The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has been awarded a 2018 Bank of America Art Conservation Project grant, one of only 21 institutions in the world to receive the grant this year. This grant supports a year-long effort to conserve, stabilize and digitize 146 photographs from the museum’sKamoinge Workshop collection—the most complete of its kind. The Bank of America Art Conservation Project seeks to preserve culturally significant works of art from around the world. In 2016, the bank supported the conservation of 60 works on paper from the Ludwig and Rosy Fischer Collection of German Expressionist Art.
“Bank of America’s generous support and dedication to the arts will allow us to carefully stabilize and preserve these important pieces and ensure that the work of Kamoinge Workshop artists is included in future narratives of 20th-century photography,” VMFA Director Alex Nyerges said. “By making these photographs available digitally, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts will be able to introduce them to a much larger audience–including visitors, educators, students and scholars–while maintaining the highest standards of stewardship.”
VMFA acquired the archive of Richmond-born, African-American photographer Louis Draper in 2015, following an earlier acquisition of 13 of his photographs in 2013. During the first decade of Kamoinge’s activity—in the midst of the civil rights movement—Draper, a Kamoinge Workshop founder, and other artists of the collective exhibited and published work with the intention of elevating the photographic representation of African-American life beyond the stereotypes often depicted in popular media. Kamoinge members focused their cameras on the environments in which they lived, engaged in the genres of street photography and abstraction and photographed notable figures they encountered, including Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer, Sun Ra and Miles Davis.
Black photographers faced significant social and professional challenges as they worked in a field predominantly occupied by white photographers in the 1960s. Keenly aware that African American photographers were regularly excluded from mainstream media organizations, such as the American Society of Media Photographers, they chose to form their own collective. These artists were also the driving force behind the Black Photographers Annual, a seminal publication that featured the work of a wide variety of black photographers, examples of which remain on view at VMFA through May 12, 2019.
Photographs by seven key Kamoinge artists will be part of the conservation project, including Louis Draper, Anthony Barboza, Adger Cowans, Roy DeCarava, Beuford Smith, Ming Smith and Shawn Walker. Since the artists’ photographs were published in magazines and journals, requiring them to be handled frequently, many of them are in fragile condition and are not suitable for exhibition. Conservation treatment will address damages such as tears, creases and insecure photographic emulsion. Upon completion of the project, all of the objects will be photographed for documentation purposes and digitized for scholarly and public access.
As part of its 2015-2020 Strategic Plan initiative to increase the number of works by African and African American artists in its holdings, VMFA is in the process of acquiring more photographs from the Kamoinge Workshop. Because of these dedicated efforts, VMFA has established itself as the country’s leading repository of photographs by early members of the Kamoinge Workshop.
Works from this collection will be on view in the upcoming exhibition Working Together: Louis Draper and the Kamoinge Workshop, which opens January 2020 at VMFA. A catalogue will accompany the exhibition, which will travel to two additional venues throughout 2020 and 2021. VMFA will also develop an online portal which will provide broader access to the Kamoinge collection.