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Commentary: The Contributions Of African Americans To The Arts Should Be Celebrated Year-round

Nancy Kranzberg

It's February, the month that we shine a light and salute our African American friends in their history and contributions to society, and boy does St. Louis have a lot of people to salute in the arts.

First of all, thank you, thank you to Ronald and Monique Ollie for their incredibly generous gift of 81 works of art that form the Thelma and Bert Ollie Memorial Collection at the St. Louis Art Museum. These works are currently being featured in, "The Shape of Abstraction: Selections from the Ollie Collection."

Brent Benjamin, Director of the St. Louis Art Museum says, "The collection honors multiple generations of African American artists and artists of Caribbean descent who have pursued abstraction. Highlights include a luminous oil on paper drawing (1966) by Norman Lewis, an innovative draped canvas (1975), a sculpture by Sam Gilliam (2000) and a print (2014) by mid-career sculptor Chakaia Booker."

This gift illuminates the diverse body of abstract work made by black artists, whose profound contributions in this mode of expression have begun to receive greater recognition. While these artists are involved in the larger histories of abstraction, they are also engaged in a wide-ranging dialogue with African American peers whose focus on figuration more clearly emphasizes identity and social issues."

The evening after I visited this wonderful and ground-breaking exhibition, I went to see the grand opening of the Steward Family Plaza at The Sheldon.

Designed by internationally acclaimed architect Benjamin Gilmartin, the Steward Family Plaza connects The Sheldon with the Public Media Commons to the south and Washington Boulevard to the north. It is designed to enhance The Sheldon visitor experience, make a strong artistic, architectural and environmental statement with a large vertical garden and communicate The Sheldon's place in the St. Louis cultural landscape and the vitality of its programs.

This is just one of dozens of artistic projects and programs that is made possible by the never-ending philanthropic efforts of Thelma and David Steward and the arts are just a part of what they've made happen in our city.

There have been wonderful exhibitions of works by African American artists all over town, but I'd like to praise Terry Suhre, Director of Gallery 210 at UMSL for his very relevant recent exhibition featuring African American artist Howard Barry. This show "knocked my socks off.”

Suhre quotes Jaques Barzon in his curator's statement of Barry's exhibition, "From all these roles, uses, arguments and justification of art an undisputed truth emerges. Art is power. It influences the mind, the nerves, the feelings, the soul. It carries messages of hope, hostility, derision and moral rebuke. It can fight material and spiritual evils, and transmit the ideals or a community now living, long past or soon to be born. In a work, art is deemed universally important because it helps men to live and to remember in saying that…we are saying that art is dangerous."

Barry accomplished this in this exhibition entitled "Inertia" where his message is unambiguous: the progress of our country towards equality and justice for all is stalled.

And Solomon Thurman and his wife, Pat, who run The 10th Street Gallery celebrate St. Louis' finest African American artists and have been around for many years. Thurman just received the prestigious Arts and Education Award not only for his gallery, but he is quite an accomplished artist himself and is admired and respected by St Louis' entire arts community and many were there to see Thurman receive his award.

And leave it to Susan Barrett of Barrett Barrera Projects. She recently had an exhibition entitled "Saint Louis to St. Louis: The City on the River Meets the River," curated by internationally famous Modou Dieng. This was a major exhibition of contemporary art from Saint Louis, Senegal in St. Louis, Missouri. Saint Louis, Senegal is our sister city and what a brilliant show it was.

I won't even begin to discuss the Black presence in all the other art disciplines. This is just a little peek at the kinds of ways that we can celebrate the African and African American experience in the visual arts in St. Louis.

In the song, "My Funny Valentine," the lyrics say, "Each day is Valentine's Day." Well it's Black History month, but let's celebrate our rich and diverse culture every month of the year.


Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for more than thirty years on numerous arts related boards.