Throughout my years working at the BMA, I’ve heard much about the museum’s 1939 exhibition, Contemporary Negro Art. As one of the earliest exhibitions of the work of African American artists in a major American art museum, the Library and Archives regularly receives questions about it. Sorting through a box of BMA publications recently, I was surprised to find this invitation which, although it doesn’t have anything to do with the publications, does provide some important context to the 1939 exhibition and the history of early twentieth century African American art in Baltimore.
Held more than a decade before the BMA’s exhibition, the First Negro Art Exhibit was by all accounts the first exhibition in Baltimore solely of the work of African American artists. According to articles in The Sun, the exhibition featured artists Augusta Savage, Marion Bagley, Clifton Thompson Hill, Laura Wheeler, Allan Freelon, William McKnight Farrow, Charity Govens, Caroline Cook, and Terrevous L. Douglas. Alain Locke (author of the essay in the 1939 exhibition catalogue) spoke at Douglass High School in conjunction with the exhibition. It’s notable that the participating artists came from Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C. rather than Maryland, and many were already fairly well known nationally. Similar exhibitions appeared in major cities across the US in the 1920s and if you’re interested in learning more about them, I recommend reading Bridget R. Cooks’ Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum (2011).
Following Baltimore’s 1926 exhibition, more opportunities for African American artists to show their work slowly started to appear in the city, though very often separate from the work of white artists. In 1928, the Charcoal Club announced that its spring exhibition, one of the highlights of Baltimore’s art scene at the time, would not be juried, allowing African American artists to enter. According to a March 16, 1928 article in The Sun, “Should…Negro artists and sculptors enter the exhibition it will mark the first time they have participated in an exhibition held under white auspices.” In 1931, members of the Baltimore chapter of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity organized an exhibition at the Pitcher Street Branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library featuring, among many other things, paintings and works on paper by African American artists on loan from the collections of Howard University and the Afro-American newspaper. Artwork by African Americans was again exhibited at high schools in Baltimore in 1932, this time organized by the Harmon Foundation, the same group that put together the BMA’s exhibition in 1939.
Several years later, in 1937, the BMA’s Board of Trustees organized the Committee of the City, a Baltimore-wide group with representatives from nearly every imaginable organization including prominent African Americans Sarah Collins Fernandis, Vivian Cook, Lillie M. Jackson, Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr., Carl Murphy, and Harry T. Pratt. The committee members surveyed their organizations and reported back about what types of exhibitions and programs were of interest, eventually leading to popular exhibitions such as Labor in Art, Religious Art, and Contemporary Negro Art.
I’m looking forward to learning more about this fascinating piece of Baltimore’s history and would love to hear from you about it.