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The Baltimore Museum of Art revisits history with '1939: Exhibiting Black Art at the BMA'
Jacob Lawrence (American, 1917-2000). Lifeboat 1945. Purchased as the gift of the Art Committee of the Women's Cooperative Civic League. 1946.135.

BALTIMORE, MD.- In 1939, The Baltimore Museum of Art presented one of the first major exhibitions in the U.S. to feature African American artists. Contemporary Negro Art served “as a declaration of principles as to what art should be in a democracy and as a gauge of how far in this particular province we have gone and may need to go,” wrote renowned philosopher and art critic Alain Locke in the exhibition brochure. Nearly 80 years later, the museum pays tribute to this exhibition with 1939: Exhibiting Black Art at the BMA. On view June 13–October 28, 2018, it features 14 prints and drawings by artists who were included in the 1939 show along with archival materials.

“This exhibition centers on a decisive moment in the BMA’s history and highlights the value of the museum responding deliberately to community needs and desires with groundbreaking art exhibitions,” said BMA Dorothy Wagner Wallis Director Christopher Bedford. “I am very pleased to present the work of my predecessors as we look toward the future of this great museum.”

The origins of this landmark exhibition date back to 1937, when BMA Board of Trustees President Henry Treide extended a city-wide survey to over 200 social, labor, and special interest groups in Baltimore, inquiring what they most wanted from a city art museum. The committee representing Baltimore’s African American community responded with a recommendation that the museum’s galleries begin to display artwork generated by and for the black community. As a direct result of the feedback, the BMA hosted an exhibition of 116 works by 29 black artists in February 1939. The Harmon Foundation, a New York-based organization dedicated to the patronage of black cultural production coordinated the loans of artworks to the exhibition, which it co-organized with BMA Acting Director Charles Ross Rogers and renowned Howard University philosopher Alain Locke. More than 12,000 visitors saw Contemporary Negro Art during its two-week presentation at the BMA that year.

Highlights of 1939: Exhibiting Black Art at the BMA include the first work by a black artist to enter the museum’s collection, Dox Thrash’s watercolor Griffin Hills, as well as works by Jacob Lawrence, James Lesesne Wells, and Hale Woodruff. The exhibition also draws attention to behind-the-scenes figures who worked on the project through archival materials shown publicly for the first time. These include president of the Baltimore Women’s Cooperative Civic League Sarah Collins Fernandis, NAACP president Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson, and renowned Civil Rights lawyer and activist Clarence Mitchell, Jr.

This exhibition is curated by BMA Prints, Drawings and Photographs Curatorial Assistant Morgan Dowty.

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