The Barnett Aden Gallery: A Home for Diversity in a Segregated City

Open Access
Abbott, Janet Gail
Graduate Program:
Art History
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
September 05, 2008
Committee Members:
  • Joyce Henri Robinson, Dissertation Advisor
  • Joyce Henri Robinson, Committee Chair
  • Sarah K Rich, Committee Chair
  • Joan Landes, Committee Member
  • Charlotte Marie Houghton, Committee Member
  • African American art galleries
  • African American art
  • art gallery
ABSTRACT In 1943 Professor James V. Herring along with Alonzo J. Aden, his former student and colleague at Howard University, opened the Barnett Aden Gallery within the modest home they shared in Washington, D.C. As founders of one of the first black-owned galleries in the nation, their mission was to provide an exhibition space for talented artists without regard to ethnicity or national origin. During the next twenty-five years, the Barnett Aden Gallery became a unique site for cross-cultural exchange—where artists, writers, musicians, and politicians of all races met freely for social, professional, and aesthetic discourse—one of few such places in severely segregated Washington, D.C. The Barnett Aden performed the traditional gallery function of featuring talented emerging artists, but it provided a critical service for African American artists, who had few opportunities to show their work in parity with white artists or even to see evidence of their existence within established art institutions. By placing their work alongside that of honored black predecessors, such as Henry Ossawa Tanner, Edward Bannister, and Meta Warrick Fuller, the gallery validated their artistic identity and situated them within an art historical tradition. In this dissertation I assert that the Barnett Aden Gallery carried out even broader psychological and ideological tasks for the artists, the patrons, the gallery owners, and the art community of Washington, D.C. By situating exhibitions within their home (rather than using the pristine white rooms favored by many galleries), Herring and Aden literally brought home the idea that artistic creativity was inherently part of the African American experience, and, at the same time, enhanced their own status as members of the black intellectual elite of the city. The domestic environment and the integrated atmosphere altered the viewing experience of the spectators and broadened their outlook toward art and its creators. Through their exhibition policies and their collaboration with established art institutions, the gallery owners created a unique cultural space and set the stage for development of a surprisingly integrated art community in an otherwise racially divided city.