SITES' upcoming fine art exhibition, William H. Johnson: An American Modern, features a jewel-like collection of 20 works encapsulating the artist's stylistic evolution and subjective experience of the world. Currently owned by Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, the story of how these paintings found their way to Morgan, and how they now come to travel with the Smithsonian, is dramatic.
William H. Johnson (1901-1970)--a wildly prolific artist who was lauded as a technical master and experimental genius at the height of his career--suddenly and permanently stopped painting at the age of 46 due to health concerns that persisted for the remainder of his life. By this point, Johnson was a childless widower, and his art was moved to a rented storage space in lower Manhattan for safekeeping.
In 1956, the William Harmon Foundation, an early Johnson patron, took ownership of the artist's collection of art, books, and personal effects, and agreed to use them to promote Johnson's reputation and to advance the achievements of other black American artists. The Foundation recognized the unique value in Johnson's work and put forth a great effort to conserve and exhibit the art they acquired.
Three years before Johnson's death in 1970, the Harmon Foundation closed its doors. Fortunately, its founders took bold steps to ensure that Johnson's work would continue to be seen and celebrated. The Foundation's collection of 1,154 paintings by Johnson was given to what is now the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
The Harmon Foundation charged the Smithsonian with the task of reaching out "to the masses of our people" and "rais[ing] their sights and . . . feeling for art at the core of life," and specifically requested that selected Johnson works be distributed to several black colleges and universities, including Morgan State. The young and enthusiastic leaders of the art departments at these schools were committed, as the Harmon Foundation had been, to raising the profile of African American artists.
Morgan's art department chair, James E. Lewis, was first on the scene and carefully selected works from each stage of Johnson's career. The masterful paintings Mr. Lewis chose have remained at the university for the past 35 year, yet the collection has never been displayed in its entirety. Gabriel Tenabe, Mr. Lewis's successor as director of the Museum of Art at Morgan State University, knew of his institution's history with the Smithsonian and began exploring the possibility of collaborating on a traveling exhibition more than a decade ago. Mr. Tenabe called in Marquette Folley, a project director at SITES, to brainstorm for ideas, and Morgan's collection of Johnson paintings soon emerged as a strong prospect.
The resulting William H. Johnson exhibition and accompanying book of the same title are a true testament to the good that can come when cultural institutions stay true to their mission. The collaboration between SITES, Morgan State, and a small community of Johnson scholars has succeeded not only in bringing Johnson to the attention of museums and museum patrons around the country, but also in providing a fresh analysis of his work and his significance as a often overlooked genius of American modern art.
--Robin Meyer, SITES Publications Intern