Aaron Douglas and Hale Woodruff: African American Art Education, Gallery Work, and Expanded Pedagogy

By Bey, Sharif | Studies in Art Education, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Aaron Douglas and Hale Woodruff: African American Art Education, Gallery Work, and Expanded Pedagogy


Bey, Sharif, Studies in Art Education


The following sections offer biographical information on Aaron Douglas and Hale Woodruff's early careers, the challenges African American art educators faced in the early 20th century, and the sociopolitical contexts from which Douglas and Woodruff developed as professionals. In the section entitled "Navigating the System: Racism and White Philanthropy," I outline the challenges and triumphs of Douglas and Woodruff as they made strides to gain acceptance by White audiences while still maintaining African American community support. With a focus on expanded pedagogy, the final sections discuss how the seasoned Douglas and Woodruff used their influences and networks to prepare their students to have success in the mainstream despite the hurdles of the segregated South.

The archives at Fisk University Library and at the Robert Woodruff Library of the Atlanta University Center provided the primary resources for this study. The Aaron Douglas Papers include extensive personal and professional records of Douglas's years at Fisk with a particular focus on his development of the art department and the management of the Stieglitz art collection. The Hale Woodruff Collection at the Robert Woodruff Library consists chiefly of tape-recorded interviews with Woodruff and his former students that were conducted by Winifred Stoelting while In pursuit of her PhD at Emory University In the 1970s. The collection also includes correspondence between Woodruff and Stoelting as well as correspondences and programs revolving around the Atlanta Annual Exhibitions of Negro Paint and Sculpture.

While several aspects of Douglas's and Woodruff's careers merit discussion, for the purposes of this article, I primarily focus on their efforts in the university gallery. Because the impact of racism is critical to this study, I examine these artists who spent their tenures teaching African American students while facing challenges and limitations due to hardships of the racially segregated South (Kirschke, 1995; Stoelting, 1978). Although Douglas and Woodruff are prominent figures in African American art history, their careers also mark the beginning of a legacy of African American art educators. Few studies have critically examined their teaching or the impact of segregation on their careers. In this social-political inquiry of archival materials, I ask the following questions of Douglas's and Woodruff's teaching careers:

1. Could Douglas's and Woodruff's expanded pedagogical approach help prepare students to sustain themselves professionally through teaching, networking, and exhibiting in the mainstream? Did their expanded pedagogies demonstrate the hurdles of reconciling African American and White patrons?

2. What role did Fisk University and Atlanta University galleries play in expanding learning opportunities for African American students in the segregated South? What did these learning experiences offer that could not be attained through traditional classroom instruction?

3. In what ways were the influences of Douglas and Woodruff, as well as the networks they channeled through gallery programming, an expression of a responsibility toward the African American community, and in what ways did these efforts extend beyond the university campus as expanded pedagogies?

Overview of the Careers of Douglas and Woodruff

Aaron Douglas was born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1889. He earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in painting from the University of Nebraska. From 1922-1923, Douglas taught visual arts at Lincoln High School in Kansas City, Missouri, before relocating to Harlem, New York, in 1 924 to study with portraitist Winold Reiss during the height of the New Negro Movement. Douglas received many commissions in Harlem in the 1 920s and 1 930s. He painted murals and designed book and magazine covers for up-and-coming African American cultural and political figures and organizations. In the early 1920s, Douglas also studied African and Modern art as a Fellow at the Barnes Foundation outside of Philadelphia. …

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