In the spring of 1963, the New York Art Committee for Tougaloo College established Mississippi’s first collection of modern art at Tougaloo, a historically Black college located north of Jackson. As civil rights protests swirled across the fiercely segregated state, the College became an unlikely hub of European and New York School modernism and a place that the collection’s founders envisioned as “an interracial oasis in which the fine arts are the focus and magnet.” Co-organized by the American Federation of Arts and Tougaloo College, Art and Activism traces the birth and development of this significant and distinctive collection. With approximately thirty-five artworks by artists such as Francis Picabia, Jacob Lawrence, and Alma Thomas, the exhibition brings renewed attention to a complex American collection established at the intersections of modern art and social justice.
Since its founding in 1869 by the integrated, abolitionist-led American Missionary Association of New York, Tougaloo College has been central to the fight for equality. Activism at the College gained national attention in 1963 when an integrated group of Tougaloo students and faculty participated in the lunch counter sit-in at Woolworth’s in downtown Jackson. The event was covered by media outlets across the country, shining a spotlight on racial tensions in the Deep South and serving as an important catalyst for civil rights causes. That same year, prominent New York critic and art historian Dore Ashton forged a relationship with Tougaloo professor Ronald Schnell. Believing in the potential for art to play a role in the civil rights effort, Ashton joined with leaders of the New York art world to begin a rich program of art acquisitions that became the foundation of the College’s holdings.
Art and Activism is organized into three roughly chronological sections that trace the story of the Tougaloo collection from the New York Art Committee’s first gifts through the early 1980s. The opening section, “The Focus and the Magnet,” surveys a selection of the earliest works that Tougaloo acquired, including prints by canonical European modernists, such as George Grosz and Pablo Picasso, alongside examples by artists of the New York School, such as Adja Yunkers and Stanley William Hayter. The second section, “Toward a Modern World,” highlights the relationship between modernist aesthetics and the ideals of social reform, with works by Richard Mayhew, Robert Motherwell, Fritz Bultman, and others. As the Black Power movement expanded in the late 1960s and ’70s, students and faculty argued that the collection should better reflect the Black experience. The final section, “A New Vision,” details Tougaloo’s response to this charge, presenting works by Black artists who urgently engaged with the complex social issues of their times, including Benny Andrews, Romare Bearden, David Driskell, and Elizabeth Catlett.