Howard University’s Gallery of Art Looks Ahead

The Gallery of Fine Arts moves full-steam ahead with building one of the most comprehensive collections of art.

by Sholnn Freeman (MA '12, PHD '21)

Kathryn E. Coney-Ali and Raul Ferrera-Balanquet examine a work of art in the gallery.

Raul Ferrera-Balanquet and Kathryn E. Coney-Ali examine a work of art

Kathryn E. Coney-Ali and Raul Ferrera-Balanquet examine a work of art in the gallery.

In nine decades of its existence, the Howard University Gallery of Art has amassed one of the world’s finest collections of portraits, abstractions, photographs, and ethnographic compositions. Its latest acquisition: a two-person leadership team devoted to positioning the gallery for success in the fast-moving art world.

The Gallery of Art now has two new co-executive directors, Raul Ferrera-Balanquet and Kathryn E. Coney-Ali. Ferrera-Balanquet earned a doctorate in Latin American and Caribbean cultural studies from Duke University and brings to the gallery an extensive background in international exhibitions. Coney-Ali is a cultural historian experienced in collection management and museum operations. She is completing her doctoral studies at Howard University in African Studies and had matriculated at the University for her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine arts. As an undergraduate, Coney-Ali trained in Howard University’s Gallery of Art in grant sponsored conservation and collection management programs.

The vision of the new directorship is in aligned with the Chadwick Boseman College of Fine Arts call for a more intense focus on the themes related to the African diaspora under the leadership of Dean Phylicia Rashad.

“We want to bring out the African connection with an interest in the art of the African diaspora,” says Coney-Ali. “We are inviting people to engage in these conversations.”

Ferrera-Balanquet adds: “The concept of global Africa or diaspora is so alive in contemporary culture. We would like to invigorate what the gallery has always done with international and global connections. We are not reinventing the wheel but reinvigorating what has already been established.”

In one of their first projects, the pair hosted a mini-symposium on Afro-Mexican artistry in early October. The symposium highlighted the artistic work and life of renowned expatriate sculptor and activist Elizabeth Catlett. A much-celebrated Howard alumna, Catlett exemplified global connectivity. After graduation from Howard in 1935, Catlett embraced art with powerful and translutionary political implications. In the 1950s, Catlett found herself targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee and victimized by the intolerant McCarthy-era. She was forced to leave the United States for Mexico. Her works drew subjects from African American and Mexican life and made a deep impression on Mexican art.

 Raul Ferrera-Balanquet and Kathryn E. Coney-Ali
Raul Ferrera-Balanquet and Kathryn E. Coney-Ali, co-executive directors of the gallery.

Ferrera-Balanquet says Howard University ranks among a select group of institutions that can boast of such as distinguished roster of graduates who have made an impact on the international art world. “You cannot imagine the prestige this place has in the global art world,” he says.

Both Ferrera-Balanquet and Coney-Ali vow that the Gallery of Art’s purpose won’t stray from its original mission. The Howard University Gallery of Art was officially established in 1928 by action of the Board of Trustees, “to make revolving exhibitions of contemporary arts and crafts available for visitation and study.”

The two co-executive directors vowed to stay committed to furthering the fine arts education of Howard students, serving as a creative space for African American artists, and promoting artistic knowledge in the larger community and the world outside the University. Coney-Ali expresses the continuance of the Gallery’s legacy of being a collecting institution and maintaining a high-quality collections management operation with a more prominent focus on collection stewardship.

You cannot imagine the prestige this place has in the global art world.”

Two years ago, Howard University announced that it had received the coveted African American Art collection of Ronald W. and Patricia Turner Walters. Mrs. Walters donated the collection to the Gallery of Art in honor of the legacy of her late husband Dr. Ronald W. Walters, who was an educator and influential political scientist. Dr. Walters was a civil rights activist and expert in Black politics. Walters taught at Howard University in the Department of Political Science for 25 years, serving as the chair for nearly a decade. The gift includes 152 artworks which contains some the earliest works by African Americans in this country.

 

visitors at the gallery of art at Howard

Visitors examine the art in the gallery. Photo by Justin B. Knight

Coney-Ali believes the collection is a cosmopolitan representation of the art world which is what sets it apart from other HBCUs. She notes that the collection provides a unique survey of art spanning five continents and varying periods, including Italian renaissance, German expressionism, African and Oceanic art in the Alain L. Locke Collection, and modern and contemporary American art; placing Howard at the forefront among HBCUs.

“The discourse on art history which documents experiences and culture of people – our people – is what needs to be preserved,” Coney-Ali explains. “It is with this mission and understanding of the collection, we will continue the legacy of [past] Howard art historians and gallery directors… [who] have paved the way forward committing to Black excellence at Howard.”

This story appears in the Fall 2022 issue.

More In...

Vision