AAHC Forum: Digitized Texas Southern University Collection Draws New Appreciation and Interest

This post is a part of the AAHC Forum. In the coming months we will invite current and past grantees to contribute their project experiences via blog posts on our UpNext Blog and then ask you to respond through the AAHC Virtual Forum. We hope you will add your voice and share your needs and opinions so that AAHC can continue to help African American museums thrive. Please visit the AAHC forum to continue the conversation.

By Alvia J. Wardlaw, Ph.D.
Director/Curator, University Museum at Texas Southern University

The experience of receiving an IMLS grant for collections management was an eye opener for the University Museum staff as well as the entire university community. Because we are part of an HBCU with an international enrollment, the impact of the grant was far reaching. Prior to formally assessing our vast collections on campus, I think that the rich holdings of visual art on campus were regarded with enthusiasm but without a real understanding of the historic value of the works. Many community members, alumni, and students who were aware of Dr. John T. Biggers and Professor Carroll Harris Simms and other art faculty at Texas Southern University during their careers at Texas Southern looked at the 4,000 works created by five decades of art students simply as part of the cultural fabric of the university, something that had always been there to be appreciated and enjoyed. Dr. Biggers and Professor Simms promoted the concept of their teaching philosophy by systematically developing a unique collection of African and African American art with a major focus on the work of the University’s art majors.

In 2010, we received $81,680 in IMLS funding, matched with $84,151 in non-federal funds for a Collections Management Project.  We were able to photograph and document 128 murals and over 1,000 works of art, creating a new and more serious appreciation of the works both on campus and within the city of Houston. Most impacted were the artists themselves who shared repeatedly with the IMLS staff their joy that the murals, paintings, sculptures, and African art were being documented and catalogued.

LaStarsha McGarrity working on a mural by Kermit Oliver.

LaStarsha McGarrity working on a mural by Kermit Oliver.

The support of the university administration for the preservation and documentation of the university collections has been dramatic.  After I showed TSU  President John Rudley, the progress we made in gathering and organizing data on the collections and making this information available to students and scholars, he offered  to underwrite the publication of a major book on the permanent art collection and the cultural history behind the creation of this unique collection of art. We are now in the initial design phase of the publication and students are helping to interview and gather information on the many artists who will be featured in the book.

We had so much excellent volunteer help from art majors who did everything from unpacking boxes of African art to photographing works to reorganizing our storage areas. One particular student LaStarsha McGarity worked on both the restoration of the Hannah Hall murals and the preparation of costumes for our current exhibition, Dance Theatre of Harlem: 40 Years of Firsts. She is now planning to attend graduate school for a career in conservation. It was her work with the collections management project that really showed her how much she enjoys working with art. Other students, both art majors and non-art majors, learned about careers in art that were previously unknown to them.

Because of the IMLS grant, the university was in an excellent position to receive further funding from the Brown Foundation to restore the 128 murals on campus. Seeing that the university had already documented and photographed the condition of the murals through the grant, the foundation provided $100,000 for the restoration of Hannah Hall murals. As a result of the further work on the murals, the university was featured in an extensive article on art conservation in Texas. We were in good company: the same article also discussed the recent conservation of a Picasso at the Menil Collection.

As someone who is playing catch-up in the world of 21st century technology, I have come to truly appreciate how much a grant such as ours enables our students, artists and patrons to have much more immediate access to our collections via our website, our database, and our soon to be completed kiosk. We are bringing these works to an audience of art lovers around the world. They may never have the opportunity to walk through our doors, but they’ll come to know these works through the exciting documentation that we are steadily creating.

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