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Excellence & Emancipation: African American Artists and the Harmon Foundation

TJC Gallery, Spartanburg, South Carolina
Jan 20, 2021 – Mar 19, 2021

In the interlude between world wars, a confluence of societal changes spawned unprecedented opportunities for many African Americans. As the country lauded black soldiers’ valuable contributions to victory in World War I, a “great migration” of black Southerners to Northern cities imbued those capitals with a palpable sense of possibility. A renaissance of African American literature, music, and art bloomed in Harlem, quickly spreading to and energizing other urban centers. Despite this progress, significant barriers remained—particularly for African Americans seeking to advance their careers, both critically and commercially, in the field of fine art. 

During this period, several programs dedicated to supporting and promoting African American artists emerged. The largest and most effective of these was the William E. Harmon Awards for Distinguished Achievement Among Negroes, an initiative that recognized excellence in eight fields of endeavor and became best known for its celebration of black visual artists. Administered by the Harmon Foundation in cooperation with the Federal Council of Churches’ Commission on Race Relations, the awards were presented between 1926 and 1930; juried exhibitions of works by African Americans were subsequently mounted—and toured the nation—between 1928 and 1933. Writing for the NAACP’s influential journal The Crisis in 1927, the Harmon Awards’ superintendent, African American church leader Dr. George E. Haynes, likened the program to “a new emancipation . . . that will free the Negro from external restrictions and internal inhibitions, thus enabling him to realize himself in the highest achievement.”

From the outset, the Harmon Awards’ founders described the undertaking as “experimental” and projected a five-year duration. Participation grew annually, as did the caliber of submitted artwork. In his seminal 1943 treatise Modern Negro Art, artist/art historian James Porter concluded that the Harmon “exhibitions were among the greatest stimuli to the artists of the New Negro Movement. The yearly prize awards prompted intense competition, and as a result some found a fine creative vein.” Honorees received cash premiums, and some participants were granted stipends to underwrite continued studies or travel abroad; in several instances, Harmon funds sustained artists on the brink of abandoning their practices for more pragmatic pursuits. In addition to introducing African American artists to the general public, these same artists became more aware of their peers’ aesthetic output. In their reach to over fifty cities from coast to coast, traveling exhibitions helped galvanize the establishment of art departments at historically black colleges and universities. Through the hundreds of paintings, works on paper, and sculpture it spotlighted, the Harmon Foundation provided testimony to the genius of African American artists and to the truth that “black subject matter—the lives, activities, and portraits of African Americans—was a legitimate, valuable, and unique part of American life, worthy of artistic expression and the unique province of black artists.”

Excellence & Emancipation: African American Artists and the Harmon Foundation showcases works created by such legendary artists as Charles Alston, William Artis, Richmond Barthé, Leslie Bolling, William Cooper, Beauford Delaney, Aaron Douglas, Edwin Harleston, Palmer Hayden, Malvin Gray Johnson, William H. JohnsonLoïs Mailou Jones, James Porter, William Scott, Laura Waring, James Wells, Ellis Wilson, and Hale Woodruff. In their respective roles as makers, teachers, historians, and activists, the 18 featured artists had profound influences on African American art in the early twentieth century, and their legacies continue to inform today’s creative and cultural conversation.