Lewis was not only an ardent and passionate champion of American art and the work of artists of African decent, but also art from all over the world. This was in a large part to his own sensibilities as an artist who was classically trained in Philadelphia College of art (now the University of Arts) where he received his Bachelors of Fine Arts in Education degree in 1949. In the following year he completed his Masters of Fine Arts degree and graduated from Temple University of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This was an especially poignant achievement since at that point in history The Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) was actively engaged in policies of racial exclusion, which forced Lewis to leave his hometown of Baltimore to seek education in states more hospitable to African Americans. MICA did not rescind its racial policies until mid-1960s. In 1951, after graduation, Lewis joined the faculty of Morgan State University as Professor of Art and Chairman of the Art Department, a position he held until 1973.
Lewis was more than prepared to not just teach art but be a professional artist and make significant contributions to his community. As a sculptor, who executed during his lifetime several important commissions, Lewis was very sensitive to the plight and the passions of an artist because he always had the experience of having to be the teacher, mentor, arts administrator, arts advocate, collector patron and curator as well as artist. In 1973, James E. Lewis became the first Director of Gallery of Art at Morgan State College. The legacy James E. Lewis paved for future generations is enormous.
As a patron himself, Lewis had an innate understanding of what needed to be done to create a comprehensive collection. The success of his efforts won the support of benefactors, patrons and contributors such as The Smithsonian Institution, The Aaron Soper Collection, The Daniel Fraad, Jr. Collection, The Morton May Collection, The Irene and Wilbert Petty Collection, The Joseph Goldenberg Collection, The Irvin Ebaugh Collection, Robert T. Francis, Jr., the Adler Family, the Baird Family, Howard Cohen, the Jackson Family, Leonard Jackson and the Pierians. The collection is home to a wealth of works from the continent of Africa and Guinea. The works of 19th, 20th and 21st century artists include Josef Albers, May Cassatt, Grace Hartigan, Keith Martin, and Lowell Nesbitt. Numerous African American artists also made gifts to the James E. Lewis Museum of Art. The works of Romare Bearden, Sam Gilliam, William T. Williams, Lois Mailou Jones, Elizabeth Catlett, Jack White as well as many local and national artists have contributed to the continued growth of this collection. Lewis was also very persuasive and encouraged the artists as well as Morgan Alumni to give works to the museum.
It was not hard to convince these individuals to commit at least one work of art from their studios to the Gallery and later to the Museum of Art. Given the severe difficulties that artists of color had in having their work collected or shown by mainstream galleries and art museums, the option to have their work accessible to a constant educational community appealed to the moral compass of both black and non black artists. Without Lewis’ constant advocacy on behalf of the Museum, there would have been no collection of significance for this community to appreciate and preserve its cultural legacy.
The importance of this work cannot be overstated, nor should it be under appreciated in the universities and colleges where figures such as James Lewis toiled, for while there are many things that can be acquired when resources are available, a legacy cannot. It must be built over time by diligent work an protracted struggle toward a vision. Lewis and his peers, such as John Biggers (1924-2001) at Texas Southern University, James V. Herring (1887-1969) and James A. Porter (1905-70) at Howard University and Aaron Douglass (1899-1979) at Fisk University, and others, forged the creation of art departments with galleries, and museum despite indifference from administrations, minimal resources and general overwork.
Simultaneously playing the roles of art historian, teacher, artist, museum/gallery director and administrator, it is miraculous that they got so much done so well. Lewis, for example, not only launched many talented students such as Lawrence Sykes, an accomplished photographer and now Professor Emeritus of Art at Providence’s Rhode Island College, into art careers, he also curated quite a number of significant exhibitions, including Afro-American artists abroad (1969), one of the earliest shows to introduce American audience to black artists working in Europe.
Themes such as intimate relationship between the European Modernists and African sculptures did not elude him, but instead became part of the content of his lectures. This breadth of interest is evident in his teaching, and in the collection he assembled for Morgan State University’s Gallery of Art. And finally, James Lewis exerted a very positive influence among museum professionals, mentoring as he did the career of Gabriel Tenabe (the current museum director) and greatly encouraging the writer upon his entrance into the museum field.
In 1951 James E. Lewis, Henry O. Tanner Professor of Art founded the Art Gallery at Morgan State University and became its first director, serving in that post until his retirement in 1986. Shortly after the time of the Lewis’ retirement, the Art Gallery was renamed the James E. Lewis Museum of Art. He spent more than thirty seven years cultivating the collection through the assistance of numerous philanthropists and corporate contributors and contributions of work by individual artists. In addition, Lewis also contributed many of his own sculptures to the collection. The first art gallery at Morgan was established in the Soper Library in 1951. By 1960, the Carl Murphy Fine Arts Building was completed and the art gallery was moved to the facility where it remained until 2002.
James E. Lewis
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