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50 Years/50 Collections: The Origins of the Fine Arts Collection at the Amistad Research Center

Since its founding, the Amistad Research Center has operated primarily as an archives and library. However, in 1983, the Center was the fortunate recipient of an outstanding fine arts collection, known as the Aaron Douglas Collection, which greatly expanded Amistad’s holdings. It would also lead to the acquisition of the personal papers of many leading African American artists in the years to follow.

The Aaron Douglas Collection originated with the philanthropic work of the Harmon Foundation, which was founded by wealthy real estate developer William E. Harmon in 1922. The Foundation initially supported a variety of social causes, but its legacy is most closely identified with its support of African American artists, musicians, and writers, particularly visual artists. In addition to presenting cash awards, the Foundation began a series of touring exhibitions for Black artists that greatly expanded recognition of their work and presented opportunities for them to sell their individual works, as well. By 1939, over 400 artists had been supported by the Harmon Foundation.

Leading the Harmon Foundation’s philanthropic efforts was Mary Beattie Brady, who served as director throughout the life of the Foundation, from 1922 to 1967. Brady’s work on behalf of the Foundation was not without its criticism from African American artists and intellectuals, most notably Alain Locke, Romare Bearden, and James A. Porter, but she maintained close relationships with many artists of the day, supported their work, and amassed an outstanding art collection.

The Harmon Foundation closed its offices in 1967 and ceased operations in 1969. At that time, Brady placed the art collection on indefinite loan to Fisk University under the care of artist and curator David C. Driskell, where the collection was to be preserved and exhibited. In 1977, Brady formally transferred ownership of the collection to the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries (UCBHM) in New York for use in its College Museum Collaborative Program, which served the six historically black colleges and universities in the South founded by the American Missionary Association (AMA). David Driskell remained in his role as curator and the collection was managed by an arts management company and continued to be loaned and exhibited.

Eventually the UCBHM transferred the collection and its custodianship to the Amistad Research Center in 1982/1983 and formally deeded the collection to the Center in 1985. This move was based on the Center’s historical connection to the UCBHM and the AMA, and due to the fact that the UCBHM offices could not house and maintain the collection. In its September 1983 newsletter, the Amistad Research Center announced the arrival of the collection: “Over two hundred works by some of the nation’s most prominent Afro-American artists became part of the Amistad Research Center when the Aaron Douglas Collection arrived this year.” Over the years, the original Douglas collection would be supplemented and expanded by various means. Additional works were donated or purchased on occasion, and others entered Amistad’s collection in tandem with the personal papers of the artist. Such was the case with works by Elizabeth Catlett, Richmond Barthé, and Hale Woodruff.

Today, the Fine Arts Collection at the Amistad Research Center is considered one of the finest African American art collections in the nation, and boasts an exciting array of paintings, sculpture, and works on paper, now numbering over four hundred. The collection includes important examples from the nineteenth century, such as the works of Jules Lion, Edward M. Bannister and Henry O. Tanner, to the burgeoning years of African American visual arts during the early and mid-twentieth century with the works of Elizabeth Catlett, Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, William H. Johnson, Malvin Gray Johnson, Claude Clark, Ellis Wilson, William Artis, Richmond Barthé, Margaret Burroughs, Clementine Hunter, Hale Woodruff, Vivian Ellis, William E. Scott, Jeffrey Cook, Ron Bechet, Sam Middleton, Keith Morrison, William E. Pajaud and James Phillips, among others.

In recent years, efforts have been made to expand access to and knowledge about the collection. Although portions of the collection had been loaned to various exhibitions throughout the years, the Amistad Research Center partnered with the New Orleans Museum of Art for the first major exhibition of the collection in 2010, which also resulted in the first catalog of the collection, Beyond the Blues: Reflections of African America in the Fine Arts Collection of the Amistad Research Center. The catalog was edited by the exhibition’s curator, Dr. Margaret Rose Vendryes, and contains contributions by David C. Driskell, Lowery Stokes Sims, Michael D. Harris, and Renée Ater. Since that time, portions of the collection have traveled the United States as part of exhibitions sponsored by organizations such as The High Museum of Art, The Detroit Institute of Arts, The DuSable Museum of African American History, The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, El Museo del Barrio, The Pérez Art Museum Miami, The Cleveland Museum of Art, and others.

As Dr. Vendryes wrote in her introduction to Beyond the Blues, “The Collection is a map that charts change in American visual arts while highlighting African American connections passed, like a baton, over the course of a century from one generation to the next.” The Amistad Research Center is pleased to make this important collection of art available for today’s scholars and those of tomorrow. More information about the Collection is available on Amistad’s website.

Images from the fine arts collection of the Amistad Research Center. Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.

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