THE LIST OF HISTORY-MAKING firsts and groundbreaking achievements made by African American artists, and more recently curators, is endless, spanning probably as early as the 17th century to the present. The following briefly captures 10 milestones and a corresponding “where are they now” look at each of these important figures.

ALMA THOMAS with her work at the Whitney Museum, 1972 | unidentified photographer. | Alma Thomas papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

1924: ALMA THOMAS (1891-1978) is the first student to receive a degree from the art department at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

After teaching for more than 30 years in the Washington, D.C., public schools, Thomas devoted herself to painting full time, creating “a highly personal style that expanded upon traditional Abstract Expressionist and Washington Color School practices through experimentations with abstraction, color, line and pattern.” In 1972, Thomas was the fist black woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York. She was 80.

TODAY: “Alma Thomas” a survey of the artist’s exuberant, colorful paintings recently opened at the Studio Museum in Harlem (July 14-Oct. 30, 2016).


WILLIAM EDMONDSON, “Boxer,” circa 1936 (Limestone), was offered in Christie’s Liberation through Expression: Outsider and Vernacular Art auction in New York. Estimate $150,000–250,000. Sold for $785,000 (including fees) MORE

1937: WILLIAM EDMONDSON (c. 1874-1951) is the first African American artist to have a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Born to freed slaves in Tennessee, Edmondson never learned to read or write, working a succession of manual labor jobs until a vision from God compelled him to sculpt. He was about 55 when he began carving chunks of salvaged limestone and street curbs.

TODAY: On Jan. 22, 2016, Edmondson’s “Boxer,” a circa 1936 sculpture, sold for $785,000 at Christie’s, a record for “Outsider” art.


JACOB LAWRENCE - self-portrait-1977
JACOB LAWRENCE, “Self-Portrait, 1977 (gouache and tempera on paper). | National Academy of Design, New York Artwork © Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence

1941: JACOB LAWRENCE (1917-2000) is the first African American to be represented by a New York Gallery (Downtown Gallery).

After creating narrative series about Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture, and abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, Lawrence painted his 60-panel Migration Series. In 1941, 24 of the panels were published in Fortune magazine and then the series was exhibited at the Edith Halperin’s Downtown Gallery, which represented him. In 1942, the Corcoran Gallery purchased the odd-numbered panels and the Museum of Modern Art acquired the even-numbered ones (the first works by an African American artist brought into MoMA’s collection). Last year, “One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series,” a major presentation of the 60-panel series was mounted at the Museum of Modern Art in New York,

TODAY: This fall, the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., is presenting “People on the Move: Beauty and Struggle in Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series” (Oct. 8, 2016-Jan. 8, 2017), which coincides with the launch of an interactive website featuring interviews with the artist published for the first time.


GORDON PARKS. - Untitled, Harlem, New York - 1952
GORDON PARKS. “Untitled, Harlem, New York,” 1952. | The Art Institute of Chicago, anonymous gift. Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago

1948: GORDON PARKS (1912-2006) is the first African American staff photographer and writer at Life magazine.

A photojournalist with the eye of a visual artist, for more than 60 years, Parks covered civil rights, race and poverty issues, as well as high fashion, and in 1969 was the first African American to write and direct a Hollywood feature film (“The Learning Tree”). His foundation continues to document his practice, mounting exhibitions of his photography and publishing volumes of his work.

TODAY: A new book coincides with “Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem,” an exhibition currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago that focuses on two projects the good friends collaborated on in 1948 and 1952.


melvin edwards - oklahoma contemporary
Reflecting the African American experience, MELVIN EDWARDS works flirt with Minimalism and Abstraction. | Image via Oklahoma Contemporary

1970: MELVIN EDWARDS is the first African American sculptor to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

Born in Houston, Edwards first emerged as an artist in Los Angeles during the 1960s. Today, he is based in New York City. Edwards is known for his Lynch Fragments, small welded-steel sculptural works he has been crafting since 1963 and continues to make today. The abstract expressions reference civil rights and social justice issues and are composed of materials of personal cultural relevance to Edwards. The traveling retrospective “Melvin Edwards: Five Decades” was on view in 2015, and earlier this year.

TODAY: In October, a solo exhibition of Edwards’s work will open at Oklahoma Contemporary in Oklahoma City (Oct. 27-Dec. 27, 2016).


lowery stokes sims by Saeideh Golji
LOWERY STOKES SIMS retired as chief curator at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York. | Photo: Saeideh Golji, Courtesy Museum of Arts and Design

1972: LOWERY STOKES SIMS joins the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and two years later becomes first African American curator at the museum.

