Alain Locke’s contributions. After completing a PhD in philosophy at Harvard, he began teaching at Howard in 1912, eventually became chair of the philosophy department, and taught there until he retired in 1953. The establishment of the Howard University art gallery further adds to the university’s significance in the history of African American art. During the 1920s Dr. James V. Herring had built the art department at the university, hiring instructors such as Loïs Mailou Jones, who would become famous artists in their own right. In 1928, Herring convinced the university to establish an art gallery and hired one of his former students, Alonzo Aden, to be its first director. The university art gallery became one of the foremost locations to exhibit African American artists and Aden became one of the nation’s leading curators of African American art. Thus, Alain Locke asked him to curate the seminal exhibition of the
American Negro Exposition in Chicago in 1940.
Aden’s career at Howard prepared him for an even more important contribution when, in 1943, he founded the Barnett Aden Gallery together with his former teacher Herring. After a dispute, Aden had left Howard. Since he and Herring felt that there was not enough opportunity for African American artists to exhibit their work and for African American art students to see such art, they decided to fill that void. Many of the most important African American artists of the 20th century exhibited in the gallery and some, such as Loïs Mailou Jones and David Driskell, received their first solo exhibition there. The gallery was a nonprofit project, as Herring continued teaching at Howard and Aden worked in several government positions and they did not charge the artists any fees or commissions. They did ask for a donation of one work from each show, however, which over time built the Barnett Aden Collection. By the time of Herring’s death in 1969, it was likely the most important private collection of African American art in the country, and was shown in 1974 by the Smithsonian Institution in the Anacostia Community Museum under the title Barnett Aden Collection: 100 Years of Multi-Ethnic Art. In 1994, the collection was purchased and exhibited a second time by the Florida Education Fund. In 2008, media entrepreneur Robert L. Johnson finally bought the collection and showed parts of it in the Hemphill Fine Arts Gallery in Washington, D.C., in 2009. He donated portions of it to the new National Museum of African American Art and History in 2015.
Exhibition: Afro-American Artists: New York and Boston
In the wake of the Civil Rights movement during the 1960s, arts educator Elma Lewis started the National Center for Afro-American Artists in 1968 to preserve and foster art of the African diaspora. In the following year, a museum was added, which has been directed and curated by Edmund Barry Gaither since then. In 1970, Gaither curated the seminal show Afro-American Artists: New York and Boston for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The show displayed one hundred and fifty-eight works by seventy artists in various media. It was the largest and most comprehensive survey of African American art exhibited to date. In his review of the exhibition in the New York Times, Hilton Kramer praised artists that he saw in the mainstream of modern art such as Norman Lewis, Alma Thomas, and Frank Bowling, but was critical of “expressions of
community solidarity or outright protest art.”
Exhibition: Two Centuries of Black American Art
Parallel to the National Center for Afro-American Artists on the East Coast, Cecil Fergerson and Claude Booker founded the Black Arts Council on the West Coast as an advocacy group for African American artists. In the following years, the organization sponsored three exhibitions dedicated to African American artists, Three Graphic Artists: Charles White, David Hammons, Timothy Washington (1971), Los Angeles 1972: A Panorama of Black Artists (1972), and Two Centuries of Black American Art (1976), which were all organized by the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art and debuted there. While the first two were smaller exhibitions, the latter became a landmark show curated by artist and scholar of African American art David C. Driskell, who at the time was chair of the art department at Fisk University. The exhibition included more than 200 works by 63 known artists from roughly 1750 to 1950. The show shattered attendance records at LACMA and hence went on a tour to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, and the Brooklyn Museum. The selected artworks ranged from pieces by unknown enslaved artists to paintings by Joshua Johnson, Robert S. Duncanson, John James Audubon, and Henry O. Tanner, to sculptures by Edmonia Lewis, William Edmondson, and Sargent Johnson, among others. Driskell called the curatorial approach sociological, in contrast to aesthetic, and saw the motivation for African American art exhibitions to be political. In response to criticism, he replied: “I answer: Because you have propagated the notion that blacks are not a part of the system. So until such time as you free your thinking enough to see that they’ve always been a part of it, and should rightly be included in the history books and what have you, we’ll have to keep having black shows.”
Collections in Museums
Several important museums have acquired significant collections of African American art, especially since the 1960s. At the same time, African American artists remain underrepresented both in the collections and especially in the permanent and changing exhibitions, even in museums that hold the largest collections of African American art. For example, the Smithsonian American Art museum boasts more than 2,000 artworks from over 200 artists on a website dedicated to African American art. Yet this represents less than five percent of the museum’s total holdings. The Art Institute of Chicago, one of the nation’s oldest and largest art museums, also possesses a significant collection of 295 African American artworks, which amounts to more than 11 percent of its total holdings by American artists. However, only fourteen works are on display, which amounts to less than 2 percent of all displayed pieces in April of 2018.
Some art museums have highlighted their African American holdings through dedicated publications or websites. For example, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts celebrated its 2011 acquisition of sixty-seven works from collector John Axelrod with the publication of Common Wealth: Art By African Americans (2015), which displays reproductions of a broad range of works in various media from the 19th century to the present. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts uses a website to feature highlights, recent acquisitions, and short videos introducing five African American artists. The collection ranges from early modern to contemporary artists; featured highlights include works from George H. Ben Johnson and H. O. Tanner to recent works by Theaster Gates, Radcliffe Bailey, and Willem van Heythuysen. The Cleveland Museum of Art established an African American Advisory Committee in 2003 tasked with supporting the museum’s development of its African American art collection, which consists of more than 200 pieces ranging from Robert S. Duncanson to Hank Willis Thomas. The Art Institute of Chicago provides an African American category in its online catalog and thus enables ready access to its complete holdings of African American artworks. The website currently lists 295 works by fifty-six artists. Most large collections of African American art derive from donations of private collections, which will be discussed below.
