How the Harmon Foundation Played a Pivotal Role in Supporting the Artists of the Harlem Renaissance

During the 1920s and ’30s, a cohort of Black artists, writers, and intellectuals, many of whom were based in Harlem, ushered in what was then known as the New Negro Movement. Today, the Harlem Renaissance is renowned for its reputation of ushering in the New Negro, and the movement is currently the subject of a major survey at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Largely championed by Howard University professor and philosopher Alain Locke via his seminal anthology of the same name, the New Negro Movement put Harlem on the map for its influence on Black art and culture. But it has long been historicized as predominantly a writer’s movement, with some of its preeminent members including Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Zora Neale Hurston.

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The visual arts of the Harlem Renaissance are generally lesser known to the public primarily because Black artists at the time were not exhibited in mainstream museums and galleries. Often, they were shown at high schools, homes, libraries, YMCAs, and art schools and Historically Black Colleges and Universities. But a shift happened when Locke encouraged real estate tycoon William H. Harmon to philanthropically support the artwork of Black artists. Though there were opportunities and awards for Black artists that predate Harmon’s largesse, the Harmon Foundation, through its exhibitions and awards, notably made a profound, if still underknown, impact on Black visual art.

Harmon, who was white, was the son of a lieutenant in the 10th Colored Cavalry, a segregated African American unit of the US Army formed after the Civil War. Harmon fils spent a considerable amount of time with the regiment’s Black soldiers, which impacted him greatly, and he eventually developed the belief that African Americans could succeed through personal accomplishments. In 1922, Harmon established the Harmon Foundation with the purpose of encouraging and stimulating self-help.

Portrait of James Weldon Johnson, a Black man who is seated in front of a lush landscape with a nude figure standing next to one cloaked in white.
Laura Wheeler Waring, James Weldon Johnson, 1943.

Though Harmon died in 1928, the Harmon Foundation continued under the direction of Mary Beattie Brady, who would oversee it until its end in 1967. Miss Brady, as she was known to those close to her, was fond of seeing art as a tool for propaganda to promote social change by commissioning positive images of Black people, like its 1944 exhibition “Portraits of Outstanding Americans of Negro Origin” of figures like George Washington Carver, Mary McLeod Bethune, Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois, and James Weldon Johnson.

Scholars like Locke have criticized this viewpoint held by people like Brady. In a 1928 essay titled, “Art or Propaganda?,” Locke wrote, “My chief objection to propaganda, apart from its besetting sin of monotony and disproportion, is that it perpetuates the position of group inferiority even in crying out against it.”

A full-length painted portrait of Marian Anderson, a Black woman in a red velvet evening gown.
Laura Wheeler Waring, Marian Anderson, 1941.

Artist, scholar, and curator, David C. Driskell, who had a somewhat close relationship with Brady, wrote in the introduction for Breaking Racial Barriers: African Americans in the Harmon Foundation Collection, that she would often write him extensive letters with unsolicited advice on matters like running an art department or how artists could improve their public image. He wrote that for Brady, “it was through art that [she] considered herself to be an enlightened crusader for social justice.”

The William E. Harmon Awards for Distinguished Achievement Among Negroes and the annual Harmon Foundation exhibitions were pivotal in establishing the careers of artists, including William H. Johnson, Archibald Motley, and Laura Wheeler Waring, who are all featured in the Met exhibition including via works commissioned by the Harmon Foundation. By 1939, the Foundation has supported the work of some 400 Black artists.  

In 1929, the first of the annual Harmon exhibitions was held at International House in New York’s Morningside Heights neighborhood, away from Harlem but at a site that housed international students as a built-in audience. Around 6,500 people visited the exhibition in a matter of the first three weeks. After the exhibition closed that year, the Foundation toured “An Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture by American Negro Artists,” which traveled to arts institutions and universities campus in 11 cities across the country; over 8,000 people visited the show’s stop at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.

A Black man on a scaffold attending to a frieze-like artwork showing athletes running and jumping.
Sargent Claude Johnson, 1940.

