Effort to put more black art in local museums

Some Chattanooga residents say they're so interested in seeing black art in local museums they're willing to purchase it themselves.

"There is a powerful connection you can have with artwork, and sometimes it's not even beautiful. Sometimes it's raw," said Ellen Simak, chief curator of the Hunter Museum of American Art.

Simak is among more than a dozen people working with Friends of African-American Art to bring more black artwork to Chattanooga. Each member in the culturally diverse group pays $150 to help buy African-American art for the Hunter and the Bessie Smith Cultural Center.
The plan is to buy a work of art for the Hunter Museum one year and the Bessie Smith Center the next. The partnership is intended to enhance the visual art experience at both galleries, Simak said.

Friends of African-American Art will host its first community meeting at 6 p.m. Feb. 3 at the Hunter. "Lois Mailou Jones: A Life In Vibrant Color" will be on display during the gathering. Jones was a black painter and a retired professor at Howard University.
"It's going to be a real enjoyable evening," Simak said. "We're going to offer tours of the Lois Mailou Jones show. We've got some jazz music going on that refers to the impact of the Harlem Renaissance on her work. And then there's a brief program about Friends of African-American Art."

Jones' work is featured in museums throughout the world. She died June 9, 1998, at age 92, and her artwork will be featured at the Hunter from Jan. 30 through April 24.

"The Lois Mailou Jones show gives us perfect opportunity to give people a chance to see African-American art at its finest and a chance to really launch this joint effort," said Simak.

Local artist James Mc-Kissic organized Friends of African-American Art after attending Leadership Chattanooga.

Leadership Chattanooga, established by the Chattanooga Chamber Foundation in 1984, is a 10-month leadership development program that prepares participants for prominent business, cultural and political roles.

"So many artists are doing amazing things, but visual art gets left behind," McKissic said. "A lot of history is in the way we represent ourselves."

Rose Martin, executive director of the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, said the Friends of African-American Art creates a formal partnership between a major museum, the Hunter, and a smaller museum, Bessie Smith.

The partnership gives the cultural center more opportunity to own black art and could be a model for museums in other parts of the country, she said.

Simak said the Hunter buys new art pieces each year, while Martin said her museum has purchased only one new piece in the three years she's headed the cultural center.

"For us this is really, really a great resource and a good partnership," Martin said. "When you have a smaller museum, you don't always have the funding, resources and donors you really need to expand your collection."