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"Making History: Twentieth Century African American Art" opens at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Elizabeth Catlett, “In Harriet Tubman I helped hundreds to freedom” from The Negro Woman series, 1946-47. Linocut on paper. Collection of Margaret and John Gottwald. Art © Elizabeth Catlett/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.
RICHMOND, VA.- Making History: Twentieth Century African American Art offers a fascinating glimpse at artistic production and patronage associated with the renowned Barnett Aden Gallery, operating in Washington, D.C., from 1943 to 1969. Opening March 31 and running through June 10, the exhibition features more than 50 paintings, sculptures, and works on paper by 23 artists. It includes the work of celebrated artists such as Richmond Barthé, David Driskell, Norman Lewis, Charles White, and Hale Woodruff, among others. A cross-section of art by the internationally acclaimed Elizabeth Catlett anchors the exhibition.

The Barnett Aden Gallery – founded and managed by Professor James V. Herring and Curator Alonzo J. Aden of Howard University – provided crucial exhibition opportunities for emerging black artists at mid-century. Representing the work of white artists as well, this pioneering gallery nurtured diversity in an era of strict segregation. In place of sales commissions from exhibitors, Herring and Aden welcomed gifts of art for their personal collection. Following their deaths in the 1960s, the collection was dispersed; the majority of it is owned today by Robert L. Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET). A smaller segment entered private hands and remained out of sight for nearly four decades – until its debut in this exhibition.

In recent years these exceptional artworks – in deteriorating condition and facing an uncertain future – were acquired by Margaret and John Gottwald, longtime VMFA friends and patrons. Meg Gottwald describes her unexpected stewardship of the collection as “an extraordinary combination of happenstance, providence, synchronicity, perseverance, and passion – with a little bit of midlife crisis thrown in.” Aided by her friend Diana Adams, Meg organized, researched, and oversaw the restoration of the art with care and sensitivity. Finding the works compelling – both individually and collectively – she came to believe that they should be returned to public view.

As her knowledge of the art and artists grew, Meg was inspired to complete her Master of Arts degree at Virginia Commonwealth University, writing her thesis on Catlett’s important I Am the Negro Woman linocut series (1946-1947), which figures prominently in the collection. She also brought the artworks to the attention of VMFA, along with the exciting idea that graduate students in VCU’s Art History department might curate an exhibition. Making History is the result of this innovative collaboration.

Under the direction of Dr. Margaret Lindauer, VCU associate professor and coordinator of museum studies, the exhibition and accompanying catalogue essay were developed during a fall 2011 seminar by graduate students Andrea Alvarez, Grace Astrove, Kristie Couser, Elizabeth Fuqua, and Meredith Hertel. Several VMFA staff members – including Dr. Elizabeth O’Leary, associate curator of American art and Dr. Sylvia Yount, chief curator and Louise B. and J. Harwood Cochrane curator of American art – helped facilitate exhibition planning.

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