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  • Howard University, the New Negro Movement, and the Making of African American Visual Arts in Washington, DCPart 2
  • Howard Dodson (bio)

African American Art and Artists in Washington, DC

So, what does all this have to do with the development of Black artists and Black art in Washington, DC? And why so much emphasis on Howard University's development in a discussion about African American art and artists in the District of Columbia? Though founded as the political capital of the American empire, Washington, DC, has also developed into a world-class center of art and culture. It currently is home to a network of over seventy-five museums and galleries including more than twenty devoted primarily to collecting, preserving, and exhibiting art. Foremost among these are the diverse museums and galleries established and operated by the Smithsonian Institution. By themselves, they attract over twenty-five million visitors annually—more than attend NBA, NFL, or NHL games each year!

The arts phenomenon in Washington, DC, is a relatively recent one, however. Even though the oldest museums in the District date back to the nineteenth century, it was not until the 1920s that the first Smithsonian art museum opened on the National Mall: The Freer Gallery of Asian Art, launched in 1923. The privately operated Corcoran Gallery of Art, one of the first fine arts galleries in the country, had opened in 1874. By 1897, the Corcoran had moved to its new facilities on 17th Street and New York Avenue, where it occupied a larger and much more impressive edifice built to house its growing collection and the new College of Art and Design it opened in 1890. The Phillips Collection, another private entity and the first museum of modern art in the country, opened on 21st Street in the nation's capital in 1921. The independently operated West Building of the National Gallery of Art opened in 1937 to house Andrew W. Mellon's prized collection of Western Art. None of the Smithsonian Art museums and galleries opened prior to the 1960s; and the East Building of the National Gallery of Art, which houses its contemporary collections, did not open until 1974. The post-1960s explosive growth of Washington's now vast and impressive museum ecosystem made the District the cultural mecca that it is today.

African American art and artists were not part of the art scene in Washington, DC, well into the twentieth century. Prior to the 1920s, no museums or galleries in the nation's capital [End Page 1147] collected or exhibited art by African American artists. The largest institutional collectors—the Smithsonian, the Corcoran, and the Phillips—had built their institutions around European and American collections. African American art was not included in their segregated concepts of Americans or art. No colleges, universities, or art schools in the District were training African American artists. Even at Howard University, the only art training offered was in the School of Education, where K-12 teachers were taught to teach children the history of European art with an emphasis on the classics.

This is not to suggest that there were no aspiring African American artists in the District prior to the 1920s nor that Black Washingtonians were not interested in the visual arts or museums. Marginalized and denied access to the District's mainstream art establishment, African American art lovers used their civic and social organizations to sponsor exhibits of African American art in schools, churches, and libraries. According to James Porter—himself an artist, pioneering African American art critic, and art historian—as early as 1915, members of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity sponsored an art exhibit of works by "colored folk" including Washington, DC, artists Richard Lonsdale Brown, May Howard Jackson, and Samuel O. Collins (83). Porter also notes that in 1922, a group of District artists and art teachers, all members of the Henry O. Tanner Art League, organized an extensive art exhibition at Dunbar High School featuring 112 paintings and nine pieces of sculpture. Included were works by Tanner and sculptor Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller. These two examples alone are evidence of the fact that Black Washingtonians had an early and active interest in creating...


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