You are here

Preserving African American History and Expanding a Field of Study

June 1, 2014
photo of David Driskell

Recipient: University of Maryland College Park

Grant: Museum Grants for African American History and Culture

Pictured: David C. Driskell, photo by Greg Staley. Click image to see full-size.

Project Contact:
Dorit Yaron, David C. Driskell Center Deputy Director
(301) 405-6835



There may be no higher calling for a community of learners and scholars than to protect and
preserve the legacy of those who have come before us. The recording of our thoughts, cultural
practices and view of our world is essential to the survival and flourishing of those who will follow us.
This belief is at the very core of the Driskell Center mission. 

—Prof. Curlee R. Holton, Executive Director

Located at the University of Maryland in College Park, the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora is a lasting tribute to the life and work of Professor David C. Driskell—an artist, university professor emeritus of art, art historian, curator, and collector who has devoted his career to the study and presentation of African American art.

The center honors the legacy of Professor Driskell through the preservation of African American visual art and culture as part of the larger canon of American art. It is the home of a comprehensive art collection of works by African American artists and a significant archive available for studying and viewing by the larger community.

Sharing a One-of-a-Kind Archive of African American Heritage

This collection was originally curated by Professor Driskell himself. Over the course of six decades, Professor Driskell amassed an archive with an estimated 50,000 objects consisting of exhibition catalogs; lectures; graduate students’ dissertations; children’s art projects about the cultural life of African Americans; magazines; and correspondence with other prominent artists including Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, Georgia O’Keefe, James Porter. The center also receives donations of historically significant materials, adding to one of the most unique art collections and archives of African American visual art and culture in the nation.

Staff at the David C. Driskell Center knew that an archive of this significance was rare; it needed to be inventoried and made available online to the public as a preeminent resource in the study of African American—and American—culture and heritage. IMLS awarded a grant to the David C. Driskell Center to catalog the collection and create an online public database.

Preserving Artifacts—and Expertise—for Posterity

The David C. Driskell Center assembled a team of professionals, including an archivist, a consultant, graduate students, and most importantly, Professor Driskell, who provided his vision for assembling and documenting the archive. The team reviewed and assessed the objects in Professor Driskell’s archive and created a master inventory of the “Driskell Papers,” including records of audio and visual materials, organized in about 5,350 folders. The group identified approximately 3,350 additional donated publications in the archive. And by the project’s end the team had identified, re-housed, removed duplicates, and made online database recordings of approximately 45 percent of the collection.

The team pulled together an interesting subseries of the records that Professor Driskell kept on art exhibitions he curated from the early 1970s through the late 1980s,including  the groundbreaking 1976 “Two Centuries of Black American Art: 1750-1950” exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). The exhibition aimed to educate the American public about the wide range and importance of African American art—a story that had not previously been included in the narrative of American art. In the records is correspondence between Professor Driskell and the staff at LACMA on the purpose and logistics of the exhibition, correspondences with various institutions lending to the exhibition, and the research materials used by Prof. Driskell to curate the exhibition. They capture his passion for the exhibition, attention to detail, and the difficult decisions he had to make in selecting which pieces of art to include.

Honoring a Legacy and Building a Community

The grant provided graduate students with working opportunities for four semesters—a rich learning experience for those interested in entering the archive or African American museum fields, and the opportunity to exchange ideas with the local, arts, and academic communities. One former intern is now an archivist at the Afro American Newspaper Archives and Research Center in Baltimore, Maryland. Another graduate student intern is reference archivist at the National Anthropological Archives at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. 

As a direct result of the center’s successful launching of the David C. Driskell Archive Project and its progress made in creating an online collection, the David C. Driskell Center was awarded additional grants: one from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation through the Council on Library and Information Resources and one from the National Endowment for the Arts.

The David C. Driskell Archive Project honors and continues the tremendous work of David C. Driskell in contemporary American art as a scholar, curator, and artist. By making his collection widely accessible and increasing capacity to continue to capture history, the center advances its mission of broadening the field of African Diaspora studies.

Museum Grants for African American History and Culture