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THE NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART (NGA) recently expanded its holdings of African American art by 40 percent through acquisitions from the Corcoran Gallery of Art. For the first time, NGA owns works by Aaron Douglas, William Edmondson, Gordon Parks, Noah Purifoy and Betye Saar, among others. The historic announcement came last month when NGA released details about Corcoran works in its custody.

After several years of financial struggle and deficits that proved too severe to recover from, the Corcoran Gallery of Art was shuttered in October 2014. Established in 1869, Washington, D.C.’s oldest and largest private art museum had assembled a collection of more than 17,000 works of art in its nearly 150-year existence. Its dissolution included a court-approved plan for George Washington University to absorb the Corcoran’s school of arts and design and for the National Gallery to assume custody of the Corcoran’s collection, along with its curatorial records.

The result of a rigorous review process by National Gallery curators, NGA announced it is bringing a selection of 6,430 Corcoran works into its collection. In a release, the National Gallery said the selection was “based on criteria such as aesthetic considerations, art historical importance, and relevance to the areas in which we collect. The acquisitions range widely, filling gaps and delivering significant depth and breadth.”

The new works will transform NGA’s holdings of American art and significantly expand its collection of black art. The acquisitions include more than 190 works by African American artists, including the Evans-Tibbs collection of African American art. Previously, the National Gallery owned almost 500 works by African American artists, now its holdings number nearly 700.

The new works will transform NGA’s holdings of American art and significantly expand its collection of black art.

NGA continues to review the balance of the collection and will publicize future acquisitions. None of the Corcoran works will be sold. Art that the National Gallery decides not to bring into its collection is supposed to land at other Washington institutions.

VIEW THE FULL LIST of acquisitions here.

SEEKING TO LEARN MORE about the newly acquired art, I requested an interview with an NGA curator who could respond to my queries with a focus on the work by African American artists. Because its curators work across mediums and broad genres and the selection process was collaborative, even involving Corcoran curators, no one official was available to discuss the subject broadly.

Given this, I submitted a series of questions to the National Gallery. According to the NGA, the following officials contributed to the responses: Harry Cooper, curator and head of Modern Art; Sarah Greenough, senior curator and head of Photographs; Judith Brodie, curator and head of Modern Prints and Drawings; Nancy Anderson, curator and head of American and British Paintings; and Sarah Cash, former Corcoran curator who serves as consulting curator, American and British Paintings.

I asked about the number of works acquired and the impact they will have in terms of complementing NGA’s existing collection and perhaps spearheading future priorities and programming, exhibitions and acquisitions:

CULTURE TYPE: How many Corcoran works by African American artists has NGA selected to bring into its collection?

NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART: The Corcoran collection is still undergoing a review, however, to date the National Gallery of Art has acquired 194 works by 71 African American artists; 35 not previously represented in the Gallery’s collection.

Before the Corcoran acquisitions the National Gallery of Art had 477 works by 86 African American artists. Now, after the initial round of Corcoran acquisitions, the Gallery has 671 works by 121 African American artists.

Prior to the Corcoran acquisition, how would you describe the National Gallery’s existing inventory of works by African Americans artists and about how many works were in the collection?

A select group, including some outstanding works, that continues to grow and improve. (See previous answer for inventory numbers.)

 

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BETYE SAAR, “Dat Ol’ Black Magic,” 1981 (collage). National Gallery of Art, Corcoran Collection (The Evans-Tibbs Collection, Gift of Thurlow Evans Tibbs, Jr.). | Courtesy National Gallery of Art

 

Are there any particular works from the Evans-Tibbs collection or among the wider selection, that NGA considers landmark acquisitions of great art historical significance? Aaron Douglas‘s “Into Bondage”? Others?

The Gallery decided that it was absolutely critical to acquire the entire Evans-Tibbs Collection of 33 works, along with the related archive of reference materials. There are many excellent works, but among the “stars” are Aaron Douglas’s Into Bondage, which is currently on view in “American Masterworks from the Corcoran, 1815-1940,” at the Gallery through May 3, 2015, and Betye Saar’s “Dat Ol’ Black Magic” (1981), on view in “Focus on the Corcoran: Works on Paper, 1860-1990.”

Additional significant works not from the Evans-Tibbs Collection are Kara Walker’s “Roots and Links, Inc.” (1997), an enormous cut-paper silhouette, and Melvin Edwards’ “Cocovari in Piscataway” (2000), a large and impressive pulp work on paper.

“The Gallery decided that it was absolutely critical to acquire the entire Evans-Tibbs Collection of 33 works, along with the related archive of reference materials.” — NGA curators

Decision making criteria for acquisitions included filling gaps in the NGA collection. Are there particular African American works that have achieved that and could you describe them?

“Auvers-sur-Oise (Crow in the Wheat Field),” a 1981 painting by Robert Colescott (top of page), is a work by a major artist not previously represented in the Gallery’s collection of paintings and it deals in a self-conscious and explicit way with the place of the artist as an African American in the canon of modern art as represented by Van Gogh.

“We are Soldiers in the Army…(1970s),” a painting by Sister Gertrude Morgan, is our first work by this self-taught artist. The Gallery has relatively few self-taught or so-called outsider artists in its collection and we have been working to add more.

