How Public Art Projects Expanded Opportunities for a Generation of Black Artists, Part 1
By Yvonne Bynoe
In the 1930s, long before accomplished Black artists were being exhibited in major museums or represented by top galleries in the United States, public art projects were the chief way that their works were seen and their reputations developed. Public art commissions were also a critical source of income for these artists. Many leading Black artists supported themselves by teaching at colleges and universities because they were not receiving large sums of money for their work. It’s not until the 1990s that work by African-American artists was widely recognized as valuable, resulting in well-known Black artists being able to command lucrative fees.
Generally, public art is a visual work made with the intent to be seen in a public space that average citizens frequent: municipal buildings, hospitals, courthouses, schools, post offices. A local proprietor can commission an artist to paint a mural on the wall of its establishment. A private institution or a state or local government entity can also sponsor a public arts project.
This is a selection of public art works in the United States created by American masters of African descent:
1. MURAL COLLECTION AT HARLEM HOSPITAL New York, NY (Commissioned 1936)
During the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs included the creation of a national work program called the Works Progress Administration (WPA). It included the Federal Art Project (FAP), a program that paid artists to create murals in cities and towns across the country. The Federal Art Project commissioned over 500 murals to be painted for New York’s public hospitals.
Although the WPA/FAP’s stated hiring rules were nondiscriminatory, Black American artists were routinely denied work. Subsequently, influential Harlem artist, Charles Alston and Harlem Artist Guild president, Aaron Douglas pressured the WPA/FAP to hire Black artists. Their efforts were successful and Alston became the first African-American supervisor of WPA/FAP. The Harlem Hospital murals were an important turning point in the history of African-American art. This WPA/FAP commission appears to have been the largest awarded to African-American artists.
In 1936, Charles Alston, along with artists, Vertis Hayes, Georgette Seabrooke, and Sicilian immigrant Alfred D. Crimi, were commissioned to create a collection of murals for Harlem Hospital. The sketches proposed by Alston, Hayer, and Seabrooke were initially rejected by the hospital supervisors because of their “Negro subject matter,” which were portrayals of African-American history and their contributions to society. After the Harlem Artists Guild and the Artists Union sent letters of complaint to New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the artists’ murals were painted as originally planned.
The murals were originally installed in several buildings that were demolished to make way for a new hospital center. The historic murals were removed, restored, and reinstalled in the new 12,000 square foot atrium gallery in the Harlem Hospital Medical Services Pavilion opened in 2012.
Charles Alston: Magic in Medicine and Modern Medicine (1940)
Charles Alston (1907-1977)
Charles Alston was an artist, educator, and activist. The Harlem resident taught at the Harlem Community Art Center, founded by sculptor Augusta Savage in the basement of what is now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. He was also a co-founder of the Harlem Artists Guild, which advocated on behalf of Black artists. Alston is also credited with teaching the 10-year-old artist, Jacob Lawrence. In the 1920s, Alston bought an apartment at 306 West 141st Street. His residence was also his studio and became known as Studio 306. Studio 306 became a gathering spot for Alston’s artist friends, including his cousin Romare Bearden, and his art students.
Magic In Medicine
Charles Alston’s two murals, Magic in Medicine and Modern Medicine juxtapose traditional African-based healing practices with contemporary medicine in the United States. The murals were originally installed facing each other and were above radiators, which accounts for the rectangular cutouts at the bottom. The current gallery design reflects the 1940’s original placement that facilitates dialogue between the two works.
The sepia Magic in Medicine incorporates a Fang reliquary sculpture. In contrast, the focal point of Modern Medicine is a giant microscope accompanied by an array of scientific instruments. The panel includes portraits including microbiologist, Louis Pasteur, and surgeon, Louis T. Wright, the first African-American physician appointed to the hospital staff and a personal friend of Alston. The two paintings convey the different social and spiritual constructs that guide each healthcare system.
Man Emerging (1969)
In 1969, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement and almost thirty years after painting his original Harlem Hospital murals, Charles Aston painted
Man Emerging which is located in the Main Lobby of the Harlem Hospital Center. The mural depicts a mixed group of people: Black and White; women, men, and children who are walking forward as a group, symbolizing that “man” comprises all of humankind.
