An artist, scholar, curator, and collector, David Driskell was a world authority on African-American art. In addition to receiving thirteen honorary degrees and numerous awards, including three Rockefeller fellowships and the National Humanities Medal from President Bill Clinton, Driskell curated more than thirty-five exhibitions on black artists. His own paintings and collages were included in countless national and international shows.

Born into a sharecropping family in Eatonton, Georgia, Driskell inherited his creative inclination from his father, a minister, and watercolorist, and his mother, a homemaker and quilter. Driskell spent most of his youth in the Appalachian foothills of North Carolina, where his family moved in 1936. Although his school had no art program and only minimal art materials for its students, Driskell recalled using whatever paper he could find to draw pictures of cars and houses. Following the example of adults in his community, he also created small sculptures using local clay and natural dyes. Though he had received a scholarship to attend a university in-state, Driskell was determined to enroll at the country's most prestigious historically black college of the day, Howard University in Washington, DC. He received his undergraduate degree from Howard in 1955 and later earned his MFA from Catholic University of America.

As a college student, Driskell found himself drawn to social commentary art. His mentor, James A. Porter, encouraged the aspiring artist to study art history in addition to painting. At the Barnett-Aden Gallery—the city's first commercial gallery to display the work of artists of color—he saw the work of Romare Bearden and met Langston Hughes as well as other African American intellectuals at salon events. These encounters inspired Driskell to begin collecting art, much as Barnett-Aden owners James V. Herring and Alonzo Aden had done. His considerable collection, initiated with a gift from Herring of a modern Wassily Kandinsky painting and a baroque sketch by Rembrandt Van Rijn, expanded substantially after Driskell was recruited in 1966 by Nashville's Fisk University to chair their art program, a department founded by Aaron Douglas. At Fisk, Driskell introduced a visiting African-American artists program, enlarged the university's art collection, and successfully attracted racially integrated audiences to the institution's various exhibitions.

Even as Driskell continued to develop his curatorial expertise, he never wavered in his own creative pursuits. Inspired by African masks and sculpture following a 1969 trip to Africa, Driskell began infusing his paintings and collages with an African aesthetic. His personal memories and imagination informed his compositions, as did the work of his contemporaries. It was Romare Bearden who encouraged Driskell's technique of tearing, rather than cutting, as he began making collages from fabric, paper, and magazine images. New York galleries started showing the artist's work as early as 1970; in 1980, he was honored with his first major retrospective solo exhibition.

Writing later of his own art, Driskell said, "As an artist of African ancestry living in a world fraught with racism, sexism, and all the prejudices I have learned to live with, I often find refuge and indeed solace in the creative process . . . [and in] responding to the spiritual urge within to fulfill my earthly task of making and creating my own beautiful world."

As Driskell began to experience success in major art markets, he continued his efforts to promote African American art nationwide. In 1976, Driskell curated the landmark exhibition "Two Centuries of Black American Art". Accompanied by an extensive catalog, the seminal survey of more than two hundred objects opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and traveled across the country. The response to this exhibition opened the doors for other national appointments and assignments that placed him in the center of African American art history studies. From 1977–1998, Driskell served as a distinguished professor at the University of Maryland, where he taught, painted, curated, and helped build the institution's art collection.

David Driskell's legacy is unrivaled in its diversity and import. His work can be found in the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and High Museum, among other prestigious institutions. In addition to exhibiting his own work as well as African-American art from his personal collection at museums and universities across the country, Driskell donated a substantial portion of his extensive collection to create the David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland in 2001. The center preserves African American art and culture while providing an intellectual home for artists and scholars working to expand African Diasporic studies. In an effort to encourage scholarship, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta established the David C. Driskell Prize in 2004. Awarded annually, the prize honors individuals who, like Driskell himself, have made original and significant contributions to the study of African American art or history.