The Wichita Art Museum’s inner core galleries are brimming with more than 80 prints, paintings and drawings by African-American artists whose works span nearly 120 years.
In time to honor African-American history and culture during Black History Month, the museum this weekend opens the new exhibit “Harmon and Harriet Kelley Collection of African American Art.”
The works in the exhibition come from the private collection of Harmon and Harriet Kelley of San Antonio, Texas. During the past 30 years, the couple has amassed a collection that has traveled to many art museums across the country. The collection features works of prominent contemporary African-American artists as well as rare works dating back to the late 19th century.
“For me, this exhibition kind of breaks down into three groups,” Stephen Gleissner, the museum’s chief curator, said. “First, there is the early work that is so incredibly rare. These early works date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We are very excited to see these pieces, which include four etchings by Henry Ossawa Tanner.”
Tanner was one of the first leading African-American artists to achieve enormous global success. A native of Pennsylvania, he encountered a great deal of racism in the United States and therefore spent the majority of his life working successfully in Paris, where he studied many of the artistic greats and developed his own delicate style.
“The next body of works would be the early- to mid-20th century works,” Gleissner said. “Many of the works in this group date from the 1930s or the WPA era.”
The WPA era refers to the Works Progress Administration, a government-funded program that in part sponsored artists during the time of the Great Depression. Under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the program promoted and protected the arts with the funding of many public arts projects. This era resulted in an enormous output of historically important social realist artwork that documents the social politics and culture of the day.
“One of the most prominent artists found in this grouping is ground-breaking printmaker Dox Thrash,” Gleissner said.
In the third grouping, art that ranges in date from the 1950s through the present day, one sees more politically and socially charged subject matter.
“This was the era of civil rights. Many of the works of this era are so powerful and very bold and striking. Two of the artists included here are John Biggers and Charles White,” Gleissner said. “The works by artists of the later years make much more of a statement than what is seen in the early works, which center more on everyday life or worldly travel.”
The Kelleys began collecting in 1980, after they saw an African-American art exhibition at their local art museum in San Antonio, Gleissner said.
“They both realized that they didn’t recognize any of the artists or artworks in that exhibition and that this was a huge part of their culture that was unknown to them,” he said. “They began to educate themselves and have since made a real mark. Their collection features incredibly important and historical works, and it is so wonderful to have it here at the art museum.”
The Kelley exhibition also features a piece by contemporary artist Samella Lewis, which ties into the Samella Lewis exhibition on display at the Kansas African American Museum.
“Lewis is one of the most important African-American artists of our generation,” Gleissner said. “This exhibition will really offer the public an excellent opportunity to see the range of African-American work, both historical and contemporary.”