A museum or an archive can only exist with its collection. A great assortment of art, documents and records, the collection plays a great role in establishing new ways of examining history and allowing open spaces for marginalized groups to express their point of view. In recent times with the advent of the Digital Age, the rise in digitization have provided novel ways of interacting with these ephemera of history, allowing the public audience to experience the collection in new ways. Finally, these opportunities are becoming available to the black community, as over the years HBCU’s (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) have begun an initiative for the digitization of their art collected over the years, as a means to preserve an art that has been historically unrepresented due to a biased focus for white European and American Artists. In a collaboration with Cornell University and funded by a $375,000 grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation, the initiative has goals to “help dozens of historically black colleges and universities across the country create and manage digital collections”.[i] In the recent years, more institutions have been giving their own assistance to the project, including the Smithsonian Museums and Harvard University. Yet with this exciting undertaking finally giving a wider audience a chance to see artists collected by HBCU’s over the years, what does this project signify for the recent trends of accepting black artists in the Mainstream art world? Often relegated to outcast positions of ‘outsider art’ or ‘folk art’ in the past, does the digitization project create new conversations about how black art should be perceived and understood in art history?

The HBCU Library Alliance was established in 2005 with aims to complete their digitization project with specific goals in mind, including “preserv[ing] the history and culture of the institution” and to “provide access to valuable collections” to be shared amongst the HBCU’s and the wider community.[1] In the same year, Cornell libraries began their collaboration with the Alliance to “produce digital collections and to develop an Internet-based searchable database of HBCU library materials,” and to provide the most current research and information on selected historical records and objects from HBCU collections.[2] In the hope to accomplish these goals as soon as possible, the institutions will participate in the Digital Imaging Workshop to have employees learn techniques based on Cornell’s Digital Imaging Tutorial and have a hand in making choices as to which documents and works of art to be preserved by the universities. Through the Cornell method, librarians will learn to create an online image collection in a secure database, to construct systems for easy access to these databases by the public, and to understand the necessary hardware and software to make the digitization process possible. By engaging with the collections to try to bring them to a digital setting, these universities are not only aiming to preserve important parts of black history but are also giving wider access of these works to the larger public audience, as some of these pieces are shown for the first time.

In 2021, the Library Alliance partnered with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) to establish a consortium to help the digitization process for HBCU collections. Working with five institutions, including Tuskegee University and Florida A&M University, the project featured opportunities such as internship and fellowship programs to help underrepresented groups make their first steps into the museum career.[3] In addition, the NMAAHC also provided assistance to the digitization progress, and developed plans to aid in traveling exhibitions, which would make these collections more available to more respected institutions across the country.

More recently, as the project continues to expand, the Library Alliance has started a wonderful opportunity of partnering with Harvard University Library to take the digitization process further with more available resources. The Harvard library has engaged with this program as a part of the school’s steps in “addressing the University’s complicity in slavery” and systemic racism against black students and teachers.[4] The project aims to “[advance] open public access to archives and special collections pertaining to African American history” with the additional funding of $6 million from the Harvard & Legacy of Slavery initiative.[5]

These strides in digitization are the latest step in a long road to proper recognition of black artists in America. Since the mid 19th Century, HBCU’s have been aiming to preserve the legacy of African American history by taking a major role in establishing research institutions at their school, the first being a museum at Hampton University in Virginia, founded in 1868. These collections are devoted to archiving various types of materials related to black history, including historical documents, fashion, sports memorabilia, and many more. However, schools such as Fisk University, Howard University, Hampton University and Tuskegee University have also collected extensive works of fine art from black artists such as Sam Gilliam, Romare Bearden, Aaron Douglas, and Edmonia Lewis in addition to non-black artists such as Josef Albers and Georgia O’Keeffe. Yet, despite this vast collection, these pieces have been rarely shown to the public. There have only been few exhibitions based around presentation of the great bulk of HBCU acquisitions including a show titled To Conserve a Legacy: American Art from Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Presented in 1999 at the Addison Gallery of American Art at the Phillips Academy in Andover, MA in collaboration with the Studio Museum in Harlem, the exhibition was part of “‘an enormous effort to build awareness of the impact of African American art on American culture and society as well as highlights the need to preserve this rich legacy for generations to come’”.[6] However, despite the aim of this exhibit to spread awareness of the HBCU collections, these museums have still been unable to gain enough traction to warrant future shows focusing specifically on the collections from many of these schools.

While many major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, have loaned pieces from these universities, due to the recent popularity in African American Art, the whole collections from the HBCU’s have been rarely shown in their entirety to a public audience. The lack of exposure is tied to various reasons based around these school’s availability to support art programs and collections. Firstly, due to the lack of funding often being a main concern, many HBCU’s have had trouble keeping arts colleges, with many of these schools completely canceling their curriculum, as seen in Howard University in 1997.[7] In addition, many of these universities lack the amount of space available to hold the permanent collection, which require multiple departments to function including exhibition space, administration offices, and conservation labs. This is why it is extremely important to have the digitization project find new methods of public access to these vast and overlooked treasures when other means of exhibition are still limited. Through the purpose of this plan, those who are interested to learn more about the histories of black art and culture can be able to gain information via online methods in lieu of physical display.

Viewing the current work in producing these databases, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to have them fully represent the entire collection. If one were to explore the existent online records for these libraries and museums, many of them only feature less than one hundred objects, a stunningly low number for the vast collections of physical artworks and documents. Even for major establishments such as the Howard University Gallery, many objects lack hi-res photographs of work, full tombstone information, and current research that would give viewers better knowledge of these pieces. These ongoing issues demonstrate the necessity for the digitization project to continue its work on obtaining digital copies of artwork and records and creating more access for the online public.

Interest in this project since its beginnings in 2005 represent a facet of the growing interest in African American art by the mainstream art world. As auction records are being broken by previously unknown black artists, such as Edward Clarks $1 million dollar painting sold in 2022, it is more dire than ever that the legacy of black art is preserved, especially as these artists belatedly receive the respect they deserve. The importance of the digitization project will reflect how black artists will be recategorized from being art of the outsider and the marginalized, to art as worthy of preservation as their white counterparts. However, the process of digitization is still ongoing, and still in needs of improvement in the procedure, which is why it has been welcome news for the Alliance to receive further funding from the Smithsonian Museums and Harvard University, and continued training from Cornell.

[1] HBCU Library Alliance and Cornell University Library, “Building Collections, Building Services, and Building Sustainability: A Collaborative Model for the HBCU Library Alliance”, HBCU Library Alliance, Last Modified November 3rd, 2005, pg. 2.

[2] HBCU Library Alliance, “HBCU-CUL Digitization Initiative,” HBCU Library Alliance, Last Modified 2021, https://hbculibraries.org/programs.html#.

[3] Melissa Wood, “Smithsonian Establishes Consortium of Five HBCUs To Support University Museums and Archives,” Smithsonian, Last Modified March 23, 2021, https://www.si.edu/newsdesk/releases/smithsonian-establishes-consortium-five-hbcus-support-university-museums-and.

[4] Harvard Library Communications Office, “HBCU Library Alliance Partners with Harvard Library to Expand Access to African American History Collections,” Harvard Library, Last Modified March 8, 2023, https://library.harvard.edu/about/news/2023-03-08/hbcula-hl-partnership.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “To Conserve a Legacy: American Art from Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” Addison Gallery of American Art, Last Modified October 26, 2010, https://tfaoi.org/newsm1/n1m512.htm.

[7] Adam Bradley, “The Historically Black College Reconsiders the Studio Art Program,” New York Times, Last Modified July 27, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/08/t-magazine/hbcu-art-programs.html.