Published: March 20, 2012
“Making History: Twentieth Century African American Art” at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) offers a fascinating glimpse at artistic production and patronage associated with the renowned Barnett Aden Gallery, operating in Washington, D.C., from 1943 to 1969.
Opening March 31 and running through June 10, the exhibition features more than 50 paintings, sculptures and works on paper by 23 artists. It includes the work of celebrated artists, such as Richmond Barthé, David Driskell, Norman Lewis, Charles White and Hale Woodruff, among others. A cross-section of art by Elizabeth Catlett anchors the exhibition.
The Barnett Aden Gallery †founded and managed by professor James V. Herring and curator Alonzo J. Aden of Howard University †provided crucial exhibition opportunities for emerging black artists at midcentury. Representing the work of white artists as well, this pioneering gallery nurtured diversity in an era of strict segregation. In place of sales commissions from exhibitors, Herring and Aden welcomed gifts of art for their personal collection.
Following their deaths in the 1960s, the collection was dispersed; the majority of it is owned today by Robert L. Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET). A smaller segment entered private hands and remained out of sight for nearly four decades †until its debut in this exhibition.
In recent years these exceptional artworks †in deteriorating condition and facing an uncertain future †were acquired by Margaret and John Gottwald, longtime VMFA friends and patrons. Meg Gottwald described her unexpected stewardship of the collection as “an extraordinary combination of happenstance, providence, synchronicity, perseverance and passion †with a little bit of midlife crisis thrown in.”
Aided by her friend Diana Adams, Gottwald organized, researched and oversaw the restoration of the art with care and sensitivity. Finding the works compelling †both individually and collectively †she came to believe that they should be returned to public view.
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is at 200 N Boulevard. For more information, www.vmfa.museum or 804-340-1400.
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