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Collecting African American Art: From the Harlem Renaissance to the Obama Era

On October 16, 1943 Henry Ossawa Tanner’s painting Flight into Egypt (see illustration) was hanging in the entrance hall of a home located at 127 Randolph Place in Washington, D.C. The occasion was the opening of the Barnett-Aden Gallery which was founded by James Herring, an artist and art professor at Howard University along with Alonzo Aden, curator of the University’s Gallery of Art. Works such as Jacob Lawrence’s watercolor Trees, Aaron Douglas’s painting Alta Knitting, and Lois Mailou Jones’s painting Still Life with Green Apples, were also displayed in the inaugural exhibition. During the next two decades Aden and Herring held gallery shows in Aden’s Washington home and purchased works from each exhibition for the Barnett-Aden Collection. Herring and Aden were part of a long tradition of African Americans who individually, and in partnership with black and non-black family members, collected work by African American artists. They were also among a distinct group of collectors who acquired work by African American artists and shared it with the public. These publicly oriented collectors presented their chosen treasures to the community by opening their homes, loaning works for exhibitions, and making donations to museums. In doing so they played an important role in shaping the value of African American art.

While many observers believe that the value of art is determined by its intrinsic properties, in reality what separates great art from less valued art is partly influenced by societal arrangements. Rare and unusual talent is not enough to vault an artist from obscurity to the spotlight. For art to be recognized as worthy it must have champions, such as collectors, who nudge it forward to be granted entrance into the canon. For several decades, the public patronage of African American collectors has played a critical role in the valorization of art by African American artists. Their commitment to these artists took on added significance because race has often made the path to consecration especially

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