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Jacob Lawrence. Lifeboat. 1945. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased as the gift of the Art Committee of the Women’s Cooperative Civic League, BMA 1946.135. © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Jacob Lawrence. Lifeboat. 1945. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased as the gift of the Art Committee of the Women’s Cooperative Civic League, BMA 1946.135. © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Landmark Exhibition Attracted 12,000 Visitors to BMA in Two Weeks

“Art in a democracy should above all else be democratic, which is to say that it must be truly representative.”

— Alain Locke, Contemporary Negro Art, 1939

BALTIMORE, MD (May 29, 2018)—In 1939, The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) presented one of the first major exhibitions in the U.S. to feature African American artists. Contemporary Negro Art served “as a declaration of principles as to what art should be in a democracy and as a gauge of how far in this particular province we have gone and may need to go,” wrote renowned philosopher and art critic Alain Locke in the exhibition brochure. Nearly 80 years later, the museum pays tribute to this exhibition with 1939: Exhibiting Black Art at the BMA. On view June 13–October 28, 2018, it features 14 prints and drawings by artists who were included in the 1939 show along with archival materials.

“This exhibition centers on a decisive moment in the BMA’s history and highlights the value of the museum responding deliberately to community needs and desires with groundbreaking art exhibitions,” said BMA Dorothy Wagner Wallis Director Christopher Bedford. “I am very pleased to present the work of my predecessors as we look toward the future of this great museum.”

The origins of this landmark exhibition date back to 1937, when BMA Board of Trustees President Henry Treide extended a city-wide survey to over 200 social, labor, and special interest groups in Baltimore, inquiring what they most wanted from a city art museum. The committee representing Baltimore’s African American community responded with a recommendation that the museum’s galleries begin to display artwork generated by and for the black community. As a direct result of the feedback, the BMA hosted an exhibition of 116 works by 29 black artists in February 1939. The Harmon Foundation, a New York-based organization dedicated to the patronage of black cultural production coordinated the loans of artworks to the exhibition, which it co-organized with BMA Acting Director Charles Ross Rogers and renowned Howard University philosopher Alain Locke. More than 12,000 visitors saw Contemporary Negro Art during its two-week presentation at the BMA that year.

Highlights of 1939: Exhibiting Black Art at the BMA include the first work by a black artist to enter the museum’s collection, Dox Thrash’s watercolor Griffin Hills, as well as works by Jacob Lawrence, James Lesesne Wells, and Hale Woodruff. The exhibition also draws attention to behind-the-scenes figures who worked on the project through archival materials shown publicly for the first time. These include president of the Baltimore Women’s Cooperative Civic League Sarah Collins Fernandis, NAACP president Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson, and renowned Civil Rights lawyer and activist Clarence Mitchell, Jr.

This exhibition is curated by BMA Prints, Drawings and Photographs Curatorial Assistant Morgan Dowty.

1939: Exhibiting Black Art at the BMA and related programs are made possible by the PNC Foundation.

About the Baltimore Museum of Art

Founded in 1914, the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) inspires people of all ages and backgrounds through exhibitions, programs, and collections that tell an expansive story of art—challenging long-held narratives and embracing new voices. Our outstanding collection of more than 95,000 objects spans many eras and cultures and includes the world’s largest public holding of works by Henri Matisse; one of the nation’s finest collections of prints, drawings, and photographs; and a rapidly growing number of works by contemporary artists of diverse backgrounds. The museum is also distinguished by a neoclassical building designed by American architect John Russell Pope and two beautifully landscaped gardens featuring an array of modern and contemporary sculpture. The BMA is located three miles north of the Inner Harbor, adjacent to the main campus of Johns Hopkins University, and has a community branch at Lexington Market. General admission is free so that everyone can enjoy the power of art.

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