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A visionary leader 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, DC, the Barnett-Aden Gallery, co-founded by Herring and his partner Alonzo J. Aden, offered a space for artists of color to exhibit their work during the difficult years between the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s-1930s and the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. Herring also mentored aspiring artists at Howard University, where he established an art department and gallery. 

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 university's preparatory school) 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. He did so with the intention of developing an art department, a feat he accomplished within a year's time. As the department's long-time director, he assembled a remarkable faculty—including Elizabeth Catlett, Loïs Mailou Jones, and James Porter, among others—and spearheaded the 1928 establishment of the university's art gallery.

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. The roster of Howard students in the Herring era is stellar: Porter, David Driskell, Delilah Pierce, and Alma Thomas, to name just a few.

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 gallery was located. Exhibitions there featured the work of contemporary African American artists, such as Romare Bearden, Hale Woodruff, and Richmond Barthé;  the gallery also showcased works by artists of color from around the globe, including 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, DC. 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 at the David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland. Robert L. Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television and owner of the historic Barnett-Aden Collection, donated several key works to the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2015.