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Maybe the Next Harlem Renaissance Won't Be in Harlem

For such a period of rich creative activity, the Harlem Rennaisance was surprisingly short-lived.

By LOWELL THOMPSON

The Harlem Renaissance has a storied, almost mythic, presence in black history. For such a period of rich creative activity, it was surprisingly short-lived. Even the most generous scholars say it lasted only 15 years, roughly from 1919 to 1934. Most of its fabled works were created from 1925 to 1930. Its creative cach?t surpassed, however, even that of the explosive Black Arts Movement of the 60s.

It?s been said that another renaissance may be unfolding right here in Chicago. A recent auction at the South Side Community Art Center showed signs a contemporary movement may be gathering.

?We had our best auction ever,? says Dianne Dinkins-Carr, SSCAC?s president of the board. ?Collectors purchased more than $100,000 in art.? Carr is understandably proud. The center may be the only continuously operated art center remaining from the 110 created during the Works Project Administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The center was officially dedicated by Eleanor Roosevelt on May 8, 1941, but within two years, the federal government had revoked its support. The institution has since been supported by the surrounding black community, not by wealthy, white, liberal philanthropy.

The auction itself is now 40-years-old. The most recent auction attendees wore a range of garb from Ghanaian Afro-centric to Saks Fifth Avenue chic and bid on artwork such as vintage Van Der Zee photographs and Jacob Lawrence serigraphs.

There are stirrings today in Bronzeville, the historic name for the mid-Southeast Side of Chicago occupied by African Americans.

Bronzeville resident and collector Dan Parker recently published African Art: The Diaspora and Beyond. The book consists of hundreds of photographs of his 450-piece collection in his home. ?Diaspora? means the scattering of people who have a common origin. In black history it refers to people who were dispersed to America, the Caribbean and other islands.

?On the South Side, black people are not wanting for having their art expressed and shown,? says Parker, a retired professor from City Colleges of Chicago. ?Why? Because we?re doing it ourselves. We?re utilizing all the resources we have. But this isn?t just African-American art?this is American art. This is part of American art that has long not been recognized.?

But one auction and a book doesn?t make a movement. Are there other signs that a cultural confluence is happening here in Chicago? There are no hard figures regarding gallery receipts and profit margins, but consider that there are now at least 20 galleries, museums and exhibition spaces in spaces in town either owned and/or managed by African Americans or that regularly display African-American art. As recently as five years ago, there were fewer than half that number.

There are exciting signs of an increasing interest in African-American art, including the Kerry James Marshall exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Art Institute of Chicago?s Century of Collecting African-American Art exhibition and the Fred Wilson Show at the Chicago Cultural Center.

There are other signs of renewal. The Harold Washington Cultural Center opened on 47th & King Drive. There is also the rebirth of the historic Lake Meadows Art Fair, which was started in the late 1950s by Chicago?s African-American cultural queen, Dr. Margaret Burroughs, who also founded the DuSable Museum.

Diasporal Rhythms, a group of African-American collectors, was recently formed. They plan to help educate the growing number of black collectors by setting up standards to critique, appraise and codify African-American art values.

There have always been tiny cloisters of wealthy, privileged and sophisticated black collectors, especially since the WPA period. But the idea of collecting original art created by contemporary African-American artists was as foreign to most of them as Timbuktu.

?It [wasn?t] that long ago that we even accepted putting African-American art on our walls,? says John Martin, a Chicago-based African-American art dealer. ?We had Martin Luther King, Kennedy and Jesus.?

Artist Dayo Laoy? was born in Nigeria and immigrated to Chicago in 1990. ?I noticed the interest that Chicago black folks have in African art is deep when it comes to buying not only traditional African art like sculpture and masks, but clothing, [which is] worn with pride,? says Laoy?.

Alfred Woods, former director of the

South Side Community Arts Center, says there?s nothing new about a vibrant arts scene in the black community. ?Art in Chicago is not [experiencing] a renaissance,? he says. ?And I think we do ourselves a disservice by trying to compare ourselves to New York...there?s no comparison. It?s art of the black community. It?s always been there. It?s been a part of what we do. We don?t create art to be famous. We don?t create art to be the darlings of anyone. We create art because it is part of the human experience to create art.?

Douglas Dawson, owner of a gallery that deals in ethnographic art, doesn?t see signs of a black renaissance in Chicago yet.

?I don?t experience it here,? says Dawson. ?We have a number of African-American clients, but they?re not Chicago-based...I?m often at parties that are predominantly African-American, and these are very well-healed, sophisticated people who it seems to me would naturally be interested?if not in buying the things that I sell?looking at them.?

However, says Dawson, ?I don?t know of any commercial art galleries whose clientele is predominantly African-American.?

?You?ll never be able to compare it to [the Harlem Renaissance],? says George R. N?Namdi, owner of a gallery that deals primarily in abstract art. ?It was a different period. But the collector is really becoming stronger in Chicago.

?What you have here is the collector driving things,? N?Namdi adds. ?[Although] it?s never going to be New York, I?ve seen a major growth spurt. I think Chicago has all the resources. A lot of artists are now staying here.?

The Harlem Renaissance quickly became popular in its era through widespread support, even outside the black community. ?Not having [African-American art] being funded and supported by white patronage [today] would make it more important as a renaissance as opposed to the Harlem Renaissance,? says Patric McCoy, co-founder of the Diasporal Rhythms. ?But it also will take a little longer for it to blossom because it will be moved by a real momentum, not an artificially created one, where someone says you need to promote this guy and I?ll provide the bucks to support it. You shoot up to the top. But you come back down as fast as you go up....like the Harlem Renaissance.

?I also see that being outside of the East Coast establishment has forced the Chicago movement to be more creative and self-sustaining,? McCoy continues. ?I have not seen the type of networking there?artist to artist or artist and collectors. There, it?s more about who you know and the galleries you show in. [Our artists] are speaking about the culture and the cultural changes that are happening in our community.

?What are the obligations and concerns of the African-American collector?? McCoy asks. ?At the moment, I believe we don?t have to pay attention to what the other institutions are saying or doing concerning the artists that we are interested in or that we believe are the reflection of a cultural renaissance.?

Artist Dale Washington echoes a similar sentiment. ?The greatest part of this is being in the middle of it,? he says. ?What makes it special in Chicago is that we don?t really rely directly only on the galleries to sell our work. What?s happening here is giving new and emerging collectors the ability to meet and interact directly with the artist. That?s extremely different.?

Steven Kelly is an African-American artist and dealer who opened a gallery in River North last year. ?As African-Americans we are starting to purchase art work and build collections,? he says. ?That?s different from what happened in the Harlem Renaissance.?

In Chicago, black collectors ?are starting to look at diverse work, not just Afro-centric work,? Kelly says. ?They?re expanding their idea of what art is. Maybe that?s part of the renaissance. The expansion of the idea of what art means in the African-American community.?

?Two years ago there were no galleries in this area,? says Helen West, referring to Bronzeville. ?Now we have at least four. I would call that an explosion. If you think of the short period of time in which all of this has happened, I think Bronzeville has emerged. One of the things I hope to accomplish here at my gallery is to breed new collectors. I?m doing that by educating my customers on art appreciation.?

And appreciating art is what collector David Brent says is most important. ?I don?t think of art as an investment,? he explains. ?Of course, I?m hoping it?s going to be an investment, but....[that?s not my motivation for buying].?

Collectors Bob Alter and Sherry Siegel were drawn to African-American art through an interest in folk art.

?We started buying Mr. Imagination?s work, and we?ve since developed an inter-personal relationship with him,? Alter and Siegal say. ?But the key thing to the market for African-American art is not what we buy. It?s what African-Americans buy.?

In the preface to the 1996 edition of his seminal history of the Harlem Renaissance, When Harlem Was in Vogue, David Levering Lewis writes, ?Because its racial objectives were as unrealistic for the times as they were estimable, the [Harlem Renaissance] was dealt a shattering contemporary defeat.? He concludes with these prophetic words: ?The men and women of the Harlem Renaissance may have failed themselves in their day, but not us in ours.? o

Published: August 01, 2005
Issue: Fall 2005