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Folk Art, African American Art, and Latino Art

Howard Finster

The Smithsonian American Art Museum has long championed works that were overlooked by many collectors, museums, and art historians. The museum was one of the first general museums to recognize the importance of folk art and to display it. The Smithsonian American Art Museum significantly increased its folk art holdings when it acquired the renowned Herbert Waide Hemphill Jr. collection and works from the Chuck and Jan Rosenak collection. Howard Finster's painting (shown right) pays tribute to Hemphill, the collector who helped Finster become a folk art celebrity. James Hampton's spiritual sculpture, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly, a collection highlight, represents the powerful vision of America's self-taught artists. These and works from Thornton Dial Sr., Mr. Imagination, Malcah Zeldis, and others remind us that creativity flourishes independent of formal art training.

W H Johnson

In addition, the museum holds a notable array of more than 2,000 works by African American artists. Going to Church (shown left) and many other artworks by William H. Johnson form a key component of the collection. This painting depicts an African American family going from their work in the fields to the spiritual support of the church. Johnson's childhood in rural South Carolina provided a deep wellspring of imagery as he began painting the history, folklore, and spirit of the African American experience. Similarly, artists such as Robert Scott Duncanson, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Horace Pippin, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Loïs Mailou Jones, and Sam Gilliam tell stories of the South, the Great Migration, Harlem and the Jazz Age, and the struggle for full acceptance as Americans and as artists.

Patssi Valdez

The museum began actively collecting Latino art in the 1980s. Now, more than 600 artworks in the collection represent rich traditions from colonial religious works and woven textiles to abstract expressionist paintings and contemporary installations. Artists featured in the collection reflect the rich diversity of Latino communities in the United States, including artists of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Dominican descent, as well as other Latin American groups with deep roots in the United States. The museum has acquired paintings and sculptures by modern and contemporary artists such as ADÁL, Olga Albizu, María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Melesio “Mel” Casas, Teresita Fernández, Carmen Herrera, Luis Jiménez, Vik Muniz, Raphael Montañez Ortiz, Freddy Rodríguez, Rafael Soriano, and Patssi Valdez. From 2000-2002, the museum toured Arte Latino: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 66 rarely lent paintings, sculptures, and photographs to seven U.S. cities. Artworks ranged from 18th-century colonial Puerto Rico works by José Campeche and The Caban Group to contemporary works by Carlos Alfonzo, Carmen Lomas Garza, Ana Mendieta, Amalia Mesa-Bains, and Pepón Osorio. The 2013 exhibition Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art is the culmination of a major collecting initiative, still underway at the museum, to build a significant collection of Latino art in the nation’s capital.


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Pictured top: Howard Finster, THE HERBERT WADE HEMPHILL J.R. COLLECTION FOUNDER OF AMERICAN FOLK ART THE MAN WHO PRESERVES THE LONE AND FORGOTTEN. THE UNKNOWN COLLECTION., 1978, enamel, 79 1/2 x 50 in., Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Herbert Waide Hemphill Jr. and museum purchase made possible by Ralph Cross Johnson

Pictured middle: William H. Johnson, Going to Church, about 1940–1941, oil on burlap, 38 1/8 x 45 1/2 in., Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation

Pictured bottom: Patssi Valdez, The Magic Room,, 1994, oil, 9 x 10 ft., Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Smithsonian Collections Acquisition Program

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