Major Exhibitions of Public Collections
In recent years, several major public museums have assembled dedicated exhibitions to highlight their collections of African American art, in a development that Lowery Stokes Sims, the first African American curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, sees as a fundamental shift in curators’ attention to African American art: “I think there is a sea change finally happening. It’s not happening everywhere, and there’s still a long way to go, but there’s momentum.” For example, in 2015, The Philadelphia Museum of Art held the exhibition Represent: 200 Years of African American Art. Drawing on the museum’s own extensive holdings, the exhibition displayed works ranging from decorative arts of the 19th century to contemporary art. Remarkable in its historical coverage, the exhibition included cut-paper profiles by Moses Williams (ca. 1802) and a large storage jar with an inscribed poem by David Drake (1859), to the first painting by an African American acquired by a major museum in 1899 (The Annunciation, 1897 by Henry Ossawa Tanner) as well as seminal works by Aaron Douglas (Birds in Flight, 1927), Horace Pippin (Mr. Prejudice, 1943), Elizabeth Catlett (Mother and Child, 1956), Beauford Delaney (Portrait of James Baldwin, 1963), Barley L. Hendricks (Miss T, 1969), Lorna Simpson (C-Ration, 1991), and Odili Donald Odita (Rift, 2004), among others. The exhibition emphasized the development of African American consciousness through art practice as it explored “the evolving ways in which African American artists have expressed personal, political, and racial identity.”
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is one of the nation’s few museums with a history of exhibitions dedicated to African American art. Already in 1993, the museum established the African American Art Advisory Association, known as Five-A, tasked with supporting education
programs, community outreach, and developing a more inclusive collection. Most prominently, the museum staged the blockbuster exhibition The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, drawing on the collection of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in 2002. The exhibition of quilts made by women in the isolated black community of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, created a sensation in the art world and went on to show in thirteen major museums across the United States, including the Whitney Museum of American Art. Critic Michael Kimmelman proclaimed the quilts to be “some of
the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.” The popular show was followed up by an exhibition focused on paintings, African-American Art from the MFAH Collection, in 2004. It presented sixty-five works from the museum’s holdings, which the museum had started collecting in the 1950s, beginning with the acquisition of Henry O. Tanner’s Flight into Egypt (1921). In 2006, the museum staged a second show on quilts, Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt, which also went on a tour of major museums, including the Smithsonian. More recently, the museum exhibited Statements: African American Art from the Museum’s Collection in 2016. Drawn entirely from its own extensive collection, the show exhibited over forty works ranging from Richmond Barthé’s Feral Benga (1935) to Mark Bradford’s Circa 1992 (2015).
Coinciding with and in honor of the opening of its new African American Museum of History and Culture in 2016, the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) selected 184 artworks from its holdings of African American artists for the exhibition Artworks by African Americans from the Collection at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The exhibition was not shown in a contiguous space but spread throughout the permanent collection galleries. Therefore, it depended on an online gallery and a brochure that contained a list of all the works on display and their location. Both the website and the brochure highlighted many seminal works, including Abraham’s Oak by Henry Ossawa Tanner, Les Fétiches by Loïs Mailou Jones, Mask by Sargent Johnson, and Antares by Alma Thomas.
In addition to the group exhibitions listed above, a small group of individual African American artists have been honored with high profile retrospectives recently. Jean-Michel Basquiat retrospectives have shown around the world, for example, most recently at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in 2015. Martin Puryear was honored by a solo exhibition at the MoMa in 2007–2008, which subsequently traveled to important museums including the National Gallery of Art. Puryear was also selected as the second African American artist in a row (after Mark Bradford in 2017) to represent the United States at the 2019 Venice Biennale. Some examples of other recent significant solo exhibitions are Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 2012) and Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey (Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition, 2012–14). In 2014, the Guggenheim museum in New York staged the first retrospective of an African American woman in its history: Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video. In 2015, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the nation’s oldest art school and museum, celebrated painter Norman Lewis (1909–1979) with the exhibition Procession: Art of Norman Lewis, which featured over ninety paintings from the 1930s to the 1970s. This exhibition prompted a New York Times article, “Black Artists and the March into the Museum,” which saw such retrospectives as a sign that after decades of neglect, “American museums are rewriting the history of 20th-century art to include black artists in a more visible and meaningful way than ever before.”
Recent Private Collections and Exhibitions
Over the past thirty years, there has been a significant increase in the appreciation of works by African American artists expressed through a series of major exhibitions, most of which have been based on private collections. As Halima Taha already wrote in 1998 in a volume dedicated
to collecting African American art: “what had once been an arcane topic of discussion – African American artists as the subject of critical discourse . . . has become, in recent years, cause célèbre, generating excitement, controversy, and optimism.” Private collectors of African American art have played a crucial role in this reversal. Providing acknowledgment of achievement and a platform for exhibition to African American artists, they filled a gap where public institutions have historically fallen short. In addition, they have helped create a market for African American artists and thus provided a source of income to some. However, despite the private collectors, African American art continues to be significantly undervalued by the art market relative to white American and European artists. Before exploring the latter issue, it is important to recognize the progress that has been made with an overview of the most important recent exhibitions of private African American art collections.
