The Arts Council of Princeton, with funding from the Princeton University Art Museum, hosted a panel discussion titled “Retrieving the Overlooked History of Black Artists in Princeton and Trenton in the Later 20th Century” on Wednesday, Nov. 30.
Panelists spoke about their roles in the local arts scene and the importance of showcasing both Black art and art from other historically underrepresented communities.
The event was led by moderators Rhinold L. Ponder, the founder of the nonprofit Art Against Racism, and Judith K. Brodsky, the founder of the Brodsky Center at Rutgers. Panelists included Shirley Satterfield, founder of the Witherspoon-Jackson Historical and Cultural Society; Lawrence Hilton, a collector of African American art and longtime member of the art and music community in Trenton; Stephanie Schwartz, Curator of Collections and Research at the Historical Society of Princeton (HSP); Margaret O’Reilly, Director of the New Jersey State Museum; and Aubrey Kauffman, a Trenton-based artist and photographer.
Schwartz began the conversation by relating a brief history of the Historical Society of Princeton. She explained to audience members that it wasn’t until the 1990s that major efforts occurred to diversify collections and exhibitions.
“These communities were underrepresented in our collection, and therefore, we were not giving a full picture of Princeton,” Schwartz said. “We wanted to be able to tell a broader and more inclusive history.”
The first exhibition at HSP that highlighted Black artists ran in 1996. When the Society faced problems in developing a comprehensive display, they turned to local organizations and churches for help.
“The materials to tell these stories did not exist at the time,” Schwartz said. “This was the origin of our oral history collection efforts at HSP. We used oral history to try and fill the gaps in the existing documentation.”
The New Jersey State Museum began efforts to expand its collection outside the “canon of Western art” during the Civil Rights Era in the 1960s, O’Reilly said.
“We have championed work by underrepresented artists,” O’Reilly said. “We highlight the artists that are good. We don’t highlight them because of their race, their gender, their ethnicity.”
O’Reilly also spoke to the fact that the New Jersey State Museum serves as both a center for teaching and research.
Hilton shifted the discussion toward a more personal remembrance of the history of prominent Black artists in Princeton and the surrounding area. He spoke about many of the artists he knew personally, such as Rex Goreleigh, Jim Edwards, and Henry Austin.
An artist and one member of the audience spoke personally about his own experience as what he called an “overlooked artist.”
“For the life of me, I don’t understand why no one’s interested in my story,” he said. “We are supposedly talking about overlooked artists. I am standing before you right now asking you to come look at my art.”
The panel took place on Wednesday, Nov. 30, at Art on Hullfish.
The event accompanied an exhibition on display at the Paul Robeson Arts Center from Oct. 14 to Dec. 3: “Retrieving the Life and Art of James Wilson Edwards and a Circle of Black Artists.”
Rebecca Cunningham is a news contributor for the ‘Prince.’ Please direct all corrections to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.