The visibility of African American artists in public art museums follows the course of racial and ethnic politics.
At the Baltimore Museum of Art, exhibitions featuring black artists first cluster in the 1940s and 1970s, are frequent in the 1980s, and become a predictable feature starting in the 1990s.
Contemporary Negro Art had several early successors thanks to curator (later director) Adelyn Breeskin and to the efforts of Vivian Cook, an African-American activist in Baltimore affiliated with the Women’s Cooperative Civic League. In 1940, the BMA hosted the League’s art contest and exhibition, and in 1948 Adelyn Breeskin answered Vivian Cook’s request that the BMA participate in Negro History Week by organizing Contemporary Negro Painting. Other exhibits of these years included the American Federation of Arts’ Creative Art of the American Negro (1941); The G. Place Gallery’s New Names in American Art (1944); a showing of Jacob Lawrence’s “War Series” (1948) and a one-man show of Haywood Rivers. After 1950 African-American artists continued to show sporadically in the museum’s annual exhibitions of Maryland and regional artists, but otherwise disappeared from the galleries until Paintings and Drawings of William H. Johnson (1972) inaugurated a second phase of engagement with black arts. Since 1993 the museum has organized at least one exhibition highlighting African-American artists every year.
In the BMA’s collection, African-American artists tend to be represented by prints, drawings or photographs, which are sensitive to light and may only be exhibited for short periods of time. Of the generation active in the 1930s, canonical artists like Jacob Lawrence and Aaron Douglas appear alongside artists who gained early recognition only to be neglected later, such as Dox Thrash, and underappreciated artists like Norman Lewis, whose abstract work did not easily meet expectations of blackness and is only now finding its place in the art system’s mainstream narratives.
These artists share the struggle to be seen by a racist system as well as the benefits they leveraged from select opportunities that were open to them. Philanthropic organizations such as the Harmon Foundation and the Rosenwald Fund offered chances to exhibit, and to travel to Europe. For those who could access it, the federal government’s Depression era work relief program for artists offered support at a critical time. Sensitive to the impact of unequally distributed resources, many black artists created their own structures to support colleagues and to advance the careers of their students.