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A Force for Change: African American Art and the Julius Rosenwald Fund

February 8 - August 16, 2009

 

Spertus Museum, at Chicago's Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies, is presenting A Force for Change: African American Art and the Julius Rosenwald Fund, the first exhibition to explore the legacy of the Julius Rosenwald Fund, created in 1917 by Chicago businessman and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald (1862-1932), who made his fortune as CEO of Sears, Roebuck and Company. Designed to spend itself out of existence after its founder's death, the Rosenwald Fund supported issues that affected the lives of African Americans in the first half of the 20th century. From 1928 to 1948, the Rosenwald Fund's Fellowship Program awarded stipends to hundreds of African American artists, writers, teachers, and scholars -- many with ties to Chicago -- as well as white southerners with an interest in race relations. Among the impressive list of Rosenwald Fellows were some of the leading artists of the decades between the two world wars, and the work they produced with Rosenwald support was made under conditions of exceptional artistic security and freedom. The work of these artists, such as Elizabeth Catlett, Eldzier Cortor, Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, Gordon Parks, Marion Perkins, Rose Piper, Augusta Savage, and Charles White, is the focus of A Force for Change. (right: Aaron Douglas, Harriet Tubman, 1931, oil on canvas. Bennett College Art Gallery, Greensboro, NC)

During a time when segregation was a fact of American life, Julius Rosenwald saw racism as an indictment of our entire society. The work encouraged by his philanthropy promoted new images of African Americans, boldly helping pave the way for equal participation by African Americans in American life. A Force for Change showcases this vital work and, through a new documentary film and the accompanying catalogue, explores the groundbreaking foundation that advanced black leadership through its support of art, literature, and thought.

Organized for Spertus Museum by guest curator Daniel Schulman in collaboration with Spertus Museum Senior Curator Staci Boris, A Force for Change presents more than 60 works of art in a variety of media, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, and photographs, by 22 artists. Some of this work will be exhibited in public for the first time.

About the exhibition's relevance, Spertus Museum Senior Curator Staci Boris explains, "Spertus Museum embraces an open-ended engagement with art viewed through a Jewish lens. While an exhibition of African American art may seem an unusual subject for a Jewish museum, the artists included in A Force for Change were supported at a crucial time in their careers by the Julius Rosenwald Fund, a foundation established by one of Chicago's, indeed the country's, most important Jewish entrepreneurs and philanthropists. The exhibition and its accompanying publication tell the many stories associated with this major initiative, which had a tremendous impact on American art and social history." (left: William Ellisworth Artis, Bust of Miss Coleman, 1946, terracotta with wood base. Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, photograph by Gregory Staley)

Guest curator Daniel Schulman adds, "The Rosenwald Fellowship Program, one of the largest and most influential single patrons of African American arts and letters in the 20th century, has never before been the focus of major scholarly attention. With this ambitious exhibition project, we are finally able to explore the connections between Rosenwald and the enormous range of African American expression his foundation helped to underwrite and promote."

 

About the curators

Staci Boris has served as Senior Curator at Spertus Museum since October 2004, and she organized the inaugural exhibition for the new Spertus, The New Authentics: Artists of the Post-Jewish Generation. Before coming to Spertus, she served as Associate Curator at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art. A member of MCA's curatorial staff since 1992, she organized a number of noteworthy exhibitions including the first U.S. retrospective of South African artist William Kentridge and the first survey exhibition of works by American painter John Currin.In 2007, she was named one of the "20 people to watch" by Time Out Chicago magazine.

Daniel Schulman is an independent curator and art historian who lives in Chicago. He has worked at the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he was a curator of modern art from 1993 to 2004. Schulman has written and lectured extensively on African American art and art in Chicago.

 

Exhibition catalogue

A Force for Change is accompanied by a 175-page catalogue that is co-published by Spertus Museum and Northwestern University Press. A collection of essays by leading scholars in their fields, with illustrations and annotated color plates of the works in the exhibition, the book explores the process by which hundreds of promising and important African American artists, writers, academics, and researchers received financial support for their work through the Julius Rosenwald Fund. Essayists include Peter M. Ascoli, grandson and biographer of Julius Rosenwald and a faculty member at Spertus College; Kinshasha Holman Conwill, deputy director of the National Museum of African American Art and Culture, Smithsonian Institution; Julia Foulkes, historian of dance, The New School, New York; Alfred Perkins, biographer of Rosenwald Fund president Edwin Embree; Darryl Pinckney, novelist and literary critic; and Daniel Schulman, guest curator and scholar of African American art. The catalogue is available at the Spertus Shop and online at http://www.spertus.edu/

 

Documentary film

The exhibition also presents archival footage of performances by two world-renowned dancers who were Rosenwald Fellows, Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus, as well as an original short documentary film about Julius Rosenwald and the Fellowship Program, written, directed, and produced specifically for this exhibition by Lauri Feldman Fisher of Chicago-based Brainchild Productions. The list of Rosenwald Fellows includes some of the most influential writers and intellectuals in 20th-century America -- including James Baldwin, Allison Davis, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ralph Ellison, E. Franklin Frazier, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston -- and the film provides background about the foundation's support of their endeavors.


A Force for Change is shown in the 10th-floor changing exhibitions gallery of the innovative new Spertus facility, 610 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL through Sunday, August 16, 2009. Docent-led exhibition tours available for student and adult groups. Please see the Museum's website for hours and admission fees.

 

Tour

Following the Spertus Museum engagement, A Force for Change will travel to the Allentown Art Museum in Pennsylvania and the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey. 

 

(above: Elizabeth Catlett, I have special reservations, from The Negro Woman, 1946-47, linoleum cut. Howard University Gallery of Art,Washington DC. Art © Elizabeth Catlett/licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Photograph by Gregory Staley.)

 

(above: Rose Piper, Slow Down Freight Train, 1946-47, oil on canvas, Ackland Art Museum. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Ackland Fund, 91.8. © Rose Piper, 1946)

 

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