Preserving Black Art On Campus
A traveling exhibit displaying some of the rare treasures in historically Black college art collections also explains the delicate process that went into their restoration \
When art curators Dr. Richard Powell and Jock Reynolds first discovered a murky portrait of a Black man, inauspiciously stowed in a storeroom of the Howard University Gallery during the 1980s, they couldn’t find the artist’s signature.
The piece turned out to be an antebellum-period portrait of Charles Wilson Fleetwood Jr., a Baltimore free man of color. Thorough cleaning eventually revealed the signature of acclaimed artist Thomas Waterman Wood.
“Layers of green paint were removed revealing a gilded gold frame,” says Powell, who is now chair of the art and art history department at Duke University. “This suggests this was an important piece when [it] was commissioned.”
The discovery of this and other works found crowded together without the benefit of climate control or needed maintenance revealed to Powell and Reynolds the deficits of the art gallery’s capacity to care for and display its collection. Some canvases had actually been punctured or torn and were not exhibit-worthy. Further inquiry revealed that Howard was not the only historically Black institution faced with such challenges.
Lack of financial resources and chronic inattention had prevented many Black institutions from investing in sustained efforts to archive and conserve the paintings, sculpture, photographs, documents and memorabilia they have amassed since the late 1800s. Consequently, many of the works in the institution’s collections have suffered damage and deterioration that threatens the artistic and cultural tradition that brought them into being.
Powell and Reynolds, who currently directs Yale University’s Art Gallery, were determined to change this. With funding from AT&T and Ford Motor Company, the two art scholars are the co-curators of an exhibition that brings together a coalition of art scholars, conservation specialists and six historically Black institutions to restore, document and display in a national tour more than 150 works of art from the universities’ permanent collections. Included in the collection are works by acclaimed artists such as Romare Bearden, Edmonia Lewis and William H. Johnson.
Of course, not all of the works featured in the “To Conserve a Legacy: American Art from Historically Black Colleges and Universities” exhibition were subject to conditions as harsh as those endured by the Wood piece. Still, a disquieting number were rediscovered in dark storerooms where they had rested for years in obscurity, out of the focus of scholarly and public attention.
In addition to uncovering the facility-based problems with preserving these artworks, Reynolds, who is White, says working on the project made him acutely aware of the paucity of African Americans among the nation’s corps of art conservators. This awareness was heightened in the spring of 1995 when he attended a board meeting of the Williamstown (Mass.) Art Conservation Center. The organization had decided to undertake the expansion of relationships between cultural and educational institutions thereby making students aware of the conservation field during their early undergraduate years. A key element of this effort would be to increase the ranks of people of color within the profession.
Reynolds recruited Powell — who by this time was a friend as well as a colleague — to be a partner in formulating, orchestrating and producing the exhibit. Powell responded, glad for the opportunity to do something beyond merely showing “what’s beautiful and wonderful to look at.” He relished the opportunity to have a positive impact on the collections and collection practices of the Black colleges selected to participate.
Clark Atlanta, Fisk, Hampton, Howard, North Carolina Central and Tuskegee universities were chosen because of their unique history of collecting. For Powell, the show would not be as interesting with an assemblage of single pieces from many institutions.
“The narrow focus presents those with compelling selections of American art. There’s a nice sampling of the institutions’ unique histories and collecting histories,” he says.
Co-organized by the Addison Gallery of American Art and the Studio Museum in Harlem, the project incorporates conservation and conservation-training work in addition to the exhibit and catalog publication. The conservation component was managed by the Williamstown center, which surveyed the art collections and selected over 1,400 works for treatment. To help with the work and to ensure that the conservation knowledge and spirit were reinforced at the institutions, students were selected by the universities to work alongside the professional conservators.
Carol Cooper Dyson, who teaches at the Washington-based Art for Empowerment, a program that serves teenagers in the juvenile court system, was an art history student at Howard University. In the summer of 1997, she and 11 others were enriched through an internship at the Williamstown center and The Studio Museum.
“The experience broadened my exposure, my awareness to opportunities for African Americans in the area of conservation,” Dyson says. “The wealth of what is at HBCUs is brought forward.”
Dyson adds that she would like to see more people of color in the pivotal role of art archivist and conservator. But according to Opal Baker, interim director of Fisk University’s Museum collection, it can take years to gain acceptance in the field.
“Until you make a name for yourself, or land a good museum job, it’s a thankless job,” Baker says. “There’s a series of apprenticeships after the chemistry degree that can be unpaid or that pay very little.”
This long unpaid apprenticeship period could be a contributing factor to minority underrepresentation in the corps of conservators.
The works featured in the “Legacy” exhibit are organized into six themes that reflect the historical and cultural legacy of African Americans — Forever Free: Emancipation Visualized; The First Americans; Training the Head, the Hand and the Heart; The American Portrait Gallery; American Expressionism and Modern Lives, Modern Impulses. And as conservation is a central element of the project, each work is accompanied by a detailed description, replete with before and after photos, of the exacting restoration process.
For example, Elizabeth Catlett’s “Negro Woman” in wood and onyx had to be disassembled to solve the problem of misalignment, which had developed along the wood seams over time. The figure’s old glue was removed by hand and incremental planing of the inside surfaces brought the halves back into harmony. It was then carefully re-glued.
Charles White’s mural, “Progress of the American Negro,” had become soiled and distorted as a result of poor storage practices. Some of the bare canvas showed through in spots where the oil paint had cracked and pulled away from it. It was flattened, cleaned and the original hues were meticulously matched to restore the original splendor in its depiction of such historical figures as Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass and Marian Andersen.
The exhibition’s national tour extends through July 2001 visiting Chicago, Atlanta, Durham, Nashville and Norfolk. The exhibition appeared in New York City, Andover, Mass., and Washington, D.C., last year. The importance of these collections in preserving the cultural patrimony of African Americans in particular and Americans in general is indisputable.
“This is a project that one hopes does not close with the last show,” Powell says. “We are beginning to take the task seriously.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com