Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta has a long-established tradition in promoting the visual arts. Under the direction of one of Georgia’s first college professors of art, Hale Woodruff (1900-1980), the university hosted national exhibitions (1942-70) for African American artists who were excluded from public and cultural institutions because of segregation. During this twenty-nine-year period, more than 900 Black artists from around the country sent their works to compete in the Exhibition of Paintings, Prints, and Sculptures by Negro Artists of America. Works that received purchase awards became part of the permanent collection, which by 2001 totaled more than 950 objects and included an African art collection of study quality. Though many of these artists—Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden, John Biggers, Lois Mailou Jones, and John Wilson, for example—were virtually unknown to mainstream art institutions, they became, and continue to become, renowned on the American art scene.
The galleries, located in Trevor Arnett Hall on the Clark Atlanta University campus, have earned the distinction of possessing one of the largest and most historically significant collections of art by African Americans. Over the years, however, its scope has widened to include artists of all ethnicities. Contemporary artists Curtis Patterson, Radcliffe Bailey, and Freddie Styles are scions of Woodruff’s legacy.
The purpose of the galleries is to maintain and cultivate a representative collection of American art and to encourage scholarly research, with special attention to the development of African American artists in the historical context of American art.
In collaboration with the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Clark Atlanta University renovated its former library facility to rehouse the collections in compliance with museum standards. The galleries feature temporary exhibitions along with the permanent collection.