For a quarter of a century, the Atlanta University Art Annual Exhibition served as a lifeline for African-American artists ignored by the mainstream art culture. Founded by artist Hale Woodruff in 1942, the annual exhibitions provided artists with visibility, credibility and income, and the university built a fledgling collection with purchases from each exhibition.
The annuals ceased in 1970 as the civil rights movement began to break down barriers, and the collection slipped into obscurity, consigned to a low-ceilinged room in the basement of Trevor Arnett Hall.
In 1979, Tina Dunkley, then a graduate student in African-American studies planning a thesis on folk medicine, chanced on the “gallery” on the way to the restroom. Peeking through the glass doors changed her life — and ours. Dunkley, an artist herself, shifted her focus to this historic collection, and efforts to give the work its proper place have occupied all but a few years of her career. Operating as a one-woman band, Dunkley, who was curator from 1980 to 1987 and has been director of the Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries since 1994, oversaw the collection’s move in 1996 to a spacious gallery in the library’s former reading room, for which Woodruff’s “The Art of the Negro” (1952), the equally historic mural series in the foyer, serves as an apt prelude.
She has also grown the collection from 291 to 1,200 works, adding photographs, installations and quilts to the original media in the annual exhibitions — paintings, sculptures and works on paper — and she has seen to it that Atlanta contemporary artists are represented.
The recent publication of “In the Eye of the Muses: Selections From the Clark Atlanta University Art Collection,” in celebration of the collection’s 70th anniversary, is another milestone. The book is more than a catalog of CAU’s holdings. Through essays, records of each year’s winners and archival photos, it documents the collection as an art-historical and cultural artifact. Dunkley’s essay chronicles the history of the annuals against the backdrop of key events, racial biases and evolving taste of the period. ArtsATL writer Jerry Cullum has contributed a scholarly study of Woodruff’s murals, their development and place in the artist’s oeuvre. Atlanta artist Freddie Styles’ personal recollections of the annual exhibitions, together with old photos of openings, add a personal dimension.
“In the Eye of the Muses” is an invaluable portrait of this historic collection and the era that shaped it.