An early hub: Black art in Detroit

What created an early hub of Black art in Detroit? How did this city come to possess such a fertile market for Black collectors and artists?

America’s Great Migration saw an estimated six million Black residents abandon the South for the Northeast, Midwest and West between 1916 and 1970. Detroit served as a popular destination with tens of thousands of African-Americans moving there in search of greater economic opportunity and social equality.

Among their ranks were those who would fill the factories and build the cars the city became world famous for.

There were also artists.

When mixed with the city’s homegrown creatives, the combination created a robust African-American artistic community. That community and its work is the focus of “Detroit Collects: Selections of African-American Art from Private Collections,” on view at the Detroit Institute of Arts through March 15.

“Black artists’ organizations such as the Pen and Palette Club formed by the Detroit Urban League in 1925 offered young artists free training, studio space and the opportunity to exhibit their art,” General Motors Center for African-American Art at DIA curator Valerie Mercer said, singling out one of the numerous local organizations which supported African-American art through the decades. I spoke to Mercer when writing about “Detroit Collects: Selections of African-American Art from Private Collections,” on view at the Detroit Institute of Arts in 2019. “(The Club) was also a significant meeting place for Detroit artists who would influence the art scene in the city over the next twenty to thirty years.”

Two of those artists were Charles McGee and Leroy Foster who met while taking classes at the Pen and Palette Club in 1940. Both have work included in this exhibit.

The DIA began collecting African-American Art in 1943 when it accepted a donation of prints from the Works Progress (later Works Projects) Administration (WPA). During the Depression, the WPA’s Federal Arts Project employed thousands of artists and sponsored artworks. As WPA workshops began disbanding with the U.S. wartime economy roaring, a percentage of its artworks were disbursed to museum collections throughout the country. Included in the WPA’s donation to the DIA were prints by African-American artists Sargent Claude Johnson, Dox Thrash and Ralph Chessé.

The first painting by an African-American artist, Robert S. Duncanson’s The Drunkard’s Plight (1845), was a gift to the museum from a private donor in 1944. Since then, the museum has significantly grown its collections in this area to more than 600 works.

“Greenwich Village,” 1945, Beauford Delaney, American; oil on canvas. Mary Anne and Eugene A. Gargaro Jr. Collection.
“Greenwich Village,” 1945, Beauford Delaney, American; oil on canvas. Mary Anne and Eugene A. Gargaro Jr. Collection.DETROIT INSTITUTE OF ARTS

In this century, DIA has built upon the foundation institutions like Cass Technical High School, The Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts (now known as the College for Creative Studies), the Arts Extended Gallery, the Scarab Club and gallery owners including George N’Namdi and Dell Pryor laid by establishing the General Motors Center for African-American Art. It is the only curatorial department in the country at an encyclopedic art museum dedicated to the collecting and scholarship of African-American artwork.

In 2007 as part of a museum wide reinstallation project, the DIA unveiled five galleries solely devoted to conveying the history of African-American art in its permanent collection.

“This exhibition builds on our history of collecting and displaying African-American art and creates a new opportunity for our visitors to see themselves reflected in the museum’s galleries,” DIA Director Salvador Salort-Pons told me.

Salort-Pons, a native of Madrid, Spain who moved to Detroit in 2008, fondly recalls his introduction into the city’s African-American arts community following his family’s move from the suburbs to downtown in 2016.

“During the weekends we started to explore the city, its amenities and events,” Salort-Pons said. “One evening we visited the store Detroit is the New Black where there was a pop-up art exhibition showing work by local sculptor Austen Brantley.”

Conversing with Brantley and another artist, Judy Bowman, Salort-Pons was clued into weekly gathering of local artists at a diner called Noni’s Sherwood Grill. Every Monday, the artists would present one or two pieces in front of collectors and art lovers while eating breakfast. The Detroit Fine Arts Breakfast Club, founded by Henry Harper and Harold Braggs, organized this weekly gathering.

After attending a Breakfast Club and making friends with the people there, Salort-Pons invited the group to DIA where they now meet a couple of times each year. For dinner, not breakfast.

“The new acquaintances and friendships that emerged from Noni’s are at the origin of ‘Detroit Collects: Selection of African American Art from Private Collections,’” Salort-Pons said.

Nineteen Detroit-area art collectors loaned the artworks in this exhibition, some of which are on public view for the first time. Among them are the wealthy executives, doctors and lawyers you’d expect, but also educators.

Nettie Seabrooks loaned work for the show. She was the first African-American woman executive at General Motors. She would go on to serve as deputy mayor, chief of staff and COO of the City of Detroit during the administration of Mayor Dennis Archer.

Collectors black and white have shared a bonanza of paintings, sculptures and photography from many of the most prominent African-American artists both living and dead. Romare Bearden, Archibald Motley, Beauford Delany, Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett, William H. Johnson, Nick Cave and Kerry James Marshall are nationwide museum stalwarts featured in the show. Hopefully, those names are familiar to you.

“The Hero,” 1960, Leroy Foster, American; oil on Masonite. Dr Darnell and Shirley A. Kaigler. DETROIT INSTITUTE OF ARTS

The names of artists featured with Detroit roots will most likely not be. Those include Charles McGee, Mario Moore, Tylonn Sawyer, Allie McGhee and Leroy Foster, “Detroit’s Black Michelangelo.” Check out his painting, The Hero, to see how he picked up that illustrious moniker.

The artworks are displayed alongside the stories of motivation and passion which drove each collector to acquire the pieces.

Great artists earn plentiful praise, and rightly so, but as “Detroit Collects” reminds, for an art community to thrive, it needs more than makers, it needs buyers.

Remember that when considering your next art purchase,

Read more about masterworks of African art at the Detroit Institute of Art.

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