Walter O. Evans Collection
The surgeon Dr. Walter O. Evans of Detroit started collecting with a purchase of a portfolio of prints by Jacob Lawrence in the 1970s and would eventually amass one of the largest collections of African American art. One of the most comprehensive collections of its kind, it covers more than 150 years and includes masterpieces by leading painters such as Edward Mitchell Bannister, Jacob Lawrence, Beauford Delaney, Charles White, Aaron Douglas, Robert S. Duncanson, Sargent Johnson, Richard Hunt, Romare Bearden, and many others. The collection is unique as it includes not only visual art but also a vast collection of first-edition books and manuscripts by African American authors. A selection was first exhibited at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in 1991 and it has since been shown at over fifty museums and galleries across the nation. In 2006, part of the art collection was gifted to SCAD with the provision that it be made accessible to the public for free. In 2011, the museum underwent a significant expansion and the collection today is housed in the Walter O. Evans Center for African American Studies, which also provides resources to educators for teaching.
The Paul R. Jones Collection
Paul R. Jones (1928–2010) was another pioneer who began collecting as early as the 1960s when he became aware of the neglect of African American artists by museums and galleries and decided to fill the gap. His collection grew eventually to be one of the largest such collections, including works by masters such as Charles White, Herman “Kofi” Bailey, David Driskell, Elizabeth Catlett, Earl Hooks, Leo Twiggs, Ayokunle Odeleye, Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, P. H. Polk, and Selma Burke. In 1993, a first exhibition was held at the University of Delaware and in 2001, a significant portion was donated to that university, where over 1,000 works are held today. The remainder of the collection, more than 1,700 works, was donated to the University of Alabama, where it is housed in the Paul R. Jones Museum.
Hidden Heritage: The Harmon and Harriet Kelley Collection of African American Art
Another important private collection was started in 1986 when Harriet and Harmon Kelley saw the exhibition Hidden Heritage: Afro-American Art, 1800–1950 at the San Antonio Art Museum. Less than ten years later, they were able to mount a significant exhibition that debuted at the same museum in 1994. Featuring 124 works by seventy artists, the show featured masters such as Edward M. Bannister, Elizabeth Catlett, William H. Johnson, Emma Lee Moss, Charles E. Porter, Henry O. Tanner, and Dox Thrash and went on to tour museums across the United States, including the Smithsonian in 1995.
Something All Our Own: The Grant Hill Collection of African American Art (2004–2006)
Former NBA star Grant Hill began collecting African American art in the mid-1990s focusing on Romare Bearden and Elizabeth Catlett. By 2004, he had acquired enough pieces to stage the exhibition Something All Our Own that would tour seven cities for a period of nearly three years. Curated by the director of the University Museum at Texas Southern University, Dr. Alvia Wardlaw, the exhibition presented forty-six works including thirteen to span the entire career of Bearden and several works by Catlett. Along with the exhibition tour, Hill sponsored guided school tours and national artistic scholarships to fulfill his mission to use art for education and transformation.
Tradition Redefined: Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson Collection
Former Deputy Attorney General Larry D. Thompson and his wife Brenda have been collecting African American art for over thirty years and have accumulated more than 600 artworks. Two touring exhibitions have been curated from their holdings, Tradition Redefined (2009–2014) and Expanding Tradition (2017). The first exhibition was organized and curated by the Driskell Center, which explained that the collection, because of its inclusion of unknown and obscure artists, “redefines the landscape of American art, offering a more in-depth, inclusive understanding of African American artists and their aesthetic and social concerns.” The second exhibition resulted from a donation of over 100 works to the Georgia Museum of Art in 2012 and showcased more than 50 works featuring leading contemporary artists such as Kara Walker alongside masters such as Hale Woodruff, Norman Lewis, Charles Ethan Porter, and Elizabeth Catlett.
30 Americans: Rubell Family Collection
The Rubell Family Collection Arts Foundation, the largest private collection of contemporary art in the United States, further added to the recent boom with an exhibition dedicated exclusively to African American artists titled 30 Americans. Despite its title, the show featured thirty-one artists from the Rubell collection, including over 200 items from many of the most celebrated contemporary African American artists, such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Barkley L. Hendricks, Kerry James Marshall, Lorna Simpson, and Kara Walker. After its debut at the Rubell Foundation gallery in 2009, the exhibition traveled across the country to be shown at ten museums until 2017.
Intriguingly, the show eschewed race in the title and opted for “Americans,” “rather than ‘African-Americans’ or ‘Black Americans’ because nationality is a statement of fact, while racial identity is a question each artist answers in his or her own way, or not at all.” This choice is ambiguous. At first, it seems paradoxical since the show appears to deny its own use of racial identity as a principle underlying the curatorial approach. On the other hand, the title suggests the inscription of African American art history into American art history. The artworks are presented as American art first, suggesting that they are selected because of their relative merit in the national and international art world not because of the racial identity of the creator. Still, the thirty-one artists of the exhibition represent only a small portion of the American artists included in the Rubell collection of art from the United States and around the world, and race seems to be the leading principle of selection. One reviewer in Detroit reflected on the significance of race, explaining how the show related well to the specific place of that city: “In terms of connecting with its immediate community, this may be the first time the [Detroit Institute of Arts Museum] has featured a show wherein the racial demographics of the depicted subjects more or less accurately reflect the racial demographics of the city. Who you see on the walls sends a powerful message about who is welcome in the galleries.” From the beginning of exhibiting African American art in Harlem during the 1920s until today, increasing the representation of African Americans in exhibited art has been a major motivation for the support of African American artists by collectors and museum curators.
Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue
Another major exhibition combined the Camille O. and William H. Cosby private collection of African American art with African art from the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art from 2014–16. This show featured many of the most prominent African American artists, such as Henry Ossawa Tanner, Aaron Douglas, Beauford Delaney, Loïs Mailou Jones, and Charles White. The artworks were paired with related works from Africa and categorized in seven themes such as Spirituality, Power and Politics, and Music and Urban Culture. The exhibition was “organized to explore intersecting ideas about history, creativity, power, identity, and artistry in ways that resonate with people the world over.” Thus, this exhibition foregrounded historical origins as well as aesthetic and thematic continuities between African American artists and African culture. This approach is reflective of efforts to root African American identity in ancient African traditions and history common since the Harlem Renaissance. Art critic Philip Kennicott took issue with the lack of a political dimension in the art in the Cosby collection and the often-tenuous connection to the juxtaposed African art pieces. He also questioned the ethics of showing a private collection in a public museum: “The appearance of a private collection in a museum can substantially enhance its value at market […] Appearances matter, and while corruption is the expected norm in politics, commerce and religion, museums should be above even a whiff of this sort of thing.” This kind of critique has been leveled elsewhere against the general recent upsurge in exhibiting private collections in public institutions. While this is a justified objection in the case of mainstream artists, important African American art is disproportionately held in private hands because of centuries-long institutional neglect. In addition, African American art continuous to be undervalued, and would be deserving of a lift in market value, as I explain below.
Point of View: The Elliot and Kimberly Perry Collection
Elliot Perry is another former NBA star who began collecting African American art during the 1990s. In 2014, Elliot Perry and his wife Kimberly shared a selection from their collection in two simultaneous exhibitions in Detroit, Point of View: Masters from the Elliot and Kimberly Perry Collection and in Flint, Michigan, Point of View: Contemporary African American Art from the Elliott and Kimberly Perry Collection. The exhibition in the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit focused on modern masters such as Henry Ossawa Tanner, Eldzier Cortor, Elizabeth Catlett, James Van Der Zee, and many others. Contemporary works from the likes of Chakaia Booker, Michael Ray Charles, Lyle Ashton Harris, Rashid Johnson, Kehinde Wiley, and Kara Walker were on view at the Flint Institute of Arts. A joined catalog for both exhibitions was published under the title Point of View.
Constructing Identity: Petrucci Family Foundation Collection of African-American Art
The Petrucci Family Collection is an outlier among the prominent private collections dedicated exclusively to African American art. It began as an investment vehicle and started only in 2012. Curated by artist and art professor Berrisford Boothe for the real estate developer and collector Jim Petrucci, it had grown to 230 works by 2017, when a selection was exhibited for the first time at the Portland Museum of Art, which showed works by more than eighty artists covering the historical breadth from Henry Ossawa Tanner up to contemporary stars such as Kehinde Wiley. The exhibition Constructing Identity once again foregrounded the theme of collective identity: “In 21st-century America, questions of race and identity are being explored as never before. This exploration has prompted many artists of color to investigate what constitutes identity, community, and the idea of a so-called post-racial society.” One reviewer recognized the necessity to introduce African American artists while at the same time adducing the fact that the history of underrepresentation cannot be undone by individual exhibitions: “Ultimately ‘Constructing Identity’ isn’t a corrective to the fact that there are few images of African Americans in museums and even fewer images made by African Americans.”
Solidary and Solitary: The Pamela J. Joyner and Alfred J. Giuffrida Collection
Private equity investors Pamela J. Joyner and Alfred J. Giuffrida collect African American abstract art and are the only collectors in the ARTnews magazine’s top 200 collectors worldwide to focus on African American art apart from New York banker Raymond J. McGuire. The show Solidary and Solitary opened in 2017 at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans and promised a new approach focusing on African American contributions to the development of abstract aesthetics. The show presented abstraction as a political choice and aimed to “demonstrate how abstraction has declared individual freedom; a resistance to the imagery of racist mainstream culture on the one hand, and pressures to create positive representations of black Americans on the other.” The exhibition featured abstract works ranging from mid-20thcentury artists such as Norman Lewis to some of the most prominent African American artists working today: for example, Theaster Gates, Lorna Simpson, and Mark Bradford, who will be only the fourth African American to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale in 2017. After New Orleans, the show went on a tour across the United States, with a total of five museums scheduled from 2017 to 2020.
History Refused to Die: The Souls Grown Deep Foundation Collection
The Souls Grown Deep Foundation is “dedicated to documenting, preserving, exhibiting and promoting the work of contemporary African American artists from the American South.” The foundation has its roots in the collection of William S. Arnett, who began collecting mostly unknown African American artists from nine southeastern states during the 1980s. By the mid-1990s Arnett had assembled enough works to stage the comprehensive survey exhibition Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular of the South in 1996 at the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University, to coincide with the Atlanta Olympics. A two-volume exhibition catalog published in 2000 and 2001 with the same title introduced, explored, and helped define a movement of self-taught African American artists, “who, in the preacher’s style, were moved to speak and called out to the world,” but who were ignored by the art world, as civil rights leader Andrew Young put it. Several significant and effective exhibitions followed, among them the aforementioned exhibitions of the quilts of Gee’s Bend, two exhibitions on Thornton Dial in 2005 and 2011, and an exhibition on Ronald Lockett in 2016.
Since 2014, the foundation has been in a process to “transfer the majority of works in its care to the permanent collections of leading American and international art museums.” To date, over 200 works by seventy-five artists have been acquired by major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the High Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Fine Art, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. A first major exhibition was History Refused to Die: Highlights from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation Gift. This 2018 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art featured thirty works of diverse media and technique, including pieces from Thornton Dial, Nellie Mae Rowe, Lonnie Holley, Ronald Lockett, and quilters such as Annie Mae Young, Lucy Mingo, and Loretta Pettway.
