And The Trains Kept Coming

Jacob Lawrence's The Migration Series on Tour


Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, "Panel 1 -- During World War I, there was a great migration North by Southern African Americans."

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, "Panel 1 -- During World War I, there was a great migration North by Southern African Americans." Image courtesy of Phillips Collection.

Washington, DC's Phillips Collection received an American Masterpieces grant of $100,000 to support the tour to five museums of 17 panels from Jacob Lawrence's The Migration Series. Senior Curator Elizabeth Hutton Turner, Associate Curator Elsa Smith Gall, and Director of Education Suzanne Wright spoke with the NEA about the museum's participation in the program. (Read the full interview on the NEA Web site: features/index.htm.)

NEA: Why is The Migration Series an American masterpiece?

PHILLIPS COLLECTION: [The Migration Series] is a quintessentially 20th-century masterpiece. What really enables us to keep going back to this series as an institution and for us to keep sending it to audiences is the way [Lawrence] made each one of these panels like a vessel of memory. The colors draw you in, the patterns open you up, and they allow room for the telling. There is room in these panels for yet another generation to tell this story, to be able to share this story not only with their children and their grandchildren but also to someone else's children and someone else's grandchildren. This gets us back to our mission at the Phillips, which is really all about the fact that we are so confident that there is a continuity, that art speaks across the generations and across cultures and across time. The Migration Series really is, for us, the great epitome of who we are as an institution. And we're just so grateful that we can share this with the nation because it really does show us as a nation who we are.

NEA: I know the exhibit is traveling to a range of cities including San Antonio, Texas, Davenport, Iowa, and Jackson, Mississippi. How has the NEA grant affected your ability to present this tour?

PC: Because of the NEA grant we were able to provide [The Migration Series] to other museums without charging a participation fee. (The fee helps with the organizational costs of developing the exhibition.) By waiving that fee, you really are opening up the possibilities for the medium and small museums, and that's who we targeted with this tour. Each venue also gets 100 teaching kits for free. [The grant] also allowed us to leverage other funding. So we have two foundations that have generously given additional money toward this tour as a result of the stamp of approval from the NEA.

I also want to point out how we have benefited from this grant. We have really, as an institution, made a commitment to studying The Migration Series and to learning as much as we can about Jacob Lawrence. Because of our extensive work on this artist, we have a lot to share, and we believe we still have a lot more to learn. So this grant allows us to begin to test and really work with a whole new audience again exploring and learning more from allowing the panels to interact with communities all over the nation.

Figures of women by a stream

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, "Panel 1 -- During World War I, there was a great migration North by Southern African Americans." Image courtesy of Phillips Collection.

NEA: How many individuals will benefit from the exhibition tour?

PC: Our criterion was not that we wanted to reach as many people as possible. What was most important to us was that we could reach out to these smaller and mid-sized communities that would not have otherwise have had access to the series and that we could also reach out to diverse communities that have been experiencing real issues of immigration themselves. [We've estimated] more than 60,000 people will be reached. But in addition to even thinking about the average general public, you have all the people we're reaching through schools; there's the immediate distribution of materials but then they're going to continue benefiting communities and schools.

NEA: Are there related community outreach and educational activities for The Migration Series tour?

PC: One of the things that we developed with the exhibition was a brochure that features excerpts of interviews with the artist, which have never been published before. What we really wanted to do with this tour is let the artist's voice come out, more than it may have in the past.

Educators from the Phillips are going to each venue either in advance or during the exhibition to train and to learn from the docents and from the educators each museum works with. At the Phillips we have a program called the mentor-teacher program, a best-practices program to study how teachers use works of art in their curriculum. So we're taking this model and using it in each of these venues.

In The Migration Series teaching kit, we give teachers biographical and background information and all 30 panels that the Phillips owns, as color prints and electronic jpegs. We also provide a host of other kinds of visuals, from high tech to low tech. [There also are] literary resources as well as historical documents and things like that. We are advocates for the use of original documents and photographs that help kids develop their own critical thinking skills; they are active participants in learning about, understanding, and processing art and history.