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A legacy of art

Conservation, documentation and exhibition. This three-fold concept is the focus of To Conserve a Legacy: American Art from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, an exhibit currently on display in Durham.

The idea behind the exhibit, which contains 260 pieces of art, including paintings, prints, drawings, photographs and sculptures, is to highlight the work of black artists in the context of the work of their peers. The exhibit, however, does not contain work only by black artists.

Running until Dec. 3, the exhibit is part of a seven-city national tour. The venues for the North Carolina exhibit include North Carolina Central University, the Duke Center for Documentary Studies and the Duke University Museum of Art. All of the artwork comes from the collections of six historically black colleges and universities: Clark Atlanta University, Fisk University, Hampton University, Howard University, North Carolina Central University and Tuskegee University.

These universities' participation hinged on a desire to help preserve very important pieces of art. "To Conserve a Legacy is a major project," said Lynn McKnight, communications director for the Duke Center for Documentary Studies. "It's more than just an exhibit because there's a conservation element."

Duke has a special link to the exhibit through co-curator Richard Powell, who is also chair of Duke's art and art history department. The other curator is Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale University Art Gallery.

The curators envisioned assembling an exhibit that not only profiled the artwork, but also gave back to the institutions through different methods of conservation and support.

"It was important to pull the artwork together in a way to tell the story," Powell explained. "We wanted to tell the story of American art that one sees through the lenses of the art of these six institutions."

Powell said that at the opening, he heard people discussing the fact that they had been in Durham most of their lives, but had never actually been to either NCCU's or Duke's campuses; the exhibition provides a special purpose to visit these venues.

"I see this as an opportunity to see Durham... and to move beyond comfort zones and typical territory," Powell said.

The different venues collaborated to create the best possible setting for the exhibit. "We've all worked for a number of months to coordinate our efforts and we have a full calendar," McKnight said.

This calendar contains related events including lectures, a play, film screenings and discussions, concerts including the Fisk Jubilee singers and poetry performances. In addition, the Center for Documentary Studies will host "Legacy of the Photographic Image" Nov. 5, in which a photographic archivist and paper conservator will explain the process for preserving both the exhibit's artwork as well as their own personal photographs through traditional and digital techniques.

"I think each institution looked at what their strengths are and have centered their focus around that," McKnight said.

Susan Page, program coordinator for the CDS, explained that there are six themes to the exhibition. The CDS houses the group entitled "Training the Head, the Hand, and the Heart". The other themes include "Forever Free: Emancipation Visualized," "The First Americans," "The American Portrait Gallery," "American Expressionism" and "Modern Lives, Modern Impulses."

"The themes we explore in this exhibit... help us with the legacy issue," Powell said.

Describing some of the photographs currently on display at the CDS, Page said, "The way they interpret [the theme] is the head is the book part... the hand is teaching people a trade... and the heart is the spiritual guidance."

Page stressed the importance of the photographs because, in general, people do not always consider photos to be artwork. "For me, it was nice to have an exhibit that combines both [paintings and photographs] so that [the photos] weren't belittled," she said.

Part of the exhibit's draw is that less-typical art viewers, like students, can take away a great deal from the project.

"One thing students may miss initially, but once they get into the exhibit may realize it, is that much of this is art created by young people," Powell said. "Sometimes young people don't realize they have the ability and capacity to create something this monumental... I would hope they take from this exhibit inspiration."


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