Kinsey Collection of African American Art and History
Finally, an early and comprehensive private collection of African American culture is the Shirley and Bernard Kinsey Collection of African American Art and History. This collection provides yet another approach by combining two and three-dimensional visual art with historically significant objects, as a practice of both collecting and exhibiting. The Kinsey collection is among the most widely exhibited private collections discussed here, reflecting the collectors’ mission to educate and reconfigure the perspective on African American history. The collection has been exhibited at more than twenty-five museums around the country since 2007 so far, including a show at the Smithsonian Museum of American History on the National Mall from 2009–2010. The Kinsey collection also ventured onto new ground by staging a show in the Epcot theme park at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, to reach a wider audience. The show, which was up for five years (2013–2018) was seen by an estimated fifteen to twenty million visitors. It is also the first major African American collection to be shown internationally, during the exhibition Rising Above: The Kinsey African American Art and History Collection® at the Museum and Art Gallery of the University of Hong Kong in 2016.
Picking up on the collection’s educational impetus, many reviewers over the years have recommended the exhibition as required viewing. Critic Mary C. Lewis wrote in the Washington Post,
The lack of respect for black achievement is nothing new. What’s truly missing in American education is a comprehensive history class, one that clearly states what African Americans have contributed, as a counter to a characterization that has taken hold of many minorities as undeserving takers […] an exhibit that should be required viewing for every American fills in some of that history […] American history, no hyphen required.
A feature article in Ebony, published on the occasion of the exhibition’s opening at Epcot, emphasized the Kinseys’ unique focus on education, reporting that they collaborated with the Florida Department of Education to approve the Kinsey collection catalog for the state’s K–12 history curriculum. As one of the most wide-ranging and widely viewed collections dedicated to African American culture broadly defined, the Kinsey collection’s conceptual approach will be further discussed below.
African American Art and the Art Market
Despite the increasing attention to African American artists that is evident in major private and public collections and the exhibitions and collections surveyed above, African American artists remain underrepresented in most museum collections and significantly undervalued by the art market. Exhibition in the most important art museums increases the market value of an artist significantly. As mentioned above, even in the collections with the most extensive holdings of African American art (at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art and the Chicago Institute of Art), African American artists are still underrepresented, at below 5 percent of the respective collections. The Museum of Modern Art online database only lists 30 African American artists out of more than 20,000. The opening show at the new Whitney Museum of American Art understood the move to its new building in the Meatpacking District as an opportunity to “reexamine the history of art in the United States from the beginning of the twentieth century to the present.” The show included more than forty African American artists, an inclusion that was celebrated by several reviewers. Even in this notable exception, however, works by African American artists comprised less than 10 percent of the show.
Even more obvious is the relative undervaluation of African American artists in the art market. In 1998, Black Entertainment Television (BET) founder Robert L. Johnson purchased 250 pieces of the Barnet-Aden collection for just $400,000, which in 2008 was valued at only $2 million. A painting at auction of Henry O. Tanner in October 2016 was estimated at $20,000–30,000 and did not sell. A painting at auction in 2017 by Loïs Mailou Jones was estimated at $10,000–15,000 and did not find a bidder. The only exception, and an extreme outlier, is Jean-Michel Basquiat. Coming out of the street art movement in New York City, he had a difficult biography that included homelessness, poverty, and drug abuse, which took his life at twenty-seven years of age. In 2015, the 100 highest-selling art works at auction worldwide included twenty-two works by white male American artists but only one work by an African American, Basquiat, achieving the twenty-seventh highest price of the year. In 2016, his works did even better, with three pieces ranking in the top 100 and reaching as high as the fifth spot for Untitled (1982), which sold for over $57 million, compared to twenty-four works by white Americans. In 2017, another of his works, also Untitled (1982), ranked third, with $110 million establishing a new record for any U.S. artist at auction. If anything, the mind-boggling increase of auction prices for Basquiat’s works only serves to highlight the continued underrepresentation of African American artists in the art market, as he continues to be the only African American artist to penetrate the exclusive list of top-selling artists globally.
Conclusion: Autobiographical Collecting and the Kinsey Collection
One basic aim of many collectors is to connect to the past through choosing, arranging, and interpreting personally valuable or historic objects. The collected items become mediums for the collector (or the viewer of a collection) to relate with and understand the past. Benjamin compares the collector to the physiognomist. Like the latter, the collector deciphers hidden essential qualities by interpreting the material surface, considering not only what meets the eye but also the context of the object:
For a true collector the whole background of an item adds up to a magic encyclopedia whose quintessence is the fate of his object. In this circumscribed area, then, it may be surmised how the great physiognomists – and collectors are the physiognomists of the world of objects – turn into interpreters of fate. One has only to watch a collector handle the objects in his glass case. As he holds them in his hands, he seems to be seeing through them into their distant past as though inspired.
Although physiognomy as a science has long been disproven, the metaphor encapsulates the Kinseys’ approach to their collection very well: the collected object inspires them to learn more and seek a deeper understanding (Figure Intro.3).
A particularly salient example of this process began with a letter from Carrie Kinsey, a second cousin of Bernard Kinsey, which inspired Douglas A. Blackmon to write his Pulitzer Prize–winning history Slavery by Another Name about forced labor by imprisoned African Americans after the Civil War (Figure Intro.4). The letter was addressed to President Theodore Roosevelt and asked for help to free Carrie Kinsey’s fourteen-year-old brother, who had been kidnapped and sold into slavery to a plantation in Georgia. The document prompted Blackmon to research a larger history of the post–Civil War era that had been hidden but had deep moral implications for U.S. national identity even today. Blackmon explained his motivation: “The emotion and tragedy and abandonment and travesty of our national ideals that are woven through this brief letter are heartbreaking to me. It fills me with shame, as a white person and as an American.”
Figure Intro.3 Bernard Kinsey Studying a Document. Photo by Kirk McKoy. Courtesy of the Kinsey African American Art and History Collection® and the Bernard & Shirley Kinsey Foundation for the Arts & Education.
