Birmingham Museum of Art opens African-American art gallery

By Glenny Brock

Time was, Tuesday was “Negro day” at the Birmingham Museum of Art — Wednesday to Sunday, the place was whites-only. Like the libraries and the public parks, the city’s art collection was subject to segregation laws. Through the mid-1960s, the city’s African-American residents had only one day a week when they could see what comprised the museum’s early collection: Chinese ceramics and Japanese prints, the Renaissance paintings and furniture from Italy, the collections of cast-iron objects from Germany and gold implements from pre-Columbian Peru. Those who did visit would not have seen themselves or their people represented in the art, as the work of African-American artists was as unlikely to be found in the museum’s galleries as dark-skinned visitors.

Fast forward 40 years, and evidence of our city’s piecemeal progress in race relations is evident in the scheduled opening of a gallery dedicated to the work of African-American artists at the Birmingham Museum of Art (BMA). While work by African-American artists is already on display throughout the museum’s contemporary, American and folk art galleries, the new gallery will be used to feature traveling exhibitions, highlight new acquisitions and reflect the depth of the museum’s permanent collection. It will be one of the few U.S. museum galleries with an emphasis on work by African-American artists.
“Lift Every Voice: African-American Art from the Permanent Collection” is the title of the first exhibition in the gallery. Opening Aug. 30 and on view through Jan. 3, 2010, the exhibit includes paintings, prints, sculpture and photographs that span 140 years, reflecting aspects of African-American experience and identity from the mid-19th century to the present.

“Although race does not define the form or style of art by African-Americans, there are nonetheless shared cultural experiences, histories and artistic influences that are interesting to explore when art by African-Americans is gathered into one place,” said curator Emily Hanna, in a press release announcing the exhibition. “Our new gallery affords the opportunity to consider the wonderful threads of connection that exist among and between artists of African descent.”

Hanna, the BMA curator of the Art of Africa and the Americas, served as curator of the “Lift Every Voice” exhibit. The museum’s curators of African, contemporary and American art plan to collaborate on installations, rotating on a quarterly basis.

The “Lift” idea

The title for the exhibition is taken from “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which was first performed in public as a poem on Feb. 12, 1900, during a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. In 1919, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) adopted the song as the “Negro National Anthem.” As 2009 is the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth and the 100th anniversary of the NAACP, an homage in the exhibition title seemed appropriate.

The earliest work in the exhibition is a painting titled A Dream of Italy, created in 1865 by Robert Scott Duncanson. Based in Cincinnati, Ohio, Duncanson painted in the style of the Hudson River School. He was a pioneering artist in breaking racial barriers, having traveled to Europe in the tradition of 19th century American landscape painters. Contemporary pieces include Emma Amos’ Measuring Measuring and Lorna Simpson’s Tense, both of which address racism and cultural standards of beauty. In G.E. Mask and Scarification, Willie Cole’s remarkable mixed media work last shown at the BMA in 2007, the artist makes the pattern on a steam iron emblematic of the marks of slavery.

Some of the other major works featured in “Lift Every Voice” include photography by Gordon Parks and paintings by Romare Bearden, Benny Andrews, Jacob Lawrence and David C. Driskell.

Driskell will present a public lecture at the museum on Sunday, Aug. 30, at? 2 p.m. The title of his talk, “Collecting African-American Art: My Personal Experiences,” emphasizes his curatorial background, but belies his extensive experience as an artist and educator. Born in Eatonton, Ga., Driskell completed an art program at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine in 1953, earned an MFA from Catholic University in 1962 and attended the Netherlands Institute for the History of Art at The Hague in 1964. In 1976, he curated an exhibit in Los Angeles titled “Two Centuries of Black American Art: 1750-1950,” which essentially laid the foundation for the field of African-American art history. His work has been shown in museums around the world, including the National Gallery of Art and the Yale University Art Gallery, and he has served more than 30 years as the curator of the Cosby Collection of Fine Arts (the collection of entertainer Bill Cosby and his family).

At one time, Driskell taught art at Talladega College, in Talladega, Ala., serving as a one-man art department who taught painting, printmaking, drawing and ceramics. I have heard it secondhand that one day, in 1955 maybe, Driskell and a group of his students traveled 50 miles to Birmingham to visit the museum, but Wednesday to Sunday the place was whites-only and they were denied admission. Here’s to hoping that that story will be among the “Personal Experiences” Driskell recounts at the Birmingham Museum of Art this Sunday, just to give those in attendance an idea of what this gallery opening means.

The Sankofa Society, a Birmingham Museum of Art support group for African and African-American art, will host its first gala on Saturday, Aug. 29. During the “Sankofa Society Soirée: Framing the Future, Remembering the Past,” Sankofa members will vote on one work of art they wish to acquire for the museum with part of their membership dues. Soirée includes food, music, dancing and a silent auction. All proceeds benefit future museum purchases of African-American art.

David C. Driskell’s lecture, “Collecting African-American Art: My Personal Experience” will be held at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 30, and followed by a ribbon-cutting for the new gallery, a coffee reception with the author and a book-signing.

“Lift Every Voice: African-American Art from the Permanent Collection” will be on display from Aug. 30 – Jan. 3, 2010. Learn more by calling (205) 254-2565 or visiting