Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on May 29, 2003 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of the Howard University Gallery of Art and the Rockford Art Museum. The essay is included in a fully illustrated catalogue published by the Museum for the exhibition An Inside View: Highlights from the Howard University Collection, held at the Museum February 7 - April 19, 2003. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Rockford Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:
The Howard University Gallery of Art
by Tritobia Hayes Benjamin, Ph.D
The Howard University Gallery of Art was established in 1928 by action of the Board of Trustees in response to an offer of funds made by a philanthropic couple of Washington, D.C. for the renovation of an existing University facility. The primary purpose was to make revolving exhibitions of contemporary arts and crafts available for immediate visitation and appreciational study by students of the University. This goal was rapidly expanded to include loan exhibitions of different periods, cultures, and countries.
The lower floor of the Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel was selected and the new facility formally opened with a loan exhibition on April 7, 1930, which suggests that the University collection at that time did not have works of gallery caliber. After the success of the first loan exhibition, a policy and program leading to the development of a permanent collection was adopted as follows. to make good works of art available on a permanent basis to the University collection; to establish, at least, the nucleus of a loan collection to be made available for use by reputable cultural and university centers; and to gather into the collection, whenever possible, significant works by contemporary artists without reference to the race, color, or creed of the individual artists.
The first director, Professor James Vernon Herring, (who also founded the Department of Art in 1921) relied upon the generous help of alumni and friends of the University who donated works of art or made extended loans to the Gallery to meet the Museum's first objective. Throughout the years, the same relationship of dependence on interested alumni and friends proved fruitful. The first work to enter the collection with funds contributed by friends and alumni and some public organizations, for example, was Henry O. Tanner's Return from the Crucifixion, an oil-tempera painting which was the last completed work prior to his death in 1937. Over the years the collection has grown due to the largess of private collectors, art foundations, various branches of the federal government, and friends of the Gallery.
The liquidation of certain army posts throughout the country in the 1940s, Fort Huachuca in Arizona in particular, precipitated the allocation of federally owned works of art, that were given to art centers throughout the country. The Fort Huachuca collection was allocated to Howard University, thereby greatly increasing the paintings and prints in the Gallery collection. The transference of works of art from other departments of the government to Howard University accounts for further augmentation of the collection.
In 1941 the Gallery was relocated to the east wing, ground floor of Founders Library. The Gallery continued its policy of loan exhibitions, and for a decade this site was the venue for many important traveling exhibitions, as well as exhibitions by faculty and students.
The estate of Dr. Alain Leroy Locke, who died in 1954, was received into the collection in 1955. Locke, professor of philosophy and the first African American Rhodes Scholar, bequeathed all of his paintings, books, sculpture, and memorabilia to Howard University. Approximately three hundred pieces of African sculpture and handicrafts, including gold weights, served as the core of the collection which over the years has been augmented by substantial donations. The Locke bequest included an abundance of works by African American artists and increased representation by artists active during the 1930s and 1940s. In 1990, 121 works from Mrs. Beatrice Cummings Mayer of Chicago were donated to the collection in memory of her late husband, Robert B. Mayer. This gift expanded the holdings to include works from Central and South Africa.
The gift of a "study collection" of twelve Renaissance and Baroque paintings and one Renaissance sculpture was received from the Samuel W. Kress Foundation in 1961 -- one of a number of such donations by the Kress Foundation to art centers and university galleries throughout the country where the teaching of art history was offered as a major discipline. The Irving Gumbel Collection of prints by European etchers, engravers, mezzotinters, and wood-gravers of the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries was donated in 1963. This collection, approximately 350 works on paper, contains prints by Rembrandt, Jacques Callot, Wenceslaus Hollar, and engravers such as Heinrich Golzius, Lucas van Leyden, the German "Little Masters," and many others.
In 1961 the Fine Arts complex, Cramton Auditorium, Ira Aldridge Theater, and the Lulu Vere Childers Hall (the College of Fine Arts), opened to the public. Located in Childers Hall, the Gallery's spacious new quarters consisted of three interconnecting galleries. The inaugural exhibition, New Vistas in American Art, was a resounding success. Several works by black and white artists in this exhibition were acquired with a grant from the Eugene and Agnes Meyer Foundation. That same year, the IBM Corporation donated a group of seven paintings and four sculptures to the Gallery.
While it is not possible to mention every donor or gift in this brief profile, in its eight decades of service to the University community and the metropolitan area, the Howard University Gallery of Art, still housed in Childers Hall, has fulfilled its original mission. The collection has grown to over 4,500 pieces, and as it aggressively seeks a new home, the permanent collection will become more accessible to students, scholars, the University community, and the American public.
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