Pursuit of Happiness
Vertis Hayes (1937)
Vertis Hayes’ (1911-2000) Pursuit of Happiness is an eight panel mural that was originally painted in a narrow hallway in the first floor New Nurses Residence. The series chronologically follows the arc of African-American history, beginning when Africans were captured from ancestral villages, spanning to them living in a city in the United States. The collective panels explore the transformation of the African into an African-American. Hayes, who had left Atlanta, Georgia for New York City, draws from his own experience, in his depiction of African-Americans migrating from the South to the North in search of better opportunities.
Recreation in Harlem
Georgette Seabrooke (1937)
Georgette Seabrooke aka Georgette Seabrooke Powell (1916-2011) was the youngest artist and only woman asked to create a work for the Harlem Hospital mural project.
Seabrooke’s Recreation in Harlem was originally commissioned for the nurses’ recreation room at the Harlem Hospital Center, so it was not intended to be viewed by the general public. Seabrooke later explained that the murals was an “[a]ttempt to give the nurses something to look at, something they could partake in and find interesting…”
Recreation in Harlem tells—through a series of vignettes, stretching across 108 square feet— the story of the Harlem community in the 1930s. The mural shows scenes of leisure, with figures drawn close together as if gathered for a snapshot of life in Harlem. The mural includes a couple dancing, children playing and wrestling, a group of women chatting, a group of women knitting, and an audience listening to a choir.
2. RICHMOND BARTHÉ’S FORGOTTEN NYC HOUSING AUTHORITY FRIEZE
Exodus and Dance (ca 1940) Kingsborough Houses, Brooklyn, New York. The frieze spans 80-feet long and consists of 16 panels.
Richmond Barthé was a gay, Black sculptor who was prominent during the Harlem Renaissance. His signature work is his sculpture of Senegalese dancer, Francois “Feral” Benga. Barthé’s works frequently centered the Black male body, showing his comfort with his sexuality.
Barthé was commissioned to create the frieze, Exodus and Dance, that depicts African-Americans dancing for an amphitheater at the Harlem River Houses, a mostly-Black public housing complex owned by New York City. The amphitheater was never built, and, in 1941, rather than retain the work at the Harlem River Houses, it was transferred across the East River to the then majority-White public housing development, Kingsborough Houses, located in the borough of Brooklyn. The project is Barthé’s largest work of art.
In 2021, after pressure from Black cultural institutions and arts advocates in Brooklyn, the New York City Council allocated $1.8 dollars for the frieze’s restoration.
3. HISTORICALLY BLACK COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES (HBCUs)
Fisk University, Nashville, Texas
Aaron Douglas (1899-1979),
Symbolic Negro History (1930) Cravath Memorial Library
Painter and illustrator, Aaron Douglas was born in Topeka, Kansas and became one of the leading visual artists of The Harlem Renaissance. Douglas, known for his cubist style, is sometimes referred to as “the father of Black American art.” Art history professor, David C. Driskell said that it was Douglas “who actually took the iconography of African art and gave it a perspective which was readily accepted into Black American culture….”
Aside from his art practice, Douglas helped form the Harlem Artists Guild with Augusta Savage and Charles Alston. The Guild successfully pressed the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to provide more contracts to African-American artists. In 1934, Douglas received a WPA/FAP commission to paint a series of four murals for the Harlem Branch of the New York Public Library at 135th Street, which would later become The Schomburg Center For Research In Black Culture.
In 1930, Douglas served as artist-in-residence at Fisk University in Nashville, where he was commissioned to paint the Symbolic Negro History mural for the Cravath Memorial Library. In 1937, Aaron Douglas left Harlem to join the faculty of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where he founded its art department. Douglas taught at Fisk University until retiring in 1966.
(See also The Schomburg Center For Research in Black Culture.)
Clark-Atlanta University, Atlanta, Georgia
Hale Woodruff (1900-1980)
Art of the Negro series (1952)
Trevor Arnett Hall. Six, 12 x 12 foot oil on canvas panels.
Note: Atlanta University merged with Clark College in 1988 to become Clark-Atlanta University.