Ackbar Abbas cautions us to understand Benjamin’s passage on reading the past as a passive endeavor: “‘To read what was never written:’ this is how Benjamin sees the function of reading. This is the kind of reading that Fuchs the collector may be said to exemplify when he chose to collect neglected objects for study.” Eduard Fuchs was a Marxist historian in the early twentieth century in Berlin. He was also a collector of a neglected art form: caricatures. His collection kindled an interest in marginalized groups and he wrote books about the visual representation in caricature of women and Jews. The example of Blackmon’s study also illustrates the meaning of “to read what was never written.” Carrie Kinsey’s letter, today part of the Kinsey collection, prompted Blackmon to write a part of history that previously had been ignored and therefore did not exist in the public imagination of American history. Understanding that slavery continued in another form long after the Civil War has profound consequences for understanding not only the past but the present and the future. Thus interpreting objects of the past is not merely concerned with what happened, “a form of interpretation,” as Abbas noted. More important, studying neglected objects of the past “is also a form of prophecy, a way of taking hold of the future. It is a form of action in the world.”
Figure Intro.4 Carrie Kinsey. Letter to President Roosevelt, 1903. Courtesy of the Kinsey African American Art and History Collection® and the Bernard & Shirley Kinsey Foundation for the Arts & Education.
Carrie Kinsey’s letter demonstrates how the personal history of the collectors intersects with the history of the nation. Sociologists Jeffrey Olick and Joyce Robbins argued that autobiographical memory becomes history, as new generations no longer have a direct experience of what is remembered. They explain: “Historical memory, however, can be either organic or dead: We can celebrate even what we did not directly experience, keeping the given past alive for us, or it can be alive only in historical records, so-called graveyards of knowledge.” The present collection of essays proves that the Kinsey Collection and other collections like it are not “graveyards of knowledge.” As we will show, the collected objects open a window into the past and call upon us to remember and continuously reconsider our knowledge and imagination about what came before. Ultimately, we hope to demonstrate that collecting overlooked aspects of our past and sharing such collections can be “a form of action in the world” enabling a deeper understanding of the present moment, and facilitating a more inclusive and just future.
The first essay examines a simple, handwritten bill of sale (1839), which certifies that Henry Butler bought his family for one hundred U.S. dollars. Thomas A. Foster uses this moving document as a starting point to explore the relationship between masculinity and fatherhood during slavery and demonstrates how a former slave was able to overcome limitations on his manhood by buying the freedom of his family. The second essay uses a first edition of Frederick Douglass’s Life and Times of Frederick Douglass from 1817 to 1832 (1882) to provide fresh context on the African American struggle for liberty. Kendall Johnson argues that Douglass strategically embraced the ideology of free trade during his escape from slavery. Ironically, Douglass overlooked that free trade was a tool of suppression elsewhere in a global system of trade dominated by imperialism and colonialism. The next essay takes a printed documentation of a North Carolina segregation law (1907) to explore resistance to Jim Crow. Steven C. Tracy turns to music and explores how musicians contested racial discrimination through blues recordings. Tracy shows that musicians were surprisingly vocal in their condemnation of segregation, even in the South. The next three essays focus on selected examples of visual art from the Kinsey collection. Looking at Alain Locke’s seminal art book The Negro in Art, Selina Lai-Henderson introduces and explores Locke’s influential work on the emergence of African American consciousness in art in the context of the Harlem Renaissance. Next, Ivy Wilson uses Loïs Mailou Jones’s watercolor Fishermen, Fishing Boats and Women Sketching (1947) to introduce the seminal painter and explore the significance of extraterritorial archipelagos in the development of African American consciousness. The seventh essay follows the development in African American art during the Civil Rights era. Concerning the example of Beauford Delaney’s Untitled (1963), Russ Castronovo argues that Delaney worked through issues of racial identity in his abstract watercolor. The concluding essay turns again to politics and social justice, using the example of the sign “Honor King!” that was carried during a protest march in response to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. Greta de Jong’s essay argues that King increasingly turned toward social justice toward the end of his life, and that to truly honor his legacy today one needs to pay more attention to his call to fight poverty.
Together, the essays of this collection exemplify the memory work that can be triggered by items of African American collections in general and those of the Kinsey collection in particular. We present a case in support of the importance of collecting itself. To be included in a collection of the past means to be deemed worthy of remembrance. Collections dedicated to the achievements of marginalized groups provide a counternarrative to the dominant perspectives on national history. We invite all visitors to the Kinsey exhibition, and anyone interested in African American contributions, to take a second look, to learn more about the historical and aesthetic contexts, and to delve deeper into the creative ways of resisting and contributing that African Americans have shown throughout U.S. history.
 Bernard Kinsey and Shirley Kinsey, The Kinsey Collection: Shared Treasures of Bernard and Shirley Kinsey: Where Art and History Intersect (Los Angeles: Bernard and Shirley Kinsey Foundation for Arts and Education, 2009), 6.
 Lerone Bennett, Jr., “The 10 Biggest Myths About Black History,” Ebony (February 1984), 27.
 Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (New York: Schocken, 2015), 60.
 Ibid., 257–58.
 Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2016), 5–6.
 Ibid., 5.
 Black Lives Matter is an international activist movement that protests systemic violence and racism against black people in the United States. It began in the wake of the shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2013 and continues until today.
 Paul Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 449.
 Ibid., 448.
 Ibid., 449.
 See Alvia J. Wardlaw, Something All Our Own: The Grant Hill Collection of African American Art (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 23.
 Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics (London: Routledge, 2013), 87.
 Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London, New York: Verso, 2006), 163–64.