Jacqueline Francis, an art historian and dean at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, said Harmon Foundation exhibitions were “an opportunity for artists who didn’t have other opportunities to exhibit in venues that were mainstream, mostly white-owned and white-curated, spaces.” One such artist is Sargent Claude Johnson, who won the exhibition prize in 1928; Johnson is currently the subject of a retrospective at the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, which Francis co-curated. For artists like Johnson, who was based in the Bay Area, support from the Harmon Foundation gave his art national acclaim and allowed it to tour the country. (Johnson, however, does not feature in the Met’s current exhibition.)

In addition to exhibiting the work of Black artists, the foundation’s awards came with a cash prize of $400 ($6,969.88 today) for gold and $100 ($1,742.47 today) for bronze. And several of the winners often used the funds to travel to Europe to see the works of Old Masters in person and interact with their contemporaries across the pond. Palmer Hayden, who won the gold prize in 1926, traveled to Paris to pursue his studies as a private student of Clivette Le Fevre at the École des Beaux-Arts, while Hale Woodruff, who won the bronze that same year, was able to spend four years at Académie Scandinave and the Académie Moderne in Paris.

A still life showing a vase with flowers, an African bust sculpture, a cigarette in an ash tray and a table runner, with a curtain behind.
Palmer Hayden, Fétiche et Fleurs, 1932.

At the time though, the Harmon Foundation wasn’t the only philanthropic endeavor aimed at supporting the Black community. Philanthropists like George Foster Peabody, John D. Rockefeller, and Julius Rosenwald donated funds directly to communities for efforts to build YMCAs or other hubs of Black life in places like Brooklyn, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. And historian and bibliophile Arthur Schomburg also mounted exhibitions at the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library between 1921 and 1923 that exhibited 261 paintings by 65 Black artists from across the country.

Though the Harmon Foundation was relatively well-respected, it did receive criticism from Black artists, including Romare Bearden who felt the organization focused on Black artists’ distinctive personalities and biographies rather than their artistic merit. As a young artist in 1943, Bearden published an article, titled “The Negro Artist and Modern Art,” in Opportunity magazine about the Harmon Foundation, which he viewed as “from the beginning [having] a coddling and patronizing nature.” Bearden would later change his views of the Harmon Foundation, writing in the 1993 book he wrote with Harry Henderson, A History of African American Artists 1792 to the Present, that the foundation was instrumental to the development of Black artists. “Yet whatever its faults,” they wrote, “aesthetically and from an African-American viewpoint, the Harmon Foundation brought encouraging public attention to the development of African-American artists in a critical period.”

Francis added, “Famously, Bearden took it back, because he said, I was young, and I had my strong ideas and my strong opinions. But I think by the time Bearden and Harry Henderson started to write A History of African American Artists, he was like, at the very least, it helps some artists maintain their visibility.”

View of a large-scale collage showing a block of Harlem.
Romare Bearden, The Block, 1971, installation view.

Curator Adrienne Childs, who served as an adviser to the Met’s Harlem Renaissance exhibition, said that the institutional support Black artists received from the Harmon Foundation was critical, “certainly, in the early 20th century, when Black artists are just starting to become visual artists,” she said. “So, the Harmon Foundation is sort of accelerating this by focusing one part of their agenda to focus on Black art and Black artists, supporting them by sending them overseas.”

Because its annual exhibitions and awards occurred decades before the civil rights movement, the Foundation was in many ways ahead of its time, giving Black artists much-needed recognition for their talents. Artists like Augusta Savage, who won a prize in the 1928 exhibition, opened two galleries, directed the Harlem Community Art Center, and encouraged younger artists like Jacob Lawrence and Norman Lewis to continue pursuing their art.

A bronze sculpture of several figures rising out of a bent arm as if in a harp.
Augusta Savage, Lift Every Voice and Sing (The Harp), 1939.

The Harmon Foundation began to wind down its activities in the mid-1950s following the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, with the belief that the ending of segregation in schools no longer necessitated its mission. The Foundation ended the tour of “Portraits of Outstanding Americans of Negro Origin,” which had been traveling the country for a decade.

The board donated the entire collection to the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum as well as to HBCUs, like Fisk University and Hampton University, after the organization’s termination in 1967.

When thinking about the impact that the organization had at that time, Francis said, “We know a lot about the good, the bad, and in between the Harmon Foundation, and maybe things [without it] would have moved along in some way, or they would have not moved along. But you know, it just would have been a different and not entirely predictable narrative.”

Source: artnews.com

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