Gayle Schechter – “An oasis in the Southern desert”: AUC’s GLAM Center Brings the Art and History of the Atlanta University Art Annuals Online

“An oasis in the Southern desert”: AUC’s GLAM Center Brings the Art and History of the Atlanta University Art Annuals Online

Gayle Schechter, Atlanta University Center

As part of its ongoing initiative to expand access to the culturally rich holdings of its member institutions, the Atlanta University Center (AUC) Robert W. Woodruff Library is pleased to announce the launch of its online portal for the Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums (GLAM) Center for Collaborative Teaching and Learning. The AUC GLAM Center, funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, provides faculty training in object-based pedagogy to stimulate cross-disciplinary teaching and learning with original artwork like Selma Burke’s “Mother and Child,” primary source documents including James Baldwin’s manuscript of “Giovanni’s Room,” and archival materials such as W. E. B. Du Bois’s typewriter. Through the collaborative efforts of the AUC Robert W. Woodruff Library, Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, and the AUC Woodruff Library’s Archives Research Center, the GLAM Center is developing new and innovative opportunities for deeper engagement and increased access to the objects housed within their respective collections. The GLAM Center’s digital portal will assist in its efforts to increase discoverability and scholarship of the AUC’s unique holdings by providing virtual access to images from these institutions’ collections, showcasing thematic exhibitions, and offering educational resources for AUC faculty and students and the general public.

Hale Woodruff and the Atlanta University Art Annuals

The portal’s current featured collection, Atlanta University Art Annuals, showcases images from the annual art exhibitions that were held at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University). First organized in 1942 by artist and AU professor Hale Aspacio Woodruff as the “Exhibition of Paintings, Prints, and Sculpture by Negro Artists of America,” the event became known as the “Atlanta University Art Annuals” in 1964 and ran until 1970. During that period, the juried art competition provided one of the only forums for African Americans to showcase their artwork in the country. During the Jim Crow era, work by African American artists was relegated to exhibitions in churches and community centers. The Art Annuals provided black artists with a national platform and “opportunities for discourse about the creative process, honing their craft, and exposing their art to a receptive and discerning audience.”1 Winners of the competition, like Lois Mailou Jones and Norman Lewis, though unknown in the mainstream art world at the time, are now hailed as masters of the field. As described by artist and educator Margaret Taylor Goss Burroughs,2

For most of us, the Atlanta show provided the first memory, the first mention, and the first knowledge of the black arts presence. In those catalogs from Atlanta we first read the names of people like Hale Woodruff, Jacob Lawrence, John Wilson, Elizabeth Catlett, Charles White, Aaron Douglas, William Artis, and many, many others. Many were unknown, but through this cultural vehicle . . . Atlanta University became an oasis in the Southern desert, not only for the black artist of the South but for those also in the East and West as well.
Opening, 16th Annual Art Exhibition (1957). Atlanta University Photographs, Atlanta University Center Robert W. Woodruff Library. 
Art Exhibition, Dr. and Mrs. Hugo Skala and Mr. Kofi, Sculptor (1960). Atlanta University Photographs, Atlanta University Center Robert W. Woodruff Library. 
 

For Woodruff, these exhibitions also had a more local goal. In addition to exposing the world to work created by African American artists, Woodruff hoped to provide the African American community in Atlanta with exposure to the art world.3 Though the Art Annuals began in order to counter this lack of access African Americans had in the face of Jim Crow, Woodruff had always envisioned that the shows would eventually present the work of artists from all racial backgrounds. Woodruff wanted black artists to be praised for their talent as artists rather than as black artists, and believed that they could only grow as artists if they were exhibited alongside their white counterparts. Woodruff’s vision was rebuffed by Atlanta University’s president, Rufus Clement, and the members of the AU Board who “concluded there were so many opportunities for white artists and so few for blacks that it seemed most feasible and fair to continue in the direction the shows were going.”4

The conflict contributed to Woodruff’s exit from Atlanta University in 1946, with the Annuals continuing exclusively as a showcase for African American artists. Several factors contributed to the conclusion of the Annuals in 1970, including rising costs for both artists and the University, and the departure from AU’s Public Relations Office of the primary organizer of the exhibitions, Norah McNiven.5 In 1973, Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, previously inaccessible to black artists and patrons, produced “Highlights from the Atlanta University collection of Afro-American Art.” But while “the 1960s civil rights movement and desegregation provided more exhibition opportunities, dissipating the need for the Atlanta University exhibitions,”6 African American artists still experienced discrimination and faced exclusion from contemporary group exhibitions at major institutions that weren’t specifically marketed as “black” collections.

“Fine Arts Building.” Spelman Archives Photographic Collection. Atlanta University Center Robert Woodruff Library. 

Atlanta University’s purchases of art from the Annuals would ultimately form the basis for a collection that now numbers over 1,200 works of African American modern art and traditional African art in the Clark Atlanta University Art Museum. Artwork purchased from the Art Annuals was centrally displayed at the Atlanta University Art Gallery (now Clark Atlanta University Art Museum), while artwork obtained by Spelman College was displayed throughout the campus from the 1940s until 1996, when the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art opened its doors. Highlighting the wide spectrum of works by women of the African diaspora, Spelman’s permanent collection boasts more than 350 works from African American artists as well as African art collected from Cameroon, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Liberia, Mali, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone.

Bringing together the artwork held by Clark Atlanta University and Spelman College with the culturally significant holdings of the AUC Robert W. Woodruff Library’s Archives Research Center, which is the home of the Atlanta Student Movement Collection and the Maynard Jackson mayoral administrative records, the GLAM Center’s digital portal will provide a window into the vaults of AUC institutions, increasing access to archival holdings and works there by notable artists including Jacob Lawrence, Beverly Buchanan, and Henry Ossawa Tanner. The AUC GLAM Center for Collaborative Teaching and Learning digital portal will continue to grow its selection of digitized materials, online exhibits, and educational resources to foster access to and digital scholarship on the oral and visual histories of African Americans.

Similar Publications
  • SHAKESPEARE IN BLACK AND WHITE: ATLANTA, 1916

  • 50 WATTS FROM NOON TIL MIDNIGHT: THE MAKING OF WCLK

  • ART AND ACTIVISM IN 1970S ATLANTA

Notes   [ + ]

1. Tina Maria Dunkley and Jerry Cullum, In the Eye of the Muses: Selections from the Clark Atlanta University Art Collections (Seattle: Marquand Books, 2012), 15.
2. Margaret Taylor Goss Burroughs, lecture at the opening of “Highlights from the Atlanta University Collection of Afro-American Art” at the High Museum in 1973, as quoted from Winifred Stoelting, “The Atlanta Years: A Biographical Sketch,” in Hale Woodruff: 50 Years of His Art (New York: Studio Museum in Harlem, 1979), 24.
3. Morgan Sumrell. “Hale Woodruff: The Harlem Renaissance in Atlanta.” Afro-Americans in New York Life and History 37, no. 2 (2013): 115–53.
4. Amalia K. Amaki, “Hale Woodruff in Atlanta: Art, Academics, Activism and Africa,” in Hale Woodruff, Nancy Elizabeth Prophet and the Academy, ed. Amalia K. Amaki, Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, et al. (Atlanta: Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, 2007), 37.
5. Dunkley, In the Eye of the Muses, 22–23.
6. “Our New Day Begun: Atlanta’s Black Artistic Heritage” Atlanta History 37, no. 1 (Spring 1993): 33–43.