National Gallery of Art Acquires 40 Works by Black Southern Artists

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Thornton Dial, Testing Chair

The foundation promotes African American artists from the South of the United States. Anderson says the purchase of numerous works by black painters, quilts, and sculptors is significant because the National Gallery of Art is not an encyclopedic museum dedicated to the acquisition of multiple works at once, most often for the acquisition of individual significant pieces made in the apogee of the career of a famous artist.

He adds that like all museum acquisitions, it took a little time to get to the finish line, in this case, three years. The list began well before the assassination of George Floyd [May 2020], and final approval was obtained after the appointment of Kevin Feldman [National Gallery Director in December 2018].

The acquisition includes nine quilts by artists from Gees Bend, an African American community located on the Alabama River, as well as several works by the late Alabama-born artist Thornton Dyle, including a commemorative drawing of Princess Diana (Diana’s Funeral from Last Trip Home, 1997 ) and the mixed article Refugees Trying to Enter the United States (1988).

National Gallery of Art Acquires 40 Works by Black Southern Artists
The art of Lonnie Holley

Other works in the National Gallery of Art collection include The Prophet Royal Robertson (1930–1997) Seven Out of the Body Travels (1984) and drawings by Nellie Mae Rowe, an artist from Fayette County, Georgia, such as Judith in Party Dress. (1978).

Anderson adds that this is an endorsement for the 21 artists, who now take their place in the gallery alongside artists of well-deserved reputation. And since their mission is to change the canon of American art by including 160 artists in their collection, this is a big step forward.

Harry Cooper, senior curator and head of contemporary art at the National Gallery of Art, told The New York Times, which first broke the news, that this is an important acquisition for their department in terms of diversity.

National Gallery of Art Acquires 40 Works by Black Southern Artists
Mary Lee Bendolph, Blocks and Strips, 2002

 

Other works in the National Gallery of Art collection include The Prophet Royal Robertson (1930–1997) Seven Out of the Body Travels (1984) and drawings by Nellie Mae Rowe, an artist from Fayette County, Georgia, such as Judith in Party Dress. (1978).

Anderson adds that this is an endorsement for the 21 artists, who now take their place in the gallery alongside artists of well-deserved reputation. And since their mission is to change the canon of American art by including 160 artists in their collection, this is a big step forward.

Harry Cooper, senior curator and head of contemporary art at the National Gallery of Art, told The New York Times, which first broke the news, that this is an important acquisition for their department in terms of diversity.

The works purchased by the National Gallery were purchased from a foundation. Anderson explains how funding is allocated, pointing out that in terms of allocating funds, they made acquisitions, as they did this year, with the purchase of a group of 12 quilts from Loretta Pettway Bennett.

National Gallery of Art Acquires 40 Works by Black Southern Artists
James “Son Ford” Thomas

After covering the operating costs, the fund directs its income and a small value-based fund to support the Souls Grown Deep Community Partnership, the organization’s grants, advocacy, and investment division.

These breathtaking works by Southern American artists showcase remarkable qualities of creative and conceptual daring and material ingenuity across a wide range of media and styles. These works offer a deep understanding and vision of the pressing issues of our time, and we are delighted to be able to add them to our collection of contemporary art.

Many of the artists included in the acquisition were self-taught. Their work was mostly not collected by major museums during their lifetime. These artists are not mainstream and have no traditional education. They are black and southern and often have difficulty creating their work.

Highlights of the collection include the 2002 Mary Lee Bendolph Quilt, one of the most famous quilts from Gees Bend, a famous group of black quilters living in the countryside along the Alabama River. The Gee’s Bend first began creating their masterful abstract creations in the mid-19th century.

Other acquired works include The Test Chair (1995), a throne-like sculpture that Dayal created to commemorate the death of fellow artist Bessie Harvey, and the 1997 Dialogue drawing commemorating the death of Princess Diana: The Last Journey Home ( Diana’s funeral) (1997)).

 

More recently, as Amey Wallach wrote for Smithsonian magazine in 2006, a series of national quilt exhibitions by the group helped significantly raise the profile of artists.

In 2003, 50 active members formed a collective and began selling their work to large organizations for tens of thousands of dollars. Bendolph’s patchwork quilt has brown wool and blue denim rectangles juxtaposed with vibrant stripes and squares that reproduce the structural foundation of Housetop, a traditional concentric square design popular with quiltmakers from Gee’s Bend, the National Gallery of Art said in a statement.

Other acquired works include The Test Chair (1995), a throne-like sculpture that Dayal created to commemorate the death of fellow artist Bessie Harvey, and the 1997 Dialogue drawing commemorating the death of Princess Diana: The Last Journey Home ( Diana’s funeral) (1997)). The collection also features four clay gumbo busts by James “Ford’s Son” Thomas and folkloric collages by Nelly Mae Rowe.

As the Times notes, the acquisition came against a backdrop of national recognition of systemic racism. In July, former and current NGA employees launched an online petition accusing the institute of sexual and racial discrimination and calling for sweeping changes to make the museum a fairer, more diverse, and transparent place of work.

National Gallery of Art Acquires 40 Works by Black Southern Artists
The Last Trip Home (Diana’s Funeral), 1997

In an interview with the then-Washington Post’s Peggy McGlone, Feldman agreed with some of the proposed changes and said she would work to reduce racial inequality among employees. As of April, the museum’s 1,000 staff was 46 percent colored, but the curatorial and restoration staff were 96 percent white.

For her part, Anderson hopes this acquisition will help bring many of these talented artists to a wider audience. As he reports to the Times, for the artists attending the event, participating in a prominent gallery in that country is a testament to their talent and their adherence to the canon of American art history.

 

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