conservation in detail The National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C.

Works by nine artists

Before Earle Wilton Richardson (American, 1912–1935) Self Portrait, c. 1934 After

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The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is the nineteenth museum of the Smithsonian Institution and the only national museum devoted to documenting African American history and culture.

The museum’s Visual Arts Gallery and Collection is specifically dedicated to the artistic production of American artists of African descent. Through the acquisition, preservation, conservation, exhibition and promotion of their work, the Gallery’s mission is to illuminate the critical contributions of these artists to our nation’s culture and history and recognize their rightful place in the canon of American art.

More than 322 works of art, including paintings, sculptures, works on paper and mixed media, have been procured through purchase and donation. Many of the acquired works had been previously stored in less-than-ideal environments, resulting in the need for substantial conservation efforts to prepare them for long-term exhibition.

Among these are eight paintings and one work on paper for which conservation was funded by the Bank of America Art Conservation Project. The conservation process comprised cleaning, varnish removal, consolidation, inpainting, relining, re-stretching, preservation through proper housing, mounting and safe handling.

Spanning the course of two centuries, the selected works were created by both noted and lesser-known artists:

Joshua Johnson (American, c. 1763–c. 1827) was formerly enslaved and became the first known professional African American portrait painter.

Earle Wilton Richardson (American. 1912–1935) was a painter and aspiring muralist who worked in the 1930s for the Public Works Art Project (PWAP).

Thelma Johnson Streat (American. 1912–1959) was a painter who produced several renowned works for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1940s.

John Biggers (American, 1924 – 2001), painter, printmaker and teacher, was known in the 1930s and 1940s for his social realist narrative murals and later in life for his 1962 award-winning illustrated book, Ananse: The Web of Life in Africa.

Thornton Dial (American 1928 – 2016) spent the first half of his life working in heavy industry, building highways and later boxcars at the Pullman Standard Plant, before becoming a self-taught painter, illustrator and found-art sculptor.

Hughie Lee-Smith (American, 1915 – 1999)  was a painter and teacher who worked under the WPA and the United States Navy in the 1930s and 1940s and went on to teach at New York’s Art Students League for 15 years. Late in life, he was commissioned to paint the official City Hall portrait of New York Mayor David Dinkins.

Mavis Pusey (American, 1931 – 2019) was a printmaker and abstract painter who studied at New York’s Art Students League in the mid-1940s. She would spend the next several decades living and working in London, Paris and New York.

Ed Clark (American, 1926 – 2019) was an early pioneer of postwar era abstract painting who studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Academy de la Grande Chaumiere in Paris. His work was widely exhibited in Modernist circles.

Purvis Young (American, 1943 – 2010), while briefly imprisoned as a young man, was inspired by the works of the African American urban muralists who created “Freedom Walls” in Chicago, Detroit and other cities. He went on to create his own murals on the boarded-up buildings in his Miami neighborhood, the heart of which was demolished to make way for a new interstate highway.


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