A Critical Look at HBCU Museums and Galleries

By Shantay Robinson 

Spelman College Museum of Fine Art recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. The museum is an ideal for what Historically Black College and Universities’ art museums and galleries can be. The museum’s mission states it “inspires and enriches the Spelman College community and the general public primarily through art by women of the African Diaspora.” In addition to exhibiting the work of women of the African Diaspora throughout the academic year, the museum hosts educational programming that is open to the community at-large. And the museum is an integral part of the scholarship at the university. With the support of the Mellon Foundation it offers a Curatorial Studies Program that allows students the opportunities to become familiar with art museums and their work.

While Spelman’s museum is fine-tuned from what the public can see, not all art galleries and museums at historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) operate this way. From internet research, I found a list of art galleries, museums, and cultural centers on HBCU campuses. Honestly, I was excited to see that there were so many art museums and galleries on HBCU campuses. Although Atlanta houses art institutions on two HBCU campuses—Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University – I became impressed that having museums on HBCU college campuses was not uncommon. So, with the website list, I started my search. 

Image from Clark Atlanta University Museum

Not before long, I felt stumped. I was looking for the Bennie G. Thompson Academic and Civil Rights Research Center at Tougaloo College online, but only found articles about the center’s architecture. I decided to call Tougaloo College to find out if I could speak to anyone with knowledge of the center’s happenings. I was directed to voicemail. From the architectural articles, the museum seems like a great place that houses an extensive permanent collection of 1,400 pieces of artwork. It’s quite unfortunate that there isn’t a website that tells more about the mission of the center. For those on the college campus, it would be a great resource. But Tougaloo is not the only college without a website to highlight the very important artwork it houses. While Dalton Art Gallery at Clinton College has a page on the internet, it’s not very descriptive of the gallery’s activities. So, I decided to call. I found out that they don’t have anything planned at this time. The Danjuma African Art Center at Lincoln University is another site that houses a wealth of artworks, a collection of 3,000 items, but their web presence lacks representation of that.

Of course, operating a museum or gallery can be an expensive undertaking. The I.P. Steinback Museum on the campus of South Carolina State University was founded in 1980 and named after the first African American Chairman of the Board of Trustees of South Carolina State University. The museum exhibits art as well as Civil Rights memorabilia but is also a planetarium. It houses an African art collection, civil rights artifacts, and the James Brown exhibit. In September, the interim president of SC State University announced the museum will

Artwork by Fredrick D. Jones

close for financial reasons. Some of the items in the collection will be moved to a smaller building at the end of October to save money. The display will not be as extensive as the space where the museum was originally, but it’s important that some artifacts will still be on view. The fourth-floor gallery at Prairie View A&M University is also closed, as the representative at the library told me they were moving books from the third floor to what used to be the gallery. Looking at these museums and galleries with a critical eye could possibly highlight the need for financial, curatorial, and technological support, but we’ll only become aware of it if it’s known.

While some HBCU art museums and galleries might need help, others like Howard University Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., James E. Lewis Museum of Art and Culture at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland and Clark Atlanta University Art Museum in Atlanta, Georgia seem to be doing okay.

In 2015, Howard University announced their Gallery of Art ranked among the 50 best college museums by www.collegerank.net. Their permanent collection includes nearly 4,000 artworks by artist masters, including works gifted them by Alain Locke and the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. But while the museum seems to be doing great, a search for the museum leads the viewer to the art department with no explicit link to take us to a page with information about the gallery. People would love to know what is currently on view, the kind of work in the permanent collection, and how they can visit the site.

The James E. Lewis Museum of Art (JELMA) at Morgan State University is named for James E. Lewis, a sculptor who dedicated his life to developing the art department and gallery at the college. While he passed in 2007, the museum is still thriving. In 2016, The Institute of Museum and Library Services awarded JELMA a $144,000 grant to digitize its collection of nearly 5,000 items. The digitized collection lives online as its own exhibition organized by themes: self-portraits, trees, city, details, animals, and children. JELMA is the first institution in Maryland to highlight the work of African American artists.

Image from Clark Atlanta University Museum

While the page for the Clark Atlanta University Museum is a part of the school’s comprehensive website, the information available for the museum allows it to be a great source of information by itself. The museum was founded in 1942, a time when opportunities for African American artists were few. The permanent collection is comprised of about 1,215 artworks which were amassed over seven decades, and it is made up of African American modern to traditional African art. The collection includes work by Henry Osawa Tanner, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett, and Hale Woodruff.

There are some good things happening at HBCU art museums and galleries. They are allowing the artists in their communities and around the world to gain exposure. And they are giving the communities they serve the opportunity to expand their perspectives by viewing art. Because I’m not able to travel to each museum to see what those things are, having web presences that reflect the good that is happening is important. Some of the best practices I recognized from those sites that seem to be thriving are: develop active websites that aesthetically reflect contemporary times, have links to them from the college or university’s main page, and identify past, current, and future exhibitions somewhere on the website, so people can plan their visits and stay abreast of the art happening in their community. While having art museums and galleries on HBCU campuses is beneficial to the student body, faculty, and staff of the colleges and universities where they are housed, the communities they serve are also in need and interested in cultural experiences.



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Shantay Robinson, BAIA resident scholar has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While  receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.

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