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June 21-November 30, 2003


Generations, an exhibition now ion view in the Focus Gallery at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, explores the museum's collection of African-American art from the early 20th century to the present.

The exhibition features half of the 60 works by African-American artists in the permanent collection and includes paintings, sculpture, prints, drawings and photographs. Works by local and regional artists ­ many purchased between the 1950s and 1970s ­ are shown with those by artists known nationally and internationally. Most of the latter works have been acquired since the 1980s. (right: James VanDerZee, Portrait of Mother and Two Children, 1934, gelatin-silver print, © 2003 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts)

"Altogether, this survey tells the story of the VMFA's long and continuing involvement in collecting African-American art," says Dr. Michael Brand, the museum's director. "It also reveals a fascinating and important part of our state's cultural history."

Among regional artists represented in the exhibition are Charles Baker, Alice Ivory, Walter A. Simon and Benjamin Wigfall. The artists of national and international prominence whose work is being shown include Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Faith Ringgold, Alison Saar and James VanDerZee.

During the 1950s, when Virginia was still one of only 16 racially segregated states, African-American artists competed for VMFA Fellowships and submitted work for the museum's biennial, juried Virginia artist exhibitions. Most of the museum's holdings of works by African-Americans acquired before the 1980s came into the collection through these programs, according to Tosha Grantham, the exhibition's curator.

"Many of those local and regional artists attended or taught at historically black colleges and universities in the area ­ Virginia Union University, Virginia State University, Hampton University and Norfolk State University ­ as well as at Old Dominion University and Virginia Commonwealth University," Grantham says.

Additional works by African-American artists are featured elsewhere in the museum. In the American Galleries, Jacob Lawrence's 1943 painting, Subway ­ Home from Work, represents one of America's most celebrated 20th-century artists at an early stage in his career. A gift of the Alexander Shilling Foundation in 1944, it was the first work by an African-American artist to enter the museum's collection. Other African-American works in the American Galleries include Richmond artist Leslie Bolling's 1935 sculpture Cousin-on-Friday, from his series about domestic work, and the recently acquired Christ and His Disciples on the Sea of Galilee, ca. 1910, by Henry Ossawa Tanner. (left: Snake Man (1994) is a color woodcut and lithograph by African-American artist Allison Saar. Saar was born in Los Angeles in 1956. Snake Man was acquired by the VMFA in 1999, Photo by Katherine Wetzel, © 2003 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts)

On view in the Sydney and Frances Lewis Galleries are works by noted abstract painters Sam Gilliam and Norman Lewis and sculptor Martin Puryear.

Also nearby is an interactive video kiosk that features interviews with artists in the Modern and Contemporary collection, including Sam Gilliam, Alison Saar and Lorna Simpson, and a discussion of the work of Harlem Renaissance photographer James VanDerZee by art historian Deborah Willis.

"As the museum prepares for a major expansion, scheduled to begin in 2004, it seems timely to highlight the spectrum of African-American art history represented in the permanent collection," Brand says.

"The exhibition also provides an opportunity to survey the collection anew, and to show works by regional artists that have been in the collection for decades with more recently acquired works by nationally and internationally celebrated figures," he says.

Grantham will discuss the exhibition and the museum's acquisition of African-American art in a lecture Sunday, June 29, at 3 p.m. in the auditorium. Grantham is the museum's assistant curator of Modern and Contemporary art. Her talk will be free and open to the public.

The exhibition is made possible by the museum's Lewis Endowment.

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Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

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