Hale Woodruff was the founder of the Atlanta University art department and facilitated the development of the institution’s permanent art collection. During the Great Depression, in 1932, Woodruff accepted a teaching position at Atlanta University. In that role, he also taught students at two other historically Black colleges (HBCUs) in Atlanta: Morehouse College and Spelman College. After a 1936 trip to Mexico, during which he studied with famed muralist, Diego Rivera, he created several powerful murals, including his highly acclaimed “The Amistad Mutiny, 1839” at Talladega College and “Art of the Negro.”
In 1941, using his experience as a recipient of the William E. Harmon Foundation award, he launched the Atlanta University Art Annuals—the first of its kind at a Black American institution. The exhibition not only offered a forum for African-American artists from across the nation to exhibit their art, but also enabled local African Americans to engage art in a way not previously afforded to them. The Atlanta University Art Annuals led to the creation of an extensive African-American art collection at the university. The exhibition continued until 1970.
Woodruff was a lifelong advocate of African-American art and artists. In 1963, he helped establish the SPIRAL Group (with fellow artists Charles Alston, Romare Bearden, Emma Amos and others).
The Art of The Negro series was painted against the backdrop of the racially segregated United States and art world of the early 1950s. Although the cycle is titled The Art of the Negro, its scope is far broader than a visual account history of African and African-American art. The work is groundbreaking because Woodruff counters the prevailing Eurocentric narrative about the development of art. Woodruff’s six panel series presents a global perspective on art history that emphasizes transcultural interactions which naturally result in the cross-pollination of ideas as well as innovations in styles, mediums and techniques.
#1 Native Forms
(See also: Talladega College)
Hampton University (formerly Hampton Institute), Hampton, Virginia
Charles White (1918-1979)
Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America (1943), Clark Hall
Charles White painted this 18 x 12 foot mural at a time when depictions of African- Americans were either absent or regurgitations of racial stereotypes. White wanted to correct the narrative by centering African-Americans who were instrumental to the building of the United States. He included notable figures such as: Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, and Crispus Attucks, who directly impacted American history.
In response to the oppression that Black Americans experienced during the period, White often drew his subjects in exaggerated forms to emphasize their strength. Large, powerful hands were a common motif in White’s work. He said he created murals because it made his art available to anyone who wanted to read its message.
Renowned muralist John T. Biggers, a freshman when White came to Hampton, was enlisted to help with White’s mural.
John T. Biggers (1924-2001)
Twin Murals, House of the Turtle and Tree House, were installed in the Harvey Library in 1993.
The two 20-by-10 foot works, densely packed with symbols and evocative imagery, focus on Hampton University and its students, but also set them in the context of African legacy, local history, and nothing less than the entire universe.
Howard University, Washington, DC (Selected public art works)
Howard University was the first historically Black university to establish an art department that was directed by an African-American. Howard University also boasts a large and diverse permanent art collection, gallery, and public art works throughout the campus.
Elizabeth Catlett (1977)
Student’s Aspire, Exterior of School of Chemical Engineering Building
In 1974, 20 artists were invited by Howard University’s School of Engineering to submit design proposals for a campus sculpture. The winning work would be featured on Howard’s new chemical engineering building. After a two year selection process, in 1976, Howard alumnae, Elizabeth Catlett (Class of 1935) was chosen.
The Exxon Education Foundation funded the art project with a $30,000 grant. Catlett’s sculpture was a 1½ ton bronze statue that featured a male and female figure with arms outstretched, supporting one another in the elevation of a medallion marked with an equal sign.
Richard Hunt (b.1935)
The bronze sculpture was donated to Howard University by John Debrew, Jr., the CEO of Mildred Andrew’s Fund. The sculpture is dedicated to Debrew’s mother, Katie May Artis Debrew and all single mothers in the world.
Symbiosis was a gift to Howard University by former University trustee Hobart Taylor.
Loïs Mailou Jones (1905-1998)
The three panel stained glass window commemorates the founding of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated at Howard University on January 15, 1908 as the first Greek sorority for African-American collegiate women. The Founders Memorial Window includes the names of the sixteen founding members. It was unveiled in 1978 to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the sorority.
Jones joined the faculty of Howard University’s art department in 1930 and remained until she retired in 1977. She was a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.
