The Historical Records of the Barnett-Aden Gallery showcases one of the first galleries owned and operated by African Americans. The work of the Gallery was invaluable as they opened the exhibition space to established and unknown artists regardless of race or gender.
Scope and Contents:
The Historical Records of Barnett-Aden Gallery collection includes historical background materials on the gallery, its founders James V. Herring and Alonzo Aden as well as Adolphus Ealey, its steward after its closure in 1969. The materials include correspondence, business records, photographs, exhibition catalogues, and clippings.
The materials in this collection have been kept at the folder level and separated into four series. The materials have been ordered and organized based on the content. Within each series and subseries, the folders are organized as close to the collection's original order as when it was acquired.
The Barnett-Aden Gallery, suggested to be the first African American privately-owned gallery in the U.S, open its doors on October 16, 1943. The gallery was founded by artist and scholar James V. Herring alongside his protegee, curator Alonzo Aden. The gallery was housed in a private home that they shared, located on 127 Randolph Street NW in Washington, DC. These men aimed to create an art gallery that provided a venue for underrepresented artists of all races and genres. It was this partnership that laid the foundation for the shift in African American representation in modern art. Aden stated that the gallery's aims were to help foster new talent while also bringing "art of superior quality" to the community. Throughout its history, the gallery held almost 200 exhibitions and showcased the work of over 400 artists.
James Vernon Herring was born on January 7, 1887 in Clio, South Carolina to an African American mother, Alice Herring (1860-1942), and white father, William Culbreth. As a young man, he moved to Washington, DC for better educational opportunities. Herring was educated at the Howard Academy, a preparatory high school located at nearby Howard University campus. Herring received his undergraduate degree from Syracuse University and completed graduate studies at Columbia and Harvard Universities. Trained in art and classical studies with a focus on French impressionism, Herring was initially brought on Howard University's faculty as architecture instructor in 1920. This experience inspired Herring to create the Department of Art at the university where he convinced former home economics student and future prominent visual artist, Alma Thomas to be the art school's first graduate in 1924. Herring continued to mentor and discover young artists as was the case with Alonzo Aden.
Alonzo Aden was born on May 6, 1906 in Spartanburg, South Carolina to Naomi Barnett (1883-1956) and Ephraim Aden (1859-1917). His working-class parents wanting more for their eldest son, decided to send him to live with relatives in Washington, DC for greater educational opportunities. Aden did well academically and completed some studies at Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) before finally entering Howard University in 1927. The following year, Herring opened the Howard University Gallery of Art and installed Aden as its first curator. Aden initially pursued a career as an educator but became more interested in art history and after his graduation from Howard in 1933, he pursued studies in museum and curatorial work.
Recent scholarship has suggested that Herring and Aden were in a romantic as well as working relationship. Working together in the Howard Gallery of Art, they sought to provide a space for art students, local artists and other relatively unknown artists from around the world. Living together since 1929, Herring supported Aden's post-graduate pursuits including his studies of African arts and crafts in galleries across Europe as well as his curatorial work at the American Negro Exposition in Chicago in 1940. Aden returned to Washington to great acclaim and continued his work with Herring at the Howard Gallery of Art.
The Gallery was housed in a Victorian townhouse located in the then middle-class African American neighborhoods of LeDroit Park and Logan Circle (present-day Bloomingdale). Research notes that the house was purchased during the late 1920s by Herring with some assistance of artist Alma Thomas (or vice versa). Both were listed as owners of the property until 1933 when Aden was listed as the co-owner. In 1943, Aden resigned as head of the Howard Gallery for unknown reasons which led Herring and Aden to open a gallery in their home. The gallery was named after Aden's mother Naomi, who also served as an early benefactor of the gallery giving $1,000 in support. It was the support of various benefactors alongside Herring's salary as a Howard professor and Aden's several "government jobs" that kept the gallery afloat during its time in the home. The first floor of the gallery consisted entirely of exhibition space with the second-floor space interchanged between exhibition, study, and living spaces over the years. Herring's library, also located on the upper floors, was used for research by students and local scholars. Herring and Aden never saw the gallery as a truly profitable venture but instead wanted to offer avenues for the artists to showcase their work. As policy, each artist retained all money earned from sales but were required to donate at least one work of art to the Barnett-Aden collection.
