About This Exhibition

The Smithsonian American Art Museum holds one of the premier collections of African American art, and the best of the best of this collection will appear at the Wichita Art Museum in Winter/Spring 2021. The exhibition includes nearly 50 paintings and sculptures by 34 leading artists across seven decades.

The combined artworks reveal a sweep of American cultural history from a conscious vantage point of the African American experience. Artists in the show came to prominence from the Harlem Renaissance starting in 1920s to the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

Painting of human figures standing together

Beauford Delaney, Can Fire in the Park, 1946. Oil on canvas, 24 x 30 inches. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. Museum Purchase

Woman holding a baby on her lap while watching a man paint at an easel

Palmer Hayden, The Janitor Who Paints, about 1930. Oil on canvas, 39 1/8 x 32 7/8 inches. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., Gift of the Harmon Foundation

Painting of a man and a dog

Frederick Brown, John Henry, 1979. Oil on canvas, 84 x 60 1/8 inches. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., Gift of Gerald L. Pearson

The show begins with key examples of the Harlem Renaissance, a chapter in American experience when southern blacks migrated to this urban center and flourished artistically. Sequential chapters follow the civil rights era as well as self-taught expression in the rural south and contemporary commentary. Along the way, the beauty as well as hardship of African American experience are creatively and authentically explored.

Artists Benny Andrews and William H. Johnson speak to the dignity and resilience of people who work the land. Jacob Lawrence and Thornton Dial Sr. acknowledge the struggle for economic justice and civil rights. Sargent Johnson and Mailou Jones address the heritage of Africa in the United States, and Romare Bearden celebrates jazz and the birth of the blues on American soil. Sam Gilliam and Alma Thomas innovate with color and form to create compelling abstractions.

Wichita Art Museum galleries will bristle with powerful works by many luminaries including those named above as well as as Beauford Delaney, Frederick Brown, Palmer Hayden, Norman Lewis, Hale Woodruff, Whitfield Lowell, Renée Stout, Bob Thompson, and others. The exhibition will pair with strong adult, school, and family programming with many collaborators to deepen community access and impact. 

My pictures express my life and experience… the things I have experienced extend to my national, racial, and class group. I paint the American scene.

Jacob Lawrence Artist

Our Generous Sponsors

Man Sowing Land

William H. Johnson, Sowing, about 1940. Oil on burlap, 38 1/2 x 45 3/4 inches. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C., Gift of the Harmon Foundation

THANK YOU to all of the exhibition sponsors who are making this exhibition possible.

African American Art in the 20th Century is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The C.F. Foundation in Atlanta supports the museum’s traveling exhibition program, Treasures to Go. The William R. Kenan Jr. Endowment Fund provided financial support.

The Wichita presentation of this exhibition has been generously underwritten by presenting sponsors Koch Family Foundation and Emprise Bank.

Generous support has been provided by Louise Beren, Berry Foundation, DeVore Foundation, Sharon and Alan Fearey, Sonia Greteman and Chris Brunner, the Gridley Family Foundation, Kristin and Will Price, and Julie and Bill Nicholson.

2021 exhibitions and public programs are generously supported by the Downing Foundation.

All museum exhibitions receive generous sponsorship from the Friends of the Wichita Art Museum and the City of Wichita.

Recorded Tours

Wichita Art Museum education department creates recorded tours for African American Art in the 20th Century.

My purpose is to paint the life of my people as I know it.

Romare Bearden Artist