Charles White (1918-1979)
Pictured: Howard University President, Wayne A.I. Frederick and Director of Howard University Gallery of Art, Gwendolyn H. Everett, PhD. (2018)
Charles White was an Artist-in-Residence at Howard University in 1945 and a Distinguished Professor in 1978. Howard University was an early supporter of White’s work.
Five Great American Negroes is White’s first public mural and features five of the most prominent African American figures of the day. This work was made under the WPA/FAP as a fundraiser for the Chicago South Side Community Art Center. The Chicago Defender, a Black-owned newspaper, conducted a poll that concluded that readers reconsidered the five greatest African Americans of the time: Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, Marian Anderson, and George Washington Carver.
Jacob Lawrence, “Exploration” (1980) is a 40 foot-long mural of porcelain and steel installed in the Armour J. Blackburn Center at Howard University in Washington, D.C. The mural presents 12 consecutive images, depicting the study of religion, political science, theater, law and agriculture, fine arts and philosophy, astronomy and music, medicine, math and history.
Talladega College, Talladega, Alabama
Hale Woodruff (1900-1980).
The Amistad Mutiny, 1839 murals
In 1938, Talladega College, an HBCU commissioned artist, Hale Woodruff, to paint six murals illustrating the rise of Black Americans from enslavement to emancipation in the United States.
The first three of Woodruff’s panels, known as the Amistad Murals, were the first pieces of twentieth century art to commemorate the 1839 uprising on the Spanish ship La Amistad. Fifty-three African captives from Sierra Leone bound for the slave trade mutinied and took over the ship. The incident provoked several court cases, which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The enslaved men were ultimately repatriated to their home country in 1842.
4. SCHOMBURG CENTER FOR RESEARCH IN BLACK CULTURE
Aaron Douglas (1899-1979)
Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery To Reconstruction Murals (1934
Founded in 1925, the 135th Street branch of The New York Public Library, which would eventually become the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, served as a thriving center for Black life and consciousness for the African-Americans settling in Harlem after fleeing the South as part of the Great Migration.
As a youth, Jacob Lawrence also spent a great deal of time doing research and taking art classes at the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library. He also received inspiration from Douglas’s four-panel mural Aspects of Negro Life.
In 1934, through the WPA/FAP, Douglas was commissioned to create a series of four murals for the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library. The series was titled: Aspects of Negro Life, and the four murals include: The Negro In An African Setting, An Idyll of the Deep South,
From Slavery Through Reconstruction”, and Song of the Towers. Each of the murals depicts a different aspect of African-American cultural history. The panels start on the continent Africa, and move through the eras of slavery, emancipation, Jim Crow, and the Great Migration.
The Negro In African Setting is the first mural, and it imagines the vibrant and happy lives Africans enjoyed before their capture and enslavement in the New World. The work wasn’t universally praised, however. Critics, including esteemed art historian, James A. Porter, accused Douglas of supporting racist stereotypes by employing popular tropes of the primitive African. Defenders of the work, however, pointed out that Douglas’s murals were not intended for a White audience but rather for the “New Negroes” who wanted to celebrate their roots in Africa and represent it in their art.
An Idyll of the Deep South attacks the happy slave narrative by depicting the violence and struggles experienced by enslaved Black people on plantations in the South.
From Slavery Through Reconstruction portrays the role of Blacks from their status enslaved people to the development of Black leadership after emancipation and the backlash over Black enfranchisement that led to the rise of White supremacist groups such as the Klu Klux Klan.
Song of the Towers shows a saxophonist standing among the skyscrapers of the city with the Statue of Liberty in the background. Jazz, a musical form closely associated with Black Americans, is being used as a symbol that conveys their conflicting sentiments. Although they are disillusioned with the “American dream” they nevertheless want to have a sense of belonging in the city where they live.
Part 2 of this series highlights the next generation of Black artists, including Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, and John T. Biggers whose work reached a wider audience because of their public art projects.
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Yvonne Bynoe is the founder of the online platform @shelovesblackart which highlights visual art from the African diaspora with the mission to encourage more people of African descent to collect art. She is a former attorney, cultural critic and author of several books.
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