Associate Professor of Sociology, Mount Holyoke College

African American art

A Legacy of Collecting: The National Museum of African American History and Culture

African American museums, Philanthropy, African American art, CollectingP. B.
Kevin E. Cole,  Increase Risk with Emotional Faith  (2008) / © Patricia. A. Banks  Donated to the National Museum of African American History and Culture by Greg and Yolanda Head.

Kevin E. Cole, Increase Risk with Emotional Faith (2008) / © Patricia. A. Banks

Donated to the National Museum of African American History and Culture by Greg and Yolanda Head.

by Patricia A. Banks

I recently participated in a Smith College teaching and learning event "American History as African American History: Visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture." Here is a post that I wrote about the visit for a reflection and resource blog about the visit:

When I walked into the visual art gallery at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) my attention was immediately taken to Kevin E. Cole’s work Increase Risk with Emotional Faith (2008). The sculpture references neckties used to lynch African American men and is composed of highly patterned and brightly colored strips of wood that twist and turn under and over one another. It is not only the formal properties and conceptual content of this work that caught my eye, but also its resonance with my scholarship and teaching. To complete research for my book Represent: Art and Identity Among the Black Upper-Middle Class (Routledge 2010) I conducted ethnographic research on art collecting by African Americans in New York, NY and Atlanta, GA. While New York is widely recognized for art collecting, it is less well known that Atlanta has a rich legacy of collecting among African Americans. This legacy is partly rooted in the institutional base for African American art that is provided by museums at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU's) in the city such as Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University. Cole lives and works in Atlanta and several collectors in the city own his sculptures and display them in their homes. The work that is on display in NMAAHC was donated by Greg and Yolanda Head who are based in Atlanta. The couple are among a critical mass of African American art collectors in the city who center work by artists from the African Diaspora in their patronage.

Much attention has been paid to the fact that the collection of historical artifacts at NMAAHC was partly brought together by reaching out to the public through its Save Our African American Treasures program. However, Cole’s sculpture donated by the Head family throws light on how public collections rely on private collectors. In this case, NMAAHC's collection grows out of a long legacy of private collections focused on work by African American artists.

For professors and other instructors who are interested in bringing insights on the history of collecting into the classroom NMAAHC provides a useful case for examining the intersections of identity and collecting. As I work on my new monograph on philanthropy at African American museums, I feel as if I have come full circle.