Saturday, February 7, 2009

Validate Yourself...Question 3

This is a continuation, Part 3, of the series of questions posed by the Black Artists of DC (BADC).

Can you identify the key repositories of information on black art and artists in this country?I must emphasize that I will mention some of the key repositories of information on black art and artists in this country; and for our purposes, I will limit my examples to those in close proximity to the Washington, DC area. Also, bear in mind that the strength of the repository is based on the particular research or information need or topic that an individual is seeking. When I think of simply art collections with a stronger than normal focus on black visual art some of the richest collections of black art are at the Historical Black Colleges and Universities. These historical collections are valuable in their scope, breath and depth. To view and study their holdings is an educating and enriching experience. Some examples include: Howard University, Hampton University, Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University, Fisk University, Morgan State University, South Carolina State University, Winston-Salem State University, and North Carolina Central University. However, even in the cases where there are strong visual art collections, there are not always equally strong archival and printed material to support research on those collections or on black art in general. Perhaps, the enhancement and documentation to support black art will be the next phase of development for those collections.

To zero in on the specific question of key repositories of information on black art and artists, particularly those in close proximity to the Washington, DC area, I would mention the following:
The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, has an Art and Artifacts Division which collects, documents, and preserves art by and about people of African heritage. Their emphasis is on twentieth century visual arts in the United States and Africa. Schomburg’s collection of painting and sculpture is a rich survey of African American artists from the late nineteenth century to the present. Their strengths include the Harlem Renaissance, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and the Black Arts Movement of the 60s and 70s. Their General Research and Reference Division is substantial in terms of books and exhibition catalogs on black artist. As a point of comparison, their treatment of literature texts is even stronger than the visual arts.

Hatch-Billops Collection, Inc. (New York) began in 1975 and consists of approximately 13,200 slides representing 352 visual artists and approximately
4,000 black and white photographs documenting African American writers, performers and visual artists. The Reference Library contains over 20,000 pieces, consisting of exhibition catalogs, doctoral dissertations, manuscripts, books, periodicals, etc. relating to African American experience in the arts. Hatch-Billops Collection houses an archival collection of oral histories of African American artists from all fields of the arts, including painter, sculptors, photographers, etc. All of those interviews will soon be online and indexed at Alexander Street Press, who publishes digital collections of exceptional quality. Finally, the Hatch-Billops Collection publishes Artist and Influence, an annual journal that includes oral histories of visual artists, as well as individuals in literature and the performing arts.

Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American ArtOne collection in the Archives that I highly recommend is the personal papers of more than seventy African American artists from the late 19th century to the present. The following are the types of items included in the personal papers of an artist: exhibition catalogs, announcements, letters, sketchbooks, clippings, photographs, posters, and writings of the artist. In addition, there are over 70 taped-recorded interviews; transcriptions are available online.

Through using these papers and reading the interviews, one can see the societal challenges that African American artists struggled to overcome and the accomplishments and contributions that they have made in spite of those obstacles.

The Smithsonian Libraries at the American Art Portrait Gallery, Hirshhorn, Anacostia, and African Art Museums house a strong collection of books, magazines/journals, and vertical files of ephemeral materials.

David Driskell Center will be an extremely strong force when those papers are processed and the book and archival collections are made fully accessible. The Gallery space is awesome and I recommend that all pay a visit; programming is strong; and collection building is on a continual focused basis.

The Local Artists Files in the Art Division of the District of Columbia Public Library are a rich source. Also, the Division has vertical files of materials and a solid book collection on black art and artists. It can either help you find what you need on site or can be a great starting point in your research endeavors and that may lead to an appropriate referral locally or across the country.

These are simply a few repositories. Across the country, special collections at major universities and museum libraries, as well as some select large public libraries, will have rich collections to varying degrees, focusing on the visual arts. Again, the few repositories that I have focused on are in close proximity to the Washington, DC area.

Finally, I need to mention the work that has been and continues to be undertaken at the Amistad Research Center, Tulane University in New Orleans, simply because of the recent devastation to the city resulting in hurricane Katrina. I must remain mindful of the strong black presence and cultural heritage in that city. The Amistad Research Center has an African American Collection that consists of two major categories: The Aaron Douglas Collection (late 19th and early 20th centuries art) and Contemporary African American Art. The Center is also the repository for the papers of Richmond Barthe, Elizabeth Catlett, William E. Pajaud, John T. Scott, Hale Woodruff and Varnett Honeywood. There is a library of over 20,000 items and all of Amistad’s books are in Tulane University’s online catalog. In addition, the books and exhibition catalogs that are a part of Howard Tilton Memorial Library at Tulane University add even more strength to the Amistad Center’s Collection.

Key repositories of information on black art and artists in this country is a topic that I intend to explore in further detail, highlighting private, academic, and public institutions across the country. As a whole, these institutions are essential because they identify, collect, and make materials accessible for our use, and through their collections, they document the role of black artists and art in the broader field of American art.

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