Smithsonian American Art Museum Announces $5M Gift to Establish Augusta Savage Curator of African American Art 

Dalila Scruggs Named as the First Scholar to Hold the Position 

The Smithsonian American Art Museum announced today the establishment of the Augusta Savage Curator of African American Art. The position is generously funded by anonymous donors with a $5 million endowment gift to the museum in honor of the African American sculptor Augusta Savage. It was the donors' wish to have the position named to elevate the extraordinary legacy of this trailblazing artist and educator.

The museum also announced today that Dalila Scruggs will join its curatorial team as the inaugural Augusta Savage Curator of African American Art. Scruggs’s expertise ranges across different types of media—including painting, prints, sculpture and photography—from the 19th- and 20th centuries. Scruggs comes to the museum from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, where she has been the curator for photography and prints since 2021. She also has served as a guest curator at the Brooklyn Museum since 2020. Fittingly, Scruggs has served in education and curatorial roles and has sought to draw on her experience as a museum educator to cultivate a curatorial practice that is visitor- and object-centered.

“With this newly endowed curatorial position, SAAM’s program to collect and preserve works by African American artists is secure thanks to the generosity of donors who stepped forward with a gift that also shines a spotlight on an inspiring figure, Augusta Savage, who tirelessly championed Black artists while her own artworks were underrecognized during her lifetime,” said Stephanie Stebich, the Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

“Augusta Savage’s life and story are worth celebrating and she has been an incredible inspiration to us,” said the donors. “She believed her only lasting mark on the world would be the way she taught her own students to meet their full potential, but her story endures in many more ways than that alone. With this gift we hope to highlight her life's work in perpetuity, using her art and her voice to lift her message of inclusivity. She died believing one thing about her legacy. We hope this new position can help the world believe another about Augusta Savage and her lasting impact.”

The Smithsonian American Art Museum is home to one of the most significant collections of African American art in the world. It is a longstanding area of strength of the museum’s holdings, distinguished by its depth and range with works in all media from the early 19th century to today. The museum’s collection includes Savage’s plaster cast “Gamin,” one of her best-known sculptures.

About Augusta Savage

“If I can inspire one of these youngsters to develop the talent I know they possess, then my monument will be in their work.”  

Augusta Savage (1892-1962) was a renowned sculptor and teacher who effectively used her work to challenge discrimination and promote civil and women’s rights. When she arrived in New York City in 1921, she met with some initial success, receiving commissions to produce busts of W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey. Such works won her the attention of African American community groups.  

In 1923, Savage was awarded a fellowship to attend a summer program at the Fontainebleau School of Fine Arts in France and then rejected because of her race. Savage publicly protested the rejection and became a cause célèbre covered by newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic. Support from her patrons combined with a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship in 1929 enabled her to study and exhibit in Paris.  

She was dedicated to expanding educational and professional opportunities for African American artists. In 1932, she founded the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts in Harlem, she was a cofounder of the Harlem Artists Guild that secured employment for Black artists, and in 1937 she helped establish and was the first director of the Harlem Community Art Center, which received funding from the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Through her work at these institutions, she not only nurtured the careers of many younger African American artists, including Jacob Lawrence, Gwendolyn Knight, and Norman Lewis, but she also actively challenged the biases among WPA administrators by insisting African American artists deserved support. As an artist, however, Savage often struggled to find backers for her own work.

In 1939 she opened the Salon of Contemporary Negro Art, the first gallery in the United States dedicated specially to exhibiting and selling works by African American artists. That same year, she sculpted a huge plaster for the World’s Fair inspired by “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a song widely considered the Black national anthem. Like much of her work, it was not cast in bronze and was later destroyed. She created fewer artworks after 1940, when she moved to upstate New York, though she continued to teach.

The art historian Richard Powell calls Savage “a legend in African American art history because so much of her life was filled with struggle, with perseverance and with creativity, all mixed up.”

To learn more about Savage, listen to the episode “The Monumental Imagination of Augusta Savage” produced by the Smithsonian’s podcast Sidedoor, and explore the digital comic “My Monument Will Be In Their Work,” published by the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

About the Smithsonian American Art Museum and its Renwick Gallery

The Smithsonian American Art Museum is the flagship museum in the United States for American art and craft. It is home to one of the most significant and inclusive collections of American art in the world. The museum’s main building, located at Eighth and G streets N.W., is open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. The museum’s Renwick Gallery, a branch museum dedicated to contemporary craft, is located on Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street N.W. and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Check online for current hours and admission information. Admission is free. Follow the museum on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. Smithsonian information: (202) 633-1000. Museum information (recorded): (202) 633-7970. Website: americanart.si.edu.

Press Images

A black and white photograph of the artist Augusta Savage sitting by her sculptures.
Augusta Savage_Archives of American Art

Augusta Savage; Courtesy Federal Art Project, Photographic Division collection, 1935-1942. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution