NEA Arts Magazine

Overlooked No More

Kansas Arts Commission Restores an Artist to His Rightful Place

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Colorful mural

Located in downtown Lawrence, the mural The Polinators was designed by artist David Loewenstein and painted by the community as a tribute to Douglas and other African-American artists with Kansas roots. Photo by Robert Hickerson, courtesy of the Spencer Museum of Art.

Although Kansas native Aaron Douglas was one of the leading visual artists of the Harlem Renaissance, he was both under-recognized and underappreciated in his home state. To change that fact, the University of Kansas's Spencer Museum of Art, with Fisk University and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, organized Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist, the first exhibition to celebrate Douglas's work. In conjunction with the exhibition, the Kansas Arts Commission (KAC) used the American Masterpieces portion of their NEA partnership funding to support extensive outreach and education events related to the Douglas exhibition.

Born and raised in Kansas, Aaron Douglas moved to Harlem in 1925, where he became a key contributor to the Harlem Renaissance, a movement of the 1920–1930s in which African Americans explored arts and culture as a way to express their identities and experiences. Focusing on this time period, the exhibition -- held at Lawrence, Kansas's Spencer Museum -- brought together more than 90 pieces by Douglas, including paintings, murals, and illustrations for books, showcasing his unique blend of African and African-American imagery with Cubism and Art Deco. More than 50,000 visited the 2007 exhibition. With the support of an Access to Artistic Excellence grant from the NEA, the exhibition is traveling to the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

As part of their NEA-supported outreach activities, KAC provided assistance for a free, public conference, "Aaron Douglas and the Arts of the Harlem Renaissance." Held September 28–29 in conjunction with the exhibition, the conference explored Harlem Renaissance artists, writers, and political and creative thinkers, and Douglas's place within this group.

In addition, KAC supported a community outreach project featuring The Polinators, a mural designed by artist David Loewenstein and painted by the Lawrence community as a tribute to Douglas and seven other African-American artists with Kansas roots, including Langston Hughes, Gordon Parks, and Gwendolyn Brooks. KAC also brought Loewenstein to the Kansas Book Festival inWichita, where families created their own murals on pieces of muslin.

Lastly, KAC supported 15 concerts throughout Kansas by folksinger Lemuel Sheppard, whose performances were inspired by Harlem Renaissance artists. Sheppard performed at the mural unveiling ceremony and the Kansas Book Festival, as well as middle and high schools, where teachers received classroom study materials on Douglas and the Harlem Renaissance.

The NEA funding provided an invaluable opportunity for KAC to collaborate with arts organizations, and "encourage organizations to think about education and access in a broader way," said KAC Executive Director Llewellyn Crain. With KAC's assistance, recognition of Douglas expanded throughout Kansas, and in turn, many more people were inspired to visit the exhibition and learn more about the incredible contributions of this Kansas artist.