 See Anderson, 183.
 See Tony Bennett for a discussion of the term “exhibitionary complex”: Tony Bennett, “The Exhibitionary Complex.” New Formations 4 (1988), 74.
 In 2015, about two-thirds ($820 million) of the Smithsonian’s total budget of $1.379 billion was provided by federal funds. The remaining amount was covered by the institution's trust fund.
 “Art by African Americans,” Smithsonian American Art Museum. https://americanart.si.edu/art/highlights/african-american (accessed March 29, 2017).
 Kirk Savage, Monument Wars, Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 4.
 While African American artists had been collected and exhibited prior to the Harlem Renaissance, especially in the major American and European cities, there were no prominent collections or exhibitions based on the African American identity of the artists.
 Susan Adams, “Why African-American Art Is So Hot,” Forbes (2008). https://www.forbes.com/2008/12/03/collecting-guide-art-forbeslife-cx_sa_1203collectorsguide.html (accessed March 27, 2017).
 Mary Savig, Pen to Paper: Artists Handwritten Letters From the Smithsonian’s Archives (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2016), 200.
 Will South, “A Missing Question Mark: The Unknown Henry Ossawa Tanner,” Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide 8:2 (2009).
 “Represent: 200 Years of African American Art,” Philadelphia Museum of Art. http://philamuseum.org/exhibitions/815.html?page=1 (accessed March 27, 2017).
 See Arnold Rampersad, “Introduction,” in The New Negro, edited by Alain LeRoy Locke. (Eastford, CT: Martino Fine Books, 2015).
 Langston Hughes, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” in Let Nobody Turn Us Around: Voices of Resistance, Reform, and Renewal: An African AmericanAnthology, edited by Manning Marable and Leith Mullings (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), 278.rica's Past (Kindle Locations 945-946). University of Cincinnati Press. Kindle Edition.
 Cary D. Wintz and Paul Finkelman, Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance (New York: Routledge, 2004), 50.
 For a complete list of Tanner’s exhibitions see Anna O. Marley, Henry Ossawa Tanner, and Art: Modern Spirit (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 2012), 276–91. At the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts, he was a student and protégée of Thomas Eakins, one of the most important American realist painters of the 19th century and a progressive art educator, who encouraged female and minority artists at a time when a career in the arts was virtually closed to them. See “Henry Ossawa Tanner,” H. W. Janson and Anthony F. Janson, History of Art: the Western Tradition (New York: Prentice Hall; Harry N. Abrams, 2001). For a detailed exploration of Eakins’s influence on Tanner, see Chapter 2 in Marcia Mathews, Henry Ossawa Tanner, American Artist (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).
 Alain Locke, “The American Negro as Artist,” in The New Negro: Readings on Race, Representation, and African American Culture, 1892–1938, edited by Henry Louis Gates and Gene Andrew Jarrett (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 543. See also Wintz et al., 50.
 Locke, “The American Negro as Artist,” 543.
 See Gary A. Reynolds, Beryl J. Wright, David C. Driskell, Against the Odds: African-American Artists and the Harmon Foundation (Newark, NJ: Newark Museum, 1989).
 The other Harmon Foundation award recipients represented in the Kinsey collection are John Wesley Hardwick and Laura Wheeler Waring (1927), May Howard Jackson (1928), Sargent Claude Johnson (1929), and James Lessene Wells (1930).
 Locke, “The American Negro as Artist,” 543.
 Meyerowitz, Lisa, “The Negro in Art Week: Defining The ‘New Negro’ Through Art Exhibition,” African American Review 31:1 (1997): 75–89, 77.
 Locke, “The American Negro as Artist,” 543.
 James Weldon Johnson, “Race Prejudice and the Negro Artist,” in The New Negro: Readings on Race, Representation, and African American Culture, 1892–1938, edited by Henry Louis Gates and Gene Andrew Jarrett (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 350.
 Janet Gail Abbott, The Barnett Aden Gallery: A Home for Diversity in a Segregated City (Doctoral dissertation, retrieved from ProQuest, 2008), 8.
 Abbot, 6.
 Abbot, 9 and 20.
 “Robert L. Johnson Donates Selections from the Barnett-Aden Collection to the National Museum of African American History and Culture,” Smithsonian Institution, http://newsdesk.si.edu/releases/robert-l-johnson-donates-selections-barnett-aden-collection-national-museum-african-america (accessed July 8, 2017).
 Edmund Gaither, Afro-American Artists: New York and Boston (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1970).
 Hilton Kramer, “Black Artists’ Show On View in Boston,” The New York Times (May 22, 1970).
 Gerald C. Fraser, “‘Black Art’ Label Disputed by Curator,” The New York Times (June 29, 1977).
 “Art by African American,” Smithsonian American Art Museum, https://americanart.si.edu/art/highlights/african-american (accessed March 29, 2017).
 The museum’s online collection database currently shows 44,099 entries (“Smithsonian American Art Museum Collections Search Center.” Smithsonian Institution. http://collections.si.edu/search/results.htm?view=&dsort=&date.slider=&fq=data_source%3A%22Smithsonian+American+Art+Museum%22&q=&gfq=CSILP_1http://collections.si.edu/search/results.htm?view=&dsort=&date.slider=&fq=data_source%3A%22Smithsonian+American+Art+Museum%22&q=&gfq=CSILP_1 (accessed April 7, 2018).
 “African-American Artists,” The Art Institute of Chicago, http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/category/142 (accessed April 6, 2018).
 “American,” The Art Institute of Chicago, http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/category/2 (accessed April 6, 2018).
 Lowery Stokes Sims and Dennis Carr, Common Wealth: Art by African Americans in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Boston, MA: MFA Publications, 2015).
