Initiated in the early 1950’s, the collection acquired its first work of African Art in 1953 through a donation by the President of the University, Dr. Martin Jenkins. A special room in the Soper Library was set up to display works from the collection. It was during these early years that the Baltimore artist and Morgan State faculty member, Charles Stallings installed a mural to chronicle thematically the history of African Americans in America, from slavery to the building of institutions of higher learning. The presence of James E. Lewis as the Chair of the Art Department since 1951, and the changing exhibitions held in the Student Center, were having a major impact on Morgan. Starting modestly, the collection really began to flourish in 1964 as a result of paintings donated by Adler & Hirschl Gallery in Washington, DC. Because of the support of the Adler Family other donors would make major contributions to the collection. The students now had access to research materials on campus and the benefits of this type of research by Morgan students is exemplified in an essay included in this publication on the art from New Guinea. The collection of works from New Guinea was donated in 1964 by Morton May of the Hecht Company. Between the 1960’s and the 1980’s, works were acquired from Paul Keene, Norma Morgan, William Travis and Clarence Wood through special purchase funds. Also during this period, Morgan State University’s Gallery of Art, renamed the James E. Lewis Museum of Art in 1990, became a member of The American Federation of Art, which was responsible for making funds available to purchase works by American artists. Several curators, including Samuel Green and Achameleh Debela, worked with James E. Lewis between the 1960’s and 1970’s.
The multicultural aspect of the collection at the James E. Lewis Museum of Art is of particular significance. The importance of this focus within the collection created an opportunity to expose students at Morgan State University directly to a universal view of art to complement their studies. James E. Lewis recognized the importance of not separating mainstream art from work being produced by African Americans. The resultant aesthetic culminated in a collection that represented African, Asian, American and European art as well.
The James E. Lewis Museum of Art has the historic distinction of being the first institution to promote African American artists in Maryland and serve as a showcase for these artists. The museum slowly built a reputation, featuring in exhibitions such greats as Gordon Parks whose first one-person show was mounted in 1963. The James E. Lewis Museum of Art was responsible for introducing Jacob Lawrence to the Baltimore art community through an exhibition of his work that took place in 1965. Some of the other artists the museum has featured in solo exhibitions were Paul Keene, Richard Mayhew, Elton Fax, Romare Bearden and artists who had residencies at Morgan including Sam Gilliam, Mel Edwards, William T. Williams, and Lamidi Fakeye. Illustrative of the promotion of African American artists was the commissioning of Mel Edwards’ first public artwork in 1976. The materials were secured from Bethlehem Steel by James E. Lewis and Edwards donated the work to Morgan’s collection. This sculpture now stands as a permanent fixture on Morgan’s campus.
The James E. Lewis Museum of Art has always been accessible to artists, providing an arena for heightened visibility and providing a professional environment to display their work. During the early years of the museum, funds were insubstantial and many exhibitions were put together spontaneously, often based upon a request from a donor or an artist interested in exhibiting. Because Morgan responded directly to artists’ requests for mounting exhibitions, vast communities of artists locally and regionally felt close to the James E. Lewis Museum than other institutions. As one can imagine, this helped shape the collection through generous gifts from artists.
In 1951, James E. Lewis established the Gallery of Art at Morgan and became part of the HBCUs growing legacy and ambition to create a sense of privilege and passion critical to the collecting and preservation of African American Art. Lewis’ contribution is of crucial importance to the heritage of not only African American history and culture but to the entire legacy of American Art.