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Spelman Remembers Arts Icon and Distinguished Professor David C. Driskell, Ph.D.

April 2020

Spelman Celebrates the Life and Legacy of David DriskellThe Spelman Community in solidarity with scores of individuals around the globe, celebrates the life and indelible legacy of David C. Driskell, Ph.D. (1931-2020). The legendary artist and distinguished university professor at the University of Maryland (UMD) who is recognized worldwide for his scholarship and expertise in African American art,  passed away at the age of 88, on Wednesday, April 1, 2020, from complications of COVID-19. 

"Driskell transformed the field of African American art through his scholarship, innovation and humanity. He played a critical role in bringing awareness to the art of African American artists at a time when these artists were overlooked. His work made it clear that African American art is essential to the American art canon," stated the University of Maryland Center named in his honor. 

The David C. Driskell Prize was established in 2005 by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta to honor Driskell’s achievements. It was the first national award to honor and celebrate contributions to the field of African American art and art history. Spelman's director of the Museum of Fine Art, Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, Ph.D., was awarded the Prize in 2013 for her significant contributions to the field of art. 

In His Own Words...

Start of QuoteMy interest is to bring in more young people to grow the field, with an emphasis on art but buttressed by other cultural components as well — End of Quoteliterature, drama, music — so more people are looking at African-American art history.” (As reported in The Baltimore Sun)

Driskell is survived by his wife, Thelma Driskell; two daughters, Daviryne McNeill and Daphne Coles; five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Members of the Spelman Community were greatly impacted by Driskell's life and leadership. Here are a few of their personal reflections: 

Mary Schmidt Campbell, Ph.D., President, Spelman College

David Driskell was a giant. Long before most American museums and conventional art histories acknowledged the significance and originality of African American artists, Dr. Driskell assembled a landmark exhibition, marking two centuries of Black innovators and pioneers. “Two Centuries of African American Art,” opened in the American bicentennial year of 1976 at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. For Black artists, curators and scholars, the show was a powerful affirmation.  As the show travelled around the country, providing visual evidence of our long history of mastery and invention, those of us who had chosen careers in the arts were deeply inspired.

Dr. Driskell's Impact Upon my Career

My own career as a curator and museum director at the Studio Museum in Harlem was impacted by Dr. Driskell. The year the exhibition came to New York to the Brooklyn Museum was my first year as a New York City curator. From then on, I became an ardent David Driskell fan. By the time of the exhibition, Dr. Driskell had enjoyed a distinguished career as a painter, art historian and teacher at Talladega and Fisk University.

The University of Maryland College Park invited him to establish The David C. Driskell Center for the Study of Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora in 1998. Every year, the Center honors promising young curators and scholars in recognition of the continuing importance of art historical research and scholarship and maintained an archive of the lives and work of Black artists. In a short period of time, the Driskell Center became a vital site of discourse for the local community as well as academia. 

A Lasting and Fond Memory of a Legend

Several weeks ago in March, at the invitation of the Driskell Center, I had the great pleasure of seeing David again. He was as lively and as gracious as ever. He gave us a tour of the Center with it expansive and expanding archives and beautiful galleries. After chatting with me in his office, David introduced my lecture on Romare Bearden, an artist whom he had known very well.

As I reached the podium and looked around at the packed audience and the galleries filled with Bearden’s collages, watercolors and prints, I marveled at this spirited and vibrant institution David had built and the many lives he touched and shaped. And then, I looked out at his smiling face and my heart filled with gratitude. 

Cheryl Finley, Ph.D., Inaugural Director of the AUC 
Art History + Curatorial Studies Collective

Dr. Driskell was a generous scholar, innovative curator, and dedicated friend. He was admired for setting the right balance of critical inquiry, historical perspective and contemporary urgency in his lively and engaging keynote addresses, especially in recent years.

In Johannesburg, at "Black Portraiture [s] III" in 2016, he reminisced about his first time in South Africa as a visiting artist some forty years before, and openly shared the difficulties and nuances of navigating his presence there as a Black American during the Apartheid era. The following year in 2017, Dr. Driskell gave a memorable keynote address, "Revisiting the Black Aesthetic," at the symposium organized for the blockbuster exhibition "The Color Line: African American Artists and Segregation" at the Musée du Quai Branly — Jacques Chirac in Paris.

Offering a refreshing examination of the color line that was both hopeful and sophisticated, he concluded, “The color line vanishes and burns into the annals of history … and passes into the bright light of the day, yielding a colorless humanity.” David was one of a kind, a thoughtful and beautiful human being. 


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