Smithsonian American Art Museum Host Panel Calls For the Collection Of More Black Art

From left to right: Professor Melanee C. Harvey, Schwanda Rountree, Allen deSouza and Mel and Juanita Hardy discuss Black art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Photo by Josyana Joshua, Howard University News Service.

By Josyana Joshua, Howard University News Service

Washington, D.C.- With Black History Month coming into full swing, art professionals gathered to discuss the importance of the collection of Black art.

On Saturday February 8, the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) hosted a panel discussion, “A Closer Look at African American Artists in SAAM’s Collection.”

The panel included speakers Allen deSouza, an artist and professor at University of California, Berkely, Schwanda Rountree, an attorney and art collector, and Mel and Juanita Hardy, art collectors and founders of DC-based organization Millenium Arts Salon. The panel was moderated by Howard University art history professor, Melanee C. Harvey.

The panel offered an in depth look at the collection of art by African Americans in the museum in relation to the speaker’s own collections and experiences. Despite having different areas of expertise, the panelists all agreed that SAAM’s art collection had a good amount of work from African American artists, which helped each panelist in their own lives. 

The panelists all described experiencing SAAM’s collection differently. Allen deSouza admitted he had never actually been into SAAM before that day, due to living on the West Coast, but had accessed the museum’s collection digitally. He explained how thanks to digitization he is able to teach his students about Black artists they may never get to see in person because of their location. 

“I’m based in Berkeley, so I don’t have immediate access to the museum,” deSouza said. “But, certainly when museums digitize their collections, that makes a huge difference. In the age of access, images work and works that one would, you know, get to see and students will never get to see either.” 

Juanita and Mel Hardy said experiencing SAAM’s collection reinforced the work they were doing by collecting art. They explained that having work from artists that were also in SAAM’s collection allowed them to know they were on the right track.

 “For us together to collect this work [a Jacob Lawrence piece] was really important,” Mel Hardy said. “It references you know, relationship with artists, which is kind of like a hallmark of our collective impulse.” 

Schwanda Rountree whose focus is on contemporary art work expressed her admiration for SAAM’s contemporary section and the importance that plays in supporting artists of today.

 “I was really impressed with SAAM’s contemporary section in terms of the works in their permanent collection on the contemporary side,” Rountree said. “I really find that it’s extremely important to support artists of today. And keeping legacy in mind obviously, and just having the work surrounding you and a space that can create dialogue and you can share the work with other people that are in your home.”

The panel also discussed ways to promote, help and support black artists, which is something they all have tried to do lately. The main points were properly teaching black artists to be in these spaces, as deSouza and Harvey are both professors, and keeping artists connected and in your collections. Harvey said she tries her best to properly educate her students to be able to occupy traditional white spaces after they graduate. While discussing a piece by Theaster Gates which was originally the floorboard of a basketball court, deSouza says he tries to teach his students deeper than just landscape art. 

“What are the ways I approach work like this? Is how does it intervene into the kind of pretty set narratives of art history? It’s not that we shouldn’t teach the canon. Or teach them artists that constitute canon. We can teach the book but also teach them completely differently,” said deSouza.

The Hardys and Rountree suggested hosting salons to keep artists connected. The Hardy’s organization, Millenium Arts Salon, formally holds salons for artists of color. “When we started this nonprofit in 2000, our main objective was to bring people together in an intimate setting and have discussions around topics of art and culture and bring artists to that conversation,” Juanita Hardy said. 

After the discussion, the SAAM hosted a reception where the audience could enjoy light refreshments and conversation with each other and the panelists. Zahraa Lopez, student at Howard University said it was an important discussion. “You don’t hear much on African American artists and how to help them,” Lopez said. “It was nice to hear there are people part of the industry who are still supporting them and see black artists in the museum.”