Diversity and Innovation: The Compelling Contributions of Black and Brown Artisans to the Richness of the Visual Arts in American Society Today

From the desk of Larry Wilson: I lost an artist colleague and friend earlier this year from double pneumonia due to complications arising from COVID-19. Scholar, curator, lecturer, and painter David C. Driskell—an early expert on and proponent of African American art and art history whose work reshaped the American standard — has died at eighty-eight years of age.  I had the privilege of working with him in his role as Curator of the powerful art exhibition “Two Centuries of Black American Art.”  My employer in those early years of my career, Philip Morris Incorporated, joined forces with the National Endowment for the Humanities to underwrite the exhibition in the four markets in which appeared. Dr. Driskell and I traveled together underscoring through various media the importance of the exhibition. Indeed, its message continues to resonate as part of the Diversity and Anti-Bias conversation critical to eliminating the social injustice with which the nation struggles today.

In September 1976 the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) opened Two Centuries of Black American Art as its major exhibition for the American bicentennial year. It was the first comprehensive survey of African American art which, following its premier at LACMA, toured three other major U.S. art institutions – the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Museum of Fine Arts, Dallas, and the Brooklyn Museum, New York. The premise was to acknowledge the work of black artists during the period of 1750 to 1950, whose contributions to American art had largely been neglected. Featuring over 200 works and 63 artists, the show included painting, sculpture, drawing, graphics, crafts and decorative arts.

LACMA’s Black Arts Council was a driving force behind all three shows. Founded by Cecil Fergerson and Claude Booker (black art preparators who worked at LACMA), the organization comprised African-American artists, staff members, and other city residents who aimed to promote African-American art in Los Angeles. When the Black Arts Council was founded in 1968, every LACMA board member was white.  LACMA’s deputy director asked David Driskell – then the chair of Fisk University‘s art department – to serve as guest-curator of this survey of African-American art. Driskell said that he deliberately did not select art relating to a unified theme. He said that he believed black art was a “sociological concept” rather than an artistic one, and that his goal in the exhibition was to show that black artists have continuously participated, and “in many cases have been the backbone,” in American visual culture throughout the country’s history.

David Driskell on Slavery’s Impact on Art

David Driskell and Larry Wilson on The Art of Seeing Art