The Corcoran’s collection of photographs by Gordon Parks fills an important hole in the National Gallery’s photography collection. We have long wanted to acquire key vintage photographs by him and the Corcoran’s collection allows us to represent some of the best of his work.

Aaron Douglas’ “Into Bondage” (1936) begins to fill the gap in the Gallery’s collection of works by Harlem Renaissance painters.

“Aaron Douglas’ “Into Bondage” (1936) begins to fill the gap in the Gallery’s collection of works by Harlem Renaissance painters.” — NGA curators

Beyond expanding NGA’s collection of African American art, how have the acquisitions of African American art broadened various genres and mediums (photography, sculpture, Abstraction, for example) in the NGA collection?

“Schoolteacher,” a 1935 sculpture by William Edmondson (below), represents an impressive fusion of folk and modern traditions by an artist not previously represented in the collection. “Red Dance,” a 1970 painting by Kenneth Young, is a lyrical work that adds a new, African American name to our roster of Washington Color School artists.

The Corcoran’s holdings of work by P.H. Polk and Addison Scurlock will help us boost our holdings of photographic portraits, while the Corcoran collections of Eli Reed and Clarence Williams photographs will boost the Gallery’s collection of photojournalism.

 

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WILLIAM EDMONDSON, “Schoolteacher,” 1935 (limestone). National Gallery of Art, Corcoran Collection (Gift of David and Renee McKee). | Courtesy National Gallery of Art

 

In the process of selecting works to bring into the National Gallery collection, did NGA consult outside curators (beyond the Corcoran) with particular areas of expertise not represented by the staff—a specialist(s) in African American art for example? If so, who and how would you describe their input and recommendations?

No, the Gallery and Corcoran curators have the necessary expertise to identify appropriate works to enhance the Gallery’s collection.

NGA has mounted two exhibitions featuring Corcoran works. Among them works by Aaron Douglas, Romare Bearden and Betye Saar are included. Why were these particular works chosen?

For the works on paper installation, it was about important works and some wonderful discoveries that enhance our collection. The works by Kara Walker and Melvin Edwards are too large for the space that was available for this installation. With the Aaron Douglas painting, there was no question about whether or not to include such an important work of art.

What role, if any, will the more than 50 photographs by Gordon Parks acquired from the Corcoran (and by James VanDerZee, Roy DeCarava, Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems, among others) have in the photography exhibition planned for 2016?

We’re still working on the selection of works for this exhibition, but photographs by Gordon Parks, James VanDerZee, Roy DeCarava, Lorna Simpson, and Carrie Mae Weems may well be included. All of these artists, with the exception of Parks, were already in the Gallery’s collection, but the acquisition of additional works by them from the Corcoran will allow us to show a greater range of their work.

For those works that you have decided not to acquire, are there any works by African American artists among them and where in Washington do you expect these non-accessioned works to go, individually or as a group?

Most likely there will be some works by African American artists that we will not acquire and we do not yet know where they might go, individually or in a group or groups.

 

OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS, NGA has had robust programming focused on black art—in-depth talks with collectors of African American art and the panels discussing volumes in “The Image of the Black in Western Art” book series, which has now concluded. Museum officials say “quite a lot” of new programming will be prompted by Corcoran acquisitions, but it is too early to tell whether there will be an exhibition of the Evans-Tibbs collection. Currently, there are no plans for one at this time.

As the National Gallery continues to cull the balance of the Corcoran inventory, curators expect additional acquisitions of African American art. CT

 

RELATED: National Gallery of Art Acquires 190+ Works by African American Artists From Corcoran

 

TOP IMAGE: ROBERT COLESCOTT, “Auvers-sur-Oise (Crow in the Wheat Field),” 1981 (acrylic on canvas). National Gallery of Art, Corcoran Collection (Gift of the Women’s Committee of the Corcoran Gallery of Art). | Courtesy National Gallery of Art

 

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AARON DOUGLAS, “Into Bondage,” 1936 (oil on canvas). National Gallery of Art, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase and partial gift from Thurlow Evans Tibbs Jr., The Evans-Tibbs Collection) | Courtesy National Gallery of Art

 

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P.H. POLK, “Lillian Evans Tibbs,” 1937 (gelatin silver print). National Gallery of Art, Corcoran Collection (The Evans-Tibbs Collection, Gift of Thurlow Evans Tibbs, Jr.) | Courtesy National Gallery of Art

 

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ROMARE BEARDEN, “After the Bath,” 1970 (watercolor, pen and ink, and collage). National Gallery of Art, Corcoran Collection (The Evans-Tibbs Collection, Gift of Thurlow Evans Tibbs Jr.). | Courtesy National Gallery of Art

 

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SISTER GERTRUDE MORGAN, “We Are Soldiers in the Army…,” 1970s (paint). National Gallery of Art, Corcoran Collection (Gift of Elizabeth Blair Jones). | Courtesy National Gallery of Art

 

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NOAH PURIFOY, “Untitled (Assemblage)” 1967 (mixed media). National Gallery of Art, Corcoran Collection (Museum purchase, WilliamA. Clark Fund and Gift of Dr. Samella Lewis). | Courtesy National Gallery of Art