A Pioneering African-American Art Force Changes Houston and Museums Everywhere: Why Isn’t She Better Known?
Alvia Wardlaw is currently director of the University Museum at TSU. (Photo Max Burkhalter)
Dr. Wardlaw launched the landmark Gee's Bend quilts exhibit at the MFAH in 2002, which became an unexpected international blockbuster. Shown: quilts by Loretta P. Bennett. (Photo John F. Ficara, collection Tinwood Alliance, courtesy smithsonianmag.com)
Texas Lifetime Achievement Artist honoree Kermit Oliver, the only American designer of silk scarves for the house of Hermès, is among the talents championed by Dr. Wardlaw. (Photo Khristopher Oliver)
Wardlaw developed the biennial For The Sake of Art benefit for the University Museum. This year, artist Kermit Oliver served as inspiration. (Courtesy tsu.edu)
Dr. Wardlaw contributed a pivotal chapter to the volume "Art and Activism," detailing the de Menils' support of the Civil Rights Movement in Houston. (Yale University Press, 2010)
Thornton Dial's show at the MFAH in 2005, curated by Wardlaw, was epic. (Mr. Dial photographed in his Alabama studio, 2011 by Josh Anderson for "The New York Times")
ALVIA WARDLAW, A WELLESLEY GRAD AND UT’S FIRST AFRICAN-AMERICAN PhD IN ART HISTORY, LAUNCHED GEE’S BEND QUILTERS, SPENT 40 YEARS AT THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, HOUSTON, AND IS DIRECTOR OF THE UNIVERSITY MUSEUM AT TSU. WHY IS SHE STILL ONE OF AMERICA’S MOST UNDER-KNOWN CURATORS?
She’s the curator who launched the Gee’s Bend quilters phenomenon after organizing an exhibition for an obscure group of women in a small Alabama byway; it became one of the most talked-about museum shows of 2002 in America and beyond.
In a career that spans five decades, including nearly 40 years at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Dr. Alvia Wardlaw has presented exhibitions rewriting the canon of American art with major, overdue chapters for African-American artists, especially John Biggers, Thornton Dial and Kermit Oliver.
As director of the University Museum at Texas Southern University since 2000, this former Fulbright Fellow continues the legacy begun by the late Dr. Biggers. Catherine D. Anspon gets the scoop first hand from the Third Ward-reared Wellesley grad who earned the University of Texas’ first PhD in art history ever granted to an African-American — and unravels the role played by Dominique de Menil in Wardlaw’s journey.
ROLE MODELS AND A HOUSTON CHILDHOOD.
My mother, Virginia Cage Wardlaw, was my earliest inspiration in studying art and art history. She was naturally curious about art and culture, and that curiosity inspired both me and my sister. Mrs. Willie Lee Thomas, my art teacher at Jack Yates Senior High School, was also an early inspiration for my studies in art. She used to have art history books in the classroom for all of us to read. [Houston] artist Edsel Cramer was the first person to tell me that I should go to Paris and study art; I was 16 at the time.
My parents were both educators; my mother taught English at Edison Middle School, and my father was the first chair of the mathematics department at Texas Southern. I literally grew up on TSU’s campus.
I remember attending programs in Hannah Hall Auditorium as a child and seeing the art of Dr. Biggers and his students in the lobby of the auditorium. Later, trips to the MFAH and seeing Georgia O’Keeffe’s beautiful cloud paintings were transformative. The imaginative shows that Dominique de Menil created at the University of St. Thomas also opened up creative vistas for me.
ON HIGH SCHOOL IN HOUSTON AND HEADING TO WELLESLEY DURING THE TRANSFORMATIONAL ’60S.
The climate in the 1960s in Houston, when I was a student at Yates, was very supportive within the black community. We were encouraged by our parents, teachers and other adults in our lives to excel. They instilled self-confidence in us while expecting excellence in all that we did. There was an air of excitement regarding our educational possibilities; we felt as if we were venturing into new and wonderful territory as we graduated from high school.