The gallery, the first of its kind in Washington at the time, exhibited works of artists regardless of race; African American artists displayed alongside their more notable white peers. Notable artists featured in the gallery include Henri Matisse, Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, and M.C. Escher were exhibited alongside notable African American artists Richmond Barthé, Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Charles White, Selma Burke as well as many others. Several Howard professors who went on to have notable art careers also exhibited their work at the gallery including James Porter, Lois Mailou Jones, and James Lesesne Wells. Many of the artists featured in the gallery were also greatly involved in the operations. Alma Thomas served gallery's vice president before she began exhibiting her work there in 1950s. Artist and scholar, David Driskell served as the associate director of the gallery after Aden's death.
The gallery held five to eight exhibitions every year including a special annual anniversary exhibition. In 1944, the gallery opened a show featuring Brazilian modern artist, Candido Portinari, who had previously completed a mural at the Library of Congress, that sparked great interest at the gallery. The exhibition opening brought in visitors from all over Washington including members of the president's cabinet, foreign ambassadors and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. This renewed interest created a somewhat hectic pace in keeping up with the work of the gallery. This pace coupled with the full-time jobs and other ventures including a gift shop enabled the gallery to act as a luminary of the African American and local arts community in Washington.
In 1961, while preparing for the annual anniversary exhibition, Alonzo Aden died suddenly. Herring with aid of his friends and students took on the management of the gallery after his partner's death but was unable to keep the pace of Aden's work and the attendance declined. In 1969, Herring died in the home leaving behind a formidable legacy. The home and its contents including the gallery's art collection was sold in order to settle the debts of Herring's estate. The collection was divided amongst three individuals. Artist and former Herring student, Adolphus Ealey inherited the bulk of the collection that featured 250 significant works. Herring's books, graphic drawings, and prints were given to Herring associate and friend, Dr. Felton J. Earls, while the sculptures went to art collectors and friends Dr. and Mrs. Cecil Marquez.
The portion of the collection owned by Ealey was described as the preeminent selection from the gallery's collection. The size and ongoing upkeep of the collection was significant which caused the collection to be moved several times over the years. The collection which out of necessity was originally stored in Ealey's Southwest Washington apartment then moved a to a house in LeDroit Park and then to another space in the Washington neighborhood of Fort Lincoln. Ealey collaborated with colleagues and institutions to have it exhibited in various locations but also bid to find the collection a permanent home. During the 1970s, the collection was featured at the Museum of Afro-American Culture and History in Philadelphia, the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum (now the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum) and the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
Unable to find an institutional home for the collection, Ealey was forced to sell the collection in 1989 to the Florida Endowment Fund for Higher Education. Ealey stipulated that collection must remain intact but also that the new owners had to develop educational and outreach programs focused on African Americans in the arts. Failing to find consistent opportunities to exhibit the collection, the owners were forced to sell the collection. In 1998, Robert L. Johnson, then chairman and founder of the television channel, Black Entertainment Television (BET), purchased the collection. The collection went on a national tour then was displayed for some time at the BET headquarters in Washington. In 2015, Johnson donated selections from the gallery collection to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in an effort to preserve the legacy of the Barnett-Aden Gallery and the tireless work of James V. Herring and Alonzo Aden for generations to come.
1897 -- James Vernon Herring was born January 7 in Clio, South Carolina.
1906 -- Alonzo James Aden was born May 6 in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
1914-1916 -- While attending Syracuse University, Herring taught summer classes at Wilberforce University in Ohio for two summers.
1917 -- Herring graduated from Syracuse University with a Bachelors of Pedagogy in Art degree.
1917-1920 -- Herring served as YMCA secretary for the YMCA in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and then Camp Lee, Virginia. Herring also held teaching positions at Straight College in New Orleans and Bennett College in North Carolina
1920 -- Alonzo was sent to Washington, D.C. to live with his uncle, James Aden, and his wife Laura.
1921 -- Herring was initially hired as architectural drawing instructor at Howard University and after negotiations established Department of Art later that same year.
1927 -- Herring organized an exhibition of Howard U. students' artwork that toured the Deep South U.S. Aden enrolled in Howard University in pursuit of an education degree.
1930 -- The Howard University Gallery of Art formally opened on April 7. Aden was hired as gallery assistant.
1933 -- Aden received his Bachelor of Arts in Education; Herring added Aden's name as co-owner of the 127 Randolph Place home.
1934-1939 -- Aden engaged in post-graduate study and museum curatorial work around the U.S. and Europe.
