Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

Augusta Savage: Sacrifice, Social Responsibility, and Early African American Art Education

Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

Augusta Savage: Sacrifice, Social Responsibility, and Early African American Art Education

Article excerpt

Following the expansion of community art programs and art departments at historically Black1 colleges and universities in the 1930s, the aesthetics and methods of African American art educators changed dramatically. Prior to this era, African American students who sought education in visual art worked under the tutelage of White/ European artists.

However, during the later part of the New Negro Movement, African Americans who trained in traditional universities/academies, and gained notoriety in the 1920s, began to mentor and teach children and aspiring artists.

Elementary art teacher positions were rare in the early 20th century. Classroom teachers typically offered art instruction to children through the direction of art supervisors. In addition to making materials accessible for expression and exploration in the 1920s, art instruction began to focus on "social adjustment and the development of desirable personality traits as goals of art education" (Efland, 1990, p. 210). During the Great Depression, countless school districts scaled down or eliminated art programs entirely, but the availability of after-school instruction increased as a result of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs. The Federal Arts Project (FAP), a division of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), provided a measure of relief to visual artists by employing them as teachers in more than 100 community art centers established throughout the nation. On the one hand, child art teaching philosophies that dissuade adult intervention gained traction, but on the other hand, many experienced artists began to teach visual art to children in the 1930s, sharing their creative influence (Efland, 1990). During this period, African American students benefitted from the direct influence and instruction of seasoned artists of color who shared a commitment to social progress and racial uplift. While it did not materialize as an institution or place of study, art historians refer to this period as the Black Academy (Holland, 1998).

During the Black Academy, many acclaimed African American artists taught; modeled professionalism; challenged the policies and culture of racial segregation; and combined aesthetics, political consciousness, and social responsibility. Best known for her portraits of famous Black leaders, Augusta Savage (1892-1962) was a major figure in the Black Academy (Holland, 1998). Despite economic hardships and professional setbacks as a student, artist, and teacher, Savage ultimately aligned with philanthropists and influential leaders of the era in support of young African American artists. Although she is lesser known than her male counterparts, she had a profound influence on the history of African American art education (Bearden & Henderson, 1993).

Art education history is a unique division within the field of art education. Art education historians conventionally conduct and present research on the role of art in the education of non-artists in public schools or in the lives of children. Historians of art education also serve to broaden interpretations of art history. While art historians might examine the impact of various schools and academies, art education historians specialize in placing these histories within larger educational, cultural, political, or social contexts (Bolin, Blandy, & Congdon, 2000). By offering new interpretative frameworks for examining past events, art education historians can shape "the past for present use" (Stankiewicz, 1997, p. 58). According to art education historian Mary Ann Stankiewicz (1997), "both thin places in the written history of art education and odd pieces that do not seem to fit the expected pattern of the fabric of written history are indications of a topic in need of research" (p. 64). Although much has been written about the visual artists of the New Negro Movement (Brawley, 1937; Campell, 1987; Powell, 1997; Willis, 1994), few studies focus on the legacy of African American art education that emerged concurrently with this movement. …

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