And The Trains Kept Coming: Jacob Lawrence's The Migration Series on Tour (Washington, DC)


Crowd of colorful figures making their way through one of three gates, the one to Chicago

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. In this interview, the Phillips's 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.

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: You said that the project really reflects the mission of the Phillips. Can you please say something about the museum's history?

PC: The Phillips Collection was incorporated by Duncan Phillips in 1920 as a museum, and it opened its doors to the public in 1921. It was originally called the Phillips Memorial Gallery; it was meant as a living memorial to his brother and father who had died within 18 months of each other. Phillips decided he would put together historical work with contemporary work. [He would place works by] artists who were of historical importance, artists whom he believed to be of personal vision, with contemporary artists who he also believed to have originality and personal vision. He believed there was a kind of dialogue that went across generations, across cultures, that...would allow artists to be in harmony with one another, to converse with one another in a formalistic sense. So the collection really grew by allowing the works to come together in the gallery and to be judged, really, by the company that they kept.

NEA: Please say something about Jacob Lawrence's career as an artist and his place in the history of American art.

PC: Jacob Lawrence is telling history; he's a history painter. He's telling a story about a people. He's telling all of these important political and social messages to the American public. He would normally be classified by most art historians as a social realist, except that his painting is not descriptive, it's analytical, it's abstract. It uses color in a very, very formal way. It's about as close as you can come to language, the way in which he establishes these patterns with just two or three colors, two or three forms, and establishing the rhythm that you get. But that invention is what allows this work to be a timeless masterpiece, allows it to be that vessel -- those fields of color, those wonderful forms. They register as essential symbols, essential icons in our memory. There's just something he was able to do that no other artist of his generation was really able to do with paint.

This art changes lives. In 1993, when The Migration Series was shown, people saw this series and it changed their lives. It caused one person to go back to their hometown and set up an aftercare program because they saw what it did for Jacob Lawrence. It caused another person to establish a theater that could actually perform plays with social relevance and actually commissioned a play about the migration. These echoes roll from soul to soul. They go into people's lives; they change people's lives. So in sending this project out on the road, something's going to happen...We're confident that something new is going to come of it.

NEA: I've read that Lawrence actually painted all 60 panels at the same time.

PC: Lawrence's method is phenomenal because it was a real orchestration. [You can] think of him as a conductor of all these different components in his head. He started with the research: he had this idea that he didn't have one story to tell. He had multiple stories to tell so he would need multiple panels. From the research he started to write captions. Then he spread out in his studio 60 hardboard panels and drew the outline drawing based on the caption on all 60. And then, this is the most phenomenal part, he put in one color at a time in all 60. He started with the darker hues, the darker values, trying to see the shifts, to really see the high contrast qualities, then he made his way up to the lighter value hues. [Lawrence] talks about these 60 panels functioning as one work of art, that there's a continuity and consistency from panel one to panel 60, that it's the same color on each one. He talks about if he had done #1 then #2, then #60 wouldn't have the same relationship with #1. And I think that's one of the powers of the series, when you see them on a wall together, and follow those yellows, the syncopation of the color through the series.

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 impacted 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.

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?

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.

NEA: We know that curators are responsible for these wonderful exhibitions we see at museums, but most people don't know exactly what a curator does.

PC: When we're curating an exhibition, the seed of it is an idea. So what we're looking at, in our case with the Jacob Lawrence exhibition, you first come up with your idea and that is something that develops out of the curatorial office, the intellectual side of that. In thinking about your idea, you're thinking about it in visual terms. You're really looking at how works of art tell that story, and your story is only as good as you have the works of art to represent it. Our research is all object-based, and you have no exhibition unless you have the works of art. One aspect [of the curator's job] is just gathering up those works, making your case to have those works lent to your exhibition. Another part of your role as curator is to oversee the content and development of the exhibition catalog. And of course the installation itself when the works arrive, overseeing the design and implementation of the exhibition itself. All in all, going from the seed to the idea, coming out of objects-based research into your realization, all of what goes on to make that happen, with the full support of many other departments, is what we do as curators.

Being a curator and creating an exhibition is a little bit like building a fire. When you put two objects together, they make sparks. And those sparks in and of themselves are ideas and questions, and what you do in an exhibition is create a setting for people to have an experience. If a great exhibition does its job, people will leave asking important questions. It will compel them to the next thing. That's the great thing, that objects do have a power.

[An abbreviated version of this interview appeared in NEA ARTS 2007, Volume 2, which focused on American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of American Masterpieces.]