A leading figure in the development of African American art both academically and commercially, James Vernon Herring employed the curatorial process to define African American art at a time when the subject was neglected—or worse—dismissed altogether. Between 1943 and 1961 in a deeply segregated Washington, D.C., the Barnett Aden Gallery, co-founded by Herring and his partner Alonzo J. Aden, offered a space for black artists to exhibit their work during the difficult years between the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s-1930s and the Black Movement of the 1960s. Herring also mentored aspiring artists at Howard University, where he established an art department and gallery. Though very active in the Washington art scene, Herring never forgot his Southern roots.
Born in Clio, South Carolina, James Herring was the son of an African American mother and white Jewish father. At the age of nine, he was sent to Washington where, it was hoped, the young boy would benefit from the educational opportunities available in the nation’s capital and escape the threat of racial violence at home. This decision would be fortuitous and life changing. After attending Howard Academy (the predecessor of Howard University) and earning his bachelor’s degree in pedagogy in art from the predominantly white Syracuse University in 1917, Herring began teaching in the department of architecture at Howard University in 1921 with the intention of developing an art department. Within a year's time, Herring established the school's art department and served as its director. Six years later, he opened the University’s Gallery of Art—the first gallery founded and curated by African Americans.
Calm, regal, and always immaculately dressed, Herring led by example. His painting style, which recalls the light effects and broken brushwork of the late nineteenth century French Impressionists, attests to his belief that artists should be free of racial aesthetic boundaries. This view placed Herring in direct contrast to the ideals espoused in the New Negro Movement founded by his Howard University colleague Alain Locke. While Locke contended that African American artists should pursue an exclusively African aesthetic, Herring encouraged a broader consideration of creative sources beyond, but inclusive of, African art. Students he mentored in this fashion include David Driskell, James Porter, and Alma Thomas.
Herring’s academic principles were mirrored at the Barnett Aden Gallery. The painful racial and ethnic divides present in the greater Washington area did not exist in Herring’s comfortably appointed home, where the Barnett Aden Gallery was located. Exhibitions there featured the work of contemporary African American artists, such as Romare Bearden, Hale Woodruff, and Richmond Barthé, as well as Caucasian artists; the gallery also showcased work from Europe, Japan, Cuba, Africa, and South America. Traditional pieces were offered alongside modern abstract art forms, underscoring the curators’ regard for established artistic traditions, while simultaneously nurturing divergence from those traditions. The gallery became an intercultural gathering spot for musicians, writers, politicians, and intellectuals.
As part of the educated and cultured bourgeoisie within the African American community—what W.E.B. DuBois termed the “Talented Tenth”—Herring also sought to introduce the fine arts to black communities beyond Washington, D.C. In 1947, Herring visited vocational institutions throughout the South, assessing the need for art departments and exhibitions. Thanks to a Carnegie grant, Herring successfully developed the College Art Service in 1948. This program provided traveling art exhibitions to black colleges and universities in the South until at least 1967.
James Herring’s impact on African American art extends far beyond his own ouevre and entrepreneurship. His gift of a Wassily Kandinsky painting to his former student, David Driskell, initiated the younger artist’s acquisition of a vast collection of African American art, now housed in the David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland. The Barnett Aden collection, though no longer intact in its entirety, continues to be celebrated by historians as the oldest collection of African American art. The majority of the collection is currently owned by Robert L. Johnson (founder of Black Entertainment Television), who continues to loan works from the collection for public exhibition.