Sims joined the Met in its community programs department before becoming a curator of American art two years later, a position she held until 1999. In 2000, she joined the Studio Museum in Harlem as executive director and become president in 2005. Next, she spent more than seven years as chief curator at the Museum of Arts and Design and retired last year after more than 43 years in the art world. She has contributed to and edited countless catalogs, including “Common Wealth: Art by African Americans in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,” which was published last year.

TODAY: On July 23, Sims is discussing Stuart Davis with artist Nina Chanel Abney at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.


Thelma Golden is the Director and Chief Curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York City, USA
Thelma Golden is the Director and Chief Curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem. | Photo by Julie Skarratt

1988: THELMA GOLDEN is the first African American curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

Golden’s first curatorial job was at the Studio Museum in Harlem. A year later she joined the Whitney, where her decade-long tenure was defined by the groundbreaking exhibition, “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary Art (1994–95).” She rejoined the Studio Museum in 2005 as deputy director and is now director and chief curator. Under her leadership the Harlem museum continues to support emerging artists through its residency program, show work by important, often overlooked veteran artists, and present innovative new exhibitions.

TODAY: Golden’s 10th year at the Studio Museum was marked by the July 2015 announcement of plans for a brand-new $122 million building, a public-private project designed by architect David Adjaye. Construction is expected to be underway in 2017.


Martin Puryear - Art 21 Video Still - Printmaking
MARTIN PURYEAR painting Asphaltum on a copper printing plate at Paulson Bott Press in Berkeley, Calif. |
Screenshot from Art 21 video “Martin Puryear: Printmaking.” © Art21, Inc. 2013. Cinematography by Bob Elfstrom

1989: MARTIN PURYEAR is the first-ever African American visual artist to receive a MacArthur Foundation fellowship (“genius grant”).

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Puryear is based in Hudson Valley, N.Y. Over the past half century, he has established a unique sculptural practice, creating modernist abstract works defined by experimentation with scale, form and materials, including wood, stone, tar, bronze, and wire. He was won many accolades included the MacArthur grant. In 2011, President Obama presented Puryear with the National Medal of Arts. Organized by the Art Institute of Chicago, “Martin Puryear: Multiple Dimensions” presents drawings and prints that have served as studies for his sculptures and is currently on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.

TODAY: Standing 40-feet high and rising high among the trees in Madison Square Park, Puryear’s “Big Bling” is the largest temporary outdoor sculpture the artist has created. It is on view in the New York park through Jan. 8, 2017


julie mehretu - conversation @ british museum 2011
JULIE MEHRETU’s most expensive paintings sold for $4.6 million at Christie’s New York in 2013, and nearly $3.5 million at Christie’s London last year. | Photo by Mark Hanauer

2013: JULIE MEHRETU is the first black artist whose work ranks among the most expensive at auction by a living female artist.

Mehretu, who lives and works in New York, calls her abstract paintings “story maps.” Her narratives are formed via abstracted images of histories, cultures and geographies. Three years ago, she set an artist record when her 2001 painting “Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation,” sold for more than $4.6 million (including fees) at Christie’s New York. At auction, her large-scale canvases have been selling north of $1 million for years, consistently ranking her among the most expensive living women artists. In April, artnet ranked her No. 7; she is No. 1 among black female artists.

TODAY: Currently on view, “Julie Mehretu: The Addis Show” at Addis Ababa University (July 8-Aug. 6, 2016), presents the artist’s work for the first time in Ethiopia, where she was born.


Carrie Mae Weems, 2013 MacArthur Fellow
CARRIE MAE WEEMS in her studio, 2013. | Courtesy MacArthur Fellow

2014: CARRIE MAE WEEMS is the first African American woman to have a major retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Born in Oregon, and based in Brooklyn and Syracuse, N.Y., Weems has won numerous awards, more than a dozen over the past few years, including a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2013. Exploring identity, family relationships, gender roles, and race, class, and social justice issues, Weems’s photography-based practice often employs text, audio, video, digital images, fabric, and installation. Days before her retrospective “Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video” opened at the Guggenheim, Weems told The New Yorker: “Of course, I’m thrilled… Not to sound pretentious, but I should be having a show there. By now, it should be a moot point for a black artist—but it’s not.”

TODAY: “Carrie Mae Weems: Kitchen Table Series,” the first volume dedicated to her renowned early series, was published in April 2016.

READ MORE For a succinct primer on art history through the lens of contributions by African American artists, read this excerpt by Duke University Professor Richard Powell.

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