It was an amazing time to be at Wellesley. There were only five African-American students in my class . While enjoying the intellectual climate at the college, we challenged policies, which we felt were not constructive for our growth. We were children of the ’60s. From the beginning, members of the faculty and administration listened, and we were involved in a four-year dialogue, which resulted in many positive changes, which helped to transform the culture of the college.
I made lifelong friends at Wellesley and the school remains a touchstone in my life.
ON YOU AND THE THIRD WARD.
I grew up in Third Ward and still live in Third Ward. As the area changed from white to black in the early ’60s, my family simply moved from the north side to the south side of the Texas Southern campus. We have always lived in the neighborhood, and it is a very special place to call home.
ON BEING A PIONEER — AS A WOMAN AND AS A SCHOLAR OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN ART.
I see myself as all of these things and more. As a mother and grandmother, I try to instill in my son and granddaughter the same values of strength in family, a spiritual centering, lifelong learning, self-reliance and service to others. As a mentor and teacher, I try to guide students to be expansive in their vision and prepared for unique opportunities.
While working on my master’s at NYU, I was asked by Dominique de Menil to write an essay for an exhibition of African art at the De Luxe Theatre [in Houston; the exhibition is still remembered, decades later, as the groundbreaking “De Luxe Show;” it opened on August 22, 1971, pairing the works of notable white and black artists together, a then-revolutionary approach]. Simultaneously, I wrote an essay for the exhibition “Handcrafted,” an early show at the Studio Museum [in Harlem, 1972].
TOP FIVE EXHIBITIONS THAT YOU CURATED FOR THE MFAH.
“Roy DeCarava: Photographs” ; “John Biggers: View from the Upper Room” ; “Notes from a Childhood Odyssey: The Art of Kermit Oliver” ; “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend” ; “Houston Collects: African American Art” .
RECALLING “THE QUILTS OF GEE’S BEND.”
Organizing the Gee’s Bend exhibition was a very special time in my life. It enabled me to assess artistic genius in a completely different way. Getting to know the women and their families was a joy. Peter Marzio was a passionate supporter of this exhibition, and the families appreciated so much the hospitality that we showed them here in Houston.
ON HOW THE ART WORLD — AND THE PLACE OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN ARTISTS — HAS CHANGED.
There have been new scholars in the field who have brought even more attention to African-American artists and the many movements … from the 19th through the 21st centuries.
YOU ORGANIZED THE EPIC THORNTON DIAL EXHIBITION AT THE MFAH IN 2005. AFTER HIS PASSING THIS YEAR, WILL HIS STAR RISE HIGHER?
I am sure that Thornton Dial will become more and more central to the discussion of contemporary American art. I recently spoke at a memorial celebration for Mr. Dial at the High Museum in Atlanta with Bill Arnett and Lonnie Holley, and the power of Mr. Dial’s art on view at the museum struck us all over again.
The recent acquisition of Dial’s work by the Metropolitan Museum invites further analysis of the importance of his art. Peter Marzio got Thornton Dial immediately, and that is why we are fortunate today to have five Dials in the MFAH’s permanent collection.
IN HOUSTON’S ART HISTORY, WE HAVE HAD GREATS LIKE DR. JOHN BIGGERS AND BERT LONG JR. ANYONE ELSE FROM THE EARLIER YEARS THAT SHOULD BE RECOGNIZED?
Carroll Harris Simms, Willie Moore, Harvey Johnson, and Michael Ray Charles, among many others, have all contributed to the strength of the African-American art scene in Houston.
ON TEXAS SOUTHERN UNIVERSITY AS AN EPICENTER.
TSU has been central to the development of art by African-Americans in Houston. John Biggers and Carroll Harris Simms were visionaries. The early support of patrons Susan McAshan, Dominique de Menil, and Mrs. Jane Blaffer Owen made much of their vision possible.