By Shantay Robinson
Although the turn of dominant artworld institutions to recognize the merit of African American artists is upon us, we cannot forget the institutions that have been dedicated to supporting African American art for a long time before this current acceptance. African American artists have been creating art in the United States from the time of arrival. But they have not always been credited or appreciated for their work. Because there has always been a need for exhibition spaces for African American artists, there have been several trailblazers with foresight to carve out spaces where they can to fulfill this need. They may have started small, in their homes even, but the way these institutions have grown over the years, we can know that African American artists will always have a place to exhibit their work.
These individuals should be lauded for this arduous work. Maintaining an art institution is no easy task, especially when the artists being exhibited are not typically from the dominant culture. According to the Economist, “The means of black household wealth is $138,200—for whites, that number is $933,700.” The fact that the black community’s wealth is staggeringly less than that of white households makes this work even more daunting. But these courageous individuals persist. In the face of national budget cuts for the arts, these institution builders manage to continue doing the important work they need to do in order to make sure that African American artists have a place to exhibit their work; and equally important, they create space for African American communities to feel welcome to appreciate the work of talented African American artists.
An institution builder is different than being a leader. The individuals listed below are not only leading a team of an established organization, they are or have been establishing an organization from the its very beginning. They are believers in dreams that they must convince others to believe in too. They coach and mentor teams of people in a game that they might not always win, but they are diligent in their roles as trailblazers, so they work through mistakes and come out on the other side victorious. These individuals not only established organizations that exhibit art, they have built communities around art. The effect of their relationships with the communities they serve will have an impact for generations to come. And as they continue to do their good work, we must reciprocate that devotion with support.
Margaret Taylor Burroughs co-founded DuSable Museum of African American History with her husband Charles Gordon Burroughs in 1961. It is the oldest museum on black culture in the United States. Originally known as the Ebony Museum of Negro History, the institution was first located in the living room of the Burroughs’ home. In 1973, they moved the museum to Washington Park, Chicago. Taylor-Burroughs was the Executive Director until 1985 when she retired and then served as the Director Emeritus. Burroughs received a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Arts in Art Education from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Charles H. Wright founded the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in 1965 in Detroit Michigan. The museum was redesigned in 1997. Located in Detroit, Michigan, the museum holds more than 35,000 artifacts. Charles Wright was a physician and gynecologist, who served as a physician during the Civil Rights marches. He wrote and published a medical magazine and wrote two books. Wright passed away in 2002.
Corrine Jennings along with Joe Overstreet and Samuel C. Floyd founded Kenkeleba House Gallery in 1974. Kenkeleba House is a nonprofit art gallery that celebrates African American artists and other artists of color who have been historically overlooked by the dominant artworld. Located in New York City’s Lower East Side, the gallery is committed to improving the quality of urban education through the arts. The gallery collects artifacts, art, and documents to share with its audiences. Kenkeleba is the name of a West African She-Haw plant known for nutritional, spiritual, and healing values. Corrine Jennings has organized major exhibitions for more than 5,000 artists.
Harry Robinson founded African American Museum Dallas in 1974 as part of Bishop College a former HBCUs special collection. Although Bishop College closed in 1988, the museum continues to exhibit the work of black artists from the permanent collection including works by Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, John Biggers, Benny Andrews and Edward Mitchell Bannister. Robinson joined Bishop College in 1974 as a librarian.
Samella Lewis founded the Museum of African American Art in 1976 in Los Angeles California. Dr. Lewis and a group of business people, artists, and community leaders wanted to bring about a greater awareness of African American art, so they established the museum. The museum exists today on the third floor of Macy’s in Baldwin Hills Crenshaw. Not only did Lewis create a physical site where viewers can appreciate art, she also founded the longstanding publication International Review of African American Art in 1975.
Dr. Otis Thrash Hammonds was a physician who collected art. Dr. Hammonds was active in the Atlanta arts community serving on the boards of the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library at Committee, the Atlanta Preservation Society, and the Sculptural Arts Museum. After his death in 1985, Fulton County Board of Commissioners purchased his house and art collection. A former director of Studio Museum in Harlem, Edward Spriggs, submitted a proposal that the house be turned into a museum. The museum opened in 1988. The Hammonds House Museum’s collection consists of 350 artworks, including works by Robert S. Duncanson, Elizabeth Catlett, Hale Woodruff, and James Van Der Zee.
Danny Simmons founded Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation in 1995. Early on, he converted part of his Brooklyn loft into the Corridor Gallery. Today Rush Arts facilitates three exhibition spaces, Rush Art Gallery, Corridor Gallery, and Rush Arts Philly. In addition to the exhibition spaces Rush Arts also hosts Rush Education that serves over 3,000 students annually. Brother to Russell Simmons and Joseph Simmons (Rev. Run of Run DMC), Simmons is an abstract painter in his own right. And he was also the co-executive producer of Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam.
Theaster Gates, Jr. founded Rebuild Foundation in 2010. The organization began in two refurbished spaces on Dorchester Avenue in Chicago called the Archive House and the Listening House. The Archive Households 14,000 architecture books and the Listening House holds 8,000 records. Stony Island Arts Banks which was renovated from a dilapidated state is also the site of art exhibitions and community building activities. Stony Island Arts Bank holds collections from John H. Johnson’s Collection of Ebony and Jet magazines, Frankie Knuckles, the Godfather of House music’s vinyl collection, University of Chicago’s art history slides, and Edward J. Williams’ Collection of 4,000 objects of negrobilia.
Lonnie Bunch III is the founding Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. While the idea for a museum of this kind dates back to 1915, the museum was finally open to the public in 2016. It is the fourth most visited nationally Smithsonian museum. The museum has more that 40,000 objects in its collection, but only about 3,500 are on display. In May of 2019, Bunch was named Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, the first African American leader for the Smithsonian. Moving into this new position, Bunch will leave NMAAHC and the position will be open to someone new.
While these institution builders have carved out niches and established spaces for black people to celebrate their majesty, their existence is not guaranteed. Just because they are here today, doesn’t mean they will automatically be here tomorrow. It takes dedication from them, which we’ve seen as they started and have maintained these institutions. But they also need support from the communities they serve. Simply because you may not be from the area doesn’t mean they aren’t also serving you. These institutions are destinations. And they deserve to be on your planning schedule when you visit the cities where they exist. Even if you are unable to visit the sites, donating what you can and supporting monetarily is also an option to ensure the maintenance of these institutions. Although the leaders of these establishments are doing all they can to build spaces where black culture can thrive, they need a supportive community behind them.
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Shantay Robinson, BAIA resident scholar has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.
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