Art Works Blog

From the Archives: To Conserve a Legacy

Washington, DC

A collection of cyanotype photographs was digitally reproduced and exhibited as a part of the NEA-supported conservation project, including "The Old Folks at Home," taken in 1900 by a photographer belonging to Hampton University's Camera Club.

American colleges and universities are a significant repository of the physical cultural heritage of the U.S.---from collections of the papers of notable writers to annotated scores by leading composers to paintings and other works by iconic visual artists. From our archives, here's a story about a 1997 project that helped to conserve and share work from the visual arts collections of some of the nation's Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Creased canvases, cracked paint, warped frames, and discolored mats were just some of the problems conservators faced as they delved into a treasure trove of art long hidden from public view. Part of an NEA-supported initiative called To Conserve a Legacy: American Art From Historically Black Colleges and Universities, more than 1,400 paintings, drawings, sculptures, and photographs held by six institutions were researched and restored. A traveling exhibition brought more than 250 of them to eight locations around the country from 1999 to 2001.

After the Civil War, colleges and universities had been created to educate former slaves and free blacks. Some of these began to assemble important collections of African-American art, as well as significant holdings in European and American modernism, African, and Native-American art. Lack of resources and the passage of time had caused many works to deteriorate.

To begin to address this situation, To Conserve a Legacy was organized in 1995 by the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and The Studio Museum in Harlem. The project was conducted in collaboration with the Williamstown Art Conservation Center in Massachusetts and six Historically Black Colleges and Universities, including Clark Atlanta University in Georgia, Fisk University in Tennessee, Hampton University in Virginia, Howard University in Washington, North Carolina Central University, and Tuskegee University in Alabama.

In 1997, the Arts Endowment joined with other public and private funding sources to support the project. "Public funding from the NEA has long been a satisfying indicator of the intellectual and artistic merit of one's creative work. Artistic excellence and good ideas continue to carry real weight in this public funding arena," commented Jock Reynolds, co-curator and former Addison Gallery Director.

To Conserve a Legacy covered over a century of American art and contained works that exemplify key movements and ideas in the evolution of artistic production. More than 100 artists were represented from early nineteenth-century figures such as sculptor Edmonia Lewis and painter Robert S. Duncanson to postwar artists such as Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, and Jacob Lawrence to innovators of the 1970s such as Sam Gilliam and William T. Williams. The exhibition also included some unexpected works, including several that were part of a major gift to Fisk University by Georgia O'Keeffe following the death of her husband, famed photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz. The inclusion of major artists who are not black showed the work of African-American artists in the context of the work of their peers.

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