 “African American Art,” Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, https://www.vmfa.museum/collections/african-american-art/ (accessed April 9, 2018).
 “African American Art at The Cleveland Museum of Art,” Cleveland Museum of Art, http://www.clevelandart.org/blog/2013/02/01/african-american-art-cleveland-museum-art (accessed April 9, 2018).
 “African-American Artists,” The Art Institute of Chicago, http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/category/142 (accessed April 6, 2018).
 Randy Kennedy, “Black Artists and the March into the Museum,” The New York Times (November 28, 2015).
 “Represent: 200 Years of African American Art,” Philadelphia Museum of Art, http://philamuseum.org/exhibitions/815.html?page=1 (accessed March 27, 2017).
 Michael Kimmelman, “ART REVIEW; Jazzy Geometry, Cool Quilters,” The New York Times (November 29, 2002).
 The other African American artists to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale were: Sam Gilliam (1972), Robert Colescott (1997), and Fred Wilson (2003). Kennedy, 2016.
 Kennedy, “Black Artists and the March into the Museum.”
 Halima Taha, Collecting African American Art: Works on Paper and Canvas (Burlington, VT: Verve Editions, 2005), 1.
 For a selection of highlights from the collection see Andrea D. Barnwell and Tritobia Hayes Benjamin, The Walter O. Evans Collection of African American Art (Seattle: Walter O. Evans Foundation for Art and Literature, 2000).
 “The Birth of the Paul R. Jones Collection,” The University of Delaware, http://www1.udel.edu/PaulRJonesCollection/birth.html (accessed April 7, 2018).
 Gylbert Coker, Douglas Hyland, and Corinne Jennings, The Harmon and Harriet Kelley Collection of African American Art (San Antonio: San Antonio Museum of Art, 1994).
 Grant Hill and Alvia J. Wardlaw, Something All Our Own: The Grant Hill Collection of African American Art (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).
 Darryl Lauster, “Something All Our Own: The Grant Hill Collection of African American Art,” Glasstire (June 2, 2004).
 “Tradition Redefined: The Larry and Brenda Thompson Collection of African American Art,” The David C. Driskell Center. http://www.driskellcenter.umd.edu/Thompson/index.php (accessed April 9, 2018).
 “30 Americans,” https://rfc.museum/bookstore/30-americans-3rd-edition-detail (accessed March 27, 2017).
 Sarah Rose Sharp, “A Show of African American Artists Resonates in Racially Divided Detroit,” Hyperallergic (January 7, 2016).
 “About,” Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, http://conversations.africa.si.edu/about/ (accessed March 27, 2017).
 See Rampersad, “Introduction.”
 Philllip Kennicott, “‘Conversations’: Museum’s African Art Outshines Cosby’s African American Art,” The Washington Post (November 9, 2014).
 Judith H. Dobrzynski, “A Growing Use of Private Art in Public Spaces,” The New York Times (March 9, 2011).
 Point of View: African American Art from the Elliot and Kimberly Perry Collection (Detroit: Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, 2014).
 “Constructing Identity,” Portland Art Museum, http://portlandartmuseum.org/exhibitions/constructing-identity/ (accessed April 1, 2017).
 Briana Miller, “African American Art Exhibit Aims High, Falls Short,” The Oregonian (February 13, 2017).
 This exhibition is scheduled to be shown at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, the Snite Museum of Art at the University of Notre Dame, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Berkeley Art Museum, and at the Pacific Film Archive, California.
 “2017 Top 200 Collectors,” http://www.artnews.com/top200year/2017/ (accessed April 10, 2018).
 “Groundbreaking Exhibition of African-American Art Will Tour Five US Venues,” Black Art in America, http://blackartinamerica.com/profiles/blogs/groundbreaking-exhibition-of-african-american-art-will-tour-five-(accessed April 1, 2017).
 “Souls Grown Deep Foundation,” Souls Grown Deep Foundation, http://www.soulsgrowndeep.org/ (accessed April 10, 2018).
 Paul Arnett and William Arnett. Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South (Atlanta, GA: Volume One; New York: Tinwood Books, in association with the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the New York Public Library (2000), 4.
 “About Souls Grown Deep Foundation,” Souls Grown Deep Foundation, http://www.soulsgrowndeep.org/foundation (accessed April 10, 2018).
 Mary C. Curtis, “How America’s Original Affirmative Action Is Still Going Strong,” The Washington Post (July 1, 2013).
 Penny Dickerson, “A Whole New World: The Kinsey Collection,” Ebony (March 2013).
 “Art by African Americans.”
 “America Is Hard to See,” Whitney Museum of American Art, https://whitney.org/Exhibitions/AmericaIsHardToSee (accessed April 7, 2018).
 See, for example, Andrea K. Scott, “Finding Refuge at the Whitney,” The New Yorker (June 22, 2015) and Victoria L. Valentine, “At Whitney Museum, ‘America IsHard to See’ Acknowledges African American Contributions to Recent Art History,” Culture Type (September 27, 2015).
 Benjamin, Illuminations, 60–61.
 Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black Americans From the Civil War to World War II (London: Icon, 2012).
 For a complete treatment of re-enslavement of African Americans after the Civil War see Douglas A. Blackmon’s book on the topic.
 Kinsey and Kinsey, 77.
 Ackbar Abbas, “Walter Benjamin’s Collector: The Fate of Modern Experience.” New Literary History 20:1 (1988): 217–37, 235.
 Abbas, 235.
 Jeffrey K. Olick and Joyce Robbins, “Social Memory Studies: From “Collective Memory” to the Historical Sociology of Mnemonic Practices,” Annual Review of Sociology 24:1 (1998): 105–40, 111.