1940 -- Aden served as art curator for the American Negro Exposition (the "Negro's World Fair") in Chicago
1943 -- Aden resigned his position at the Howard University Gallery of Art for undisclosed reasons. The Barnett-Aden Gallery was founded by James V. Herring and Alonzo Aden. The first exhibition, "American Paintings for the Home" featured Elizabeth Catlett, Lois Mailou Jones, Malvin Gray Johnson, James Lesesne Wells, Jacob Lawrence, and many others.
1944 -- First anniversary exhibition featuring artist Candido Portinari, Brazilian artist who was already known in Washington from his mural for the Library of Congress. It was attended by the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. Exhibition, "The Negro in Art" and "American Paintings for the Home" featuring Catlett, James A. Porter, Wells, Jones, Richmond Barthé, Hale Woodruff, Betsy Graves Reyneau and others.
1946 -- Exhibition, "Paintings by Lois Mailou Jones" and featured paintings of Jacob Lawrence for Third Anniversary exhibition.
1947 -- Fourth Anniversary Exhibition, "Recent Paintings by Charles White". Exhibition of Elizabeth Catlett, "Paintings, Sculpture, and Prints of The Negro Woman".
1948 -- Exhibition, "Paintings and Drawings by James A. Porter".
1949 -- Exhibition, "Sylvia Carewe".
1950 -- "Exhibition of Six Washington Artists" featuring Romare Bearden, Samuel Bookatz, Bernice Cross, Robert Gates, Norma Mazo, and James A. Porter. "Exhibition "Paintings and Prints by James Lesesne Wells."
1951 -- Exhibition, "Three Washington Artists" featuring Richard Dempsey, Sam Herman, and Jack Perlmutter Exhibition, "Herman Maril: Paintings in Retrospect, 1931-1951"
1953 -- Tenth Anniversary Exhibition, "Eighteen Washington Artists" featuring Sarah Baker, Samuel Bookatz, William Calfee, Bernice Cross, Robert Franklin Gates, Jacob Kainen, Marjorie Phillips, James Porter, and James Lesesne Wells.
1954 -- Exhibition "Six Washington Painters" featuring Theresa Abbott, Gabriel Cherin, Gloria Besser Green, Alma W. Thomas, and Anita Wertheim.
1955 -- Twelfth anniversary exhibition focused on "Jack Perlmutter".
1957 -- Exhibition, "David C. Driskell: Exhibition of Paintings"
1958 -- Exhibition "Norman Lewis: Paintings"
1959 -- Sixteenth Anniversary Exhibition of "Paintings by Pietro Lazzari, Helen Rennie, Alma Thomas, Andrea De Zerega". Exhibition of "Religious Paintings and Prints by James L. Wells and Sculpture by Selma Burke"
1962 -- Alonzo Aden died suddenly at the age of 56 on October 13 in Washington D.C. Herring solely inherits the Gallery collection.
1969 -- Herring dies at age 84 in Washington, DC. on May 29. Artist Adolphus Ealey inherits the bulk of the gallery collection along with Dr. Felton J. Earls and Dr. and Mrs. Cecil Marquez.
1974 -- Two exhibitions of the collection at the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum and the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
1989 -- Collection sold to Florida Endowment Fund for Higher Education.
1998 -- Robert Johnson, founder and former CEO of Black Entertainment Television (BET) purchased the entire collection and serves as administrators over the collection.
Acquired through a purchase by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Collection is open for research. Access to collection materials requires an appointment.
The NMAAHC Archives can provide reproductions of some materials for research and educational use. Copyright and right to publicity restrictions apply and limit reproduction for other purposes.
An interview with James Lesesne Wells conducted 1989 November 16, by Jock Reynolds and Richard Powell, for the Archives of American Art.
Wells speaks of his early childhood in Atlanta, Georgia and Florida; his education; his interest in drawing; symbolic storytelling; mythological subject matter; and African influence.
Biographical / Historical:
James Lesesne Wells (1902-1993) was a printmaker from Washington, D.C.
Originally recorded on 2 sound cassettes. Reformatted in 2010 as 4 digital wav files. Duration is 1 hr., 45 min.
This interview is part of the Archives of American Art Oral History Program, started in 1958 to document the history of the visual arts in the United States, primarily through interviews with artists, historians, dealers, critics and others.
This transcript is open for research. Access to the entire recording is restricted. Contact Reference Services for more information.