A Bold and Beautiful Vision

A visual arts student at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, c. 1984. The nationally recognized pre-professional arts high school was established in 1974 by arts advocate Peggy Cooper Cafritz and theater director and choreographer Mike Malone. Photo: Special Collections Research Center, The George Washington University Libraries

The Anacostia Community Museum’s current exhibition, “A Bold and Beautiful Vision: A Century of Black Arts Education in Washington, DC, 1900–2000,” which opened on March 23, serves as a profound exploration into the rich yet often overlooked realm of Black arts education in the nation’s capital. This exhibition is more than just a celebration of artistic achievement; it is a tribute to the resilient community of artist-educators, students, and advocates who have established Washington, DC as a critical epicenter for African American artistic pedagogy.

Throughout the 20th century, Washington, DC, emerged as a fertile ground for nurturing some of the most prominent African American talents in various artistic domains. The exhibition spotlights luminaries such as musicians Duke Ellington, Billy Taylor, and Madame Lillian Evanti; visual artists Alma Thomas, Elizabeth Catlett, and James A. Porter; and influential artist-educators including Sam Gilliam, Georgette Seabrooke Powell, and Loïs Mailou Jones. These figures have not only enriched the cultural fabric of the city through their artistic production but have also played pivotal roles in mentoring subsequent generations of exceptional artists.

“A Bold and Beautiful Vision” casts a spotlight on the remarkable dedication of Black artist-educators in Washington, DC, who, despite facing challenges such as underfunding and segregation, committed themselves to nurturing an appreciation and passion for the arts among the city’s youth.

Artist and art professor Lois Mailou Jones (1905-1998) in her classroom at Howard University (c. 1930s), where she taught and mentored students for nearly 50 years. Credit: Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

At the March 19 press conference, Samir Meghelli, Senior Curator at Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum, explained that the exhibition’s objective is to bring to light the efforts of both celebrated and lesser-known artist-educators in the city. This acknowledgment pays homage to the crucial role they played in shaping Washington, DC’s artistic and cultural legacies as well as their impact on inspiring artistic pursuits among young African Americans.

These exceptional individuals not only bolstered the creation of Black art within the city but also extended its impact and renown on local, national, and international stages, significantly influencing the broader artistic landscape.

On view, a collection of more than 85 objects and artworks were meticulously curated to trace the evolution and lineage of Black arts education in the region. Highlights include Elizabeth Catlett’s original prints from her inaugural solo exhibition, Madame Lillian Evanti’s custom Fischer piano, Alma Thomas’ painting supplies, a marionette crafted by William Buckner and his students, and various works by Sam Gilliam that depict the different stages of his career. Artworks by Lou Stovall and Lloyd McNeill, produced for a concert series by The New Thing Art and Architecture Center, and a study drawing of James Baldwin by David C. Driskell, alongside works by his mentors at Howard University, broaden the exhibition’s scope, connecting local educational initiatives with broader artistic movements.

A student in front of the New Thing Art and Architecture Center, a community-based arts organization in Washington’s Adams Morgan neighborhood where hundreds of young people from across the city took classes in painting, drawing, filmmaking, photography, and African dance and drum in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Photo: Tom Zetterstrom, New Thing Art and Architecture Collection, Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution

The exhibited items represent the convergence of artistic talent and educational advocacy. For instance, Madame Lillian Evanti’s piano not only symbolizes her prowess as a musician but also her role as an educator and advocate for the arts, showcasing the dual responsibilities many of these artist-educators embraced. Alma Thomas’s tools of trade reflect a hands-on, experimental approach to arts education, emphasizing the values of creativity and personal expression.

“A Bold and Beautiful Vision” aligns with the Anacostia Community Museum’s 2024 theme, “Our Education, Our Future,” focusing on the intersections between educational equity and the arts in the Washington metropolitan area. This exhibition is not only a retrospective look at the past century but also a forward-looking endeavor that aims to spark dialogue about the future of arts education and its critical role in cultivating a vibrant and dynamic cultural community.

Through “A Bold and Beautiful Vision,” the Anacostia Community Museum reaffirms its commitment to exploring the nexus of art and education, championing the continued importance of arts education in community development, cultural enrichment, and the fostering of a more inclusive and equitable future.

On view through March 2, 2025. 1901 Fort Place SE Washington, DC.  Hours 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. 202-633-4820.  anacostia.si.edu/visit

Phil Hutinet is the founding publisher of East City Art, DC’s visual art journal of record. For more information visit www.eastcityart.com