Exhibiting Culture: Highlights from the Hammonds House Museum Collection (through January 30) features crown jewels culled from the permanent collection of more than 450 works dating from the mid-19th century, including works by Elizabeth Catlett, Hale Woodruff and the oldest known painting by landscape artist Robert S. Duncanson. The showcase is an important milestone for the West End landmark that was established “to preserve, exhibit, interpret and increase public awareness about the contributions that visual artists of African descent have made to world culture,” and it marks a full circle moment for the museum’s recently appointed executive director and chief curator, Karen Comer Lowe.
“I remember visiting Hammonds House as a grade schooler . . . feeling comfortable and engaging with the art in a way I never had in any other art space,” says Comer Lowe. “Ed Spriggs was one of the first people to hire me after I graduated from Howard University with an art history degree and dreams of being an important museum person,” she says, laughing. (Spriggs was the director of Studio Museum of Harlem for seven years before spearheading the founding of the Hammonds House Galleries in 1988 and serving as its inaugural director.) “And this is where I learned about the placement of artists in the diaspora and how artists of color fit into the national scene,” she says.
This experience was so foundational to the Atlanta native’s growth as an arts professional that educating the public remains her core mission.
The first level of engagement at Exhibiting Culture is the “Artist Garden,” where a series of small signs bear quotes by artists like Jacob Lawrence, who said: “My belief is that it is most important for an artist to develop an approach and philosophy about life — if he has developed this philosophy, he does not put paint on a canvas, he puts himself on canvas.”
QR codes affixed to caption cards in the gallery allow guests to use their cell phones to engage with the artists on a deeper level. And three documentary films about Mildred Thompson, Benny Andrews and Dr. Samella Lewis airing on a loop shed insights on their individual practices while contextualizing what it meant to inhabit broader spaces as an African American artist in the 20th century.
In keeping with her commitment to cultivate future art lovers, Comer Lowe has also established a new Family Day program at Hammonds House. The series will kick off this Saturday, October 2, from 12:30-3:30 p.m. with educational activities like the new “Art Smart Scavenger Hunt.” Admission is free; tickets must be reserved in advance. And as she looks forward to welcoming everyone to view a well-established collection with fresh eyes, Comer Lowe spoke to ArtsATL about the joys of unearthing masterpieces, Dr. Otis Thrash Hammonds’ personal connection with artists, and the transformative power of visual art.
ArtsATL: Did the process of culling more than 450 works ever threaten to overwhelm you? Or were you like a kid in a candy shop?
Karen Comer Lowe: It was both. On some days it was completely overwhelming. But as I started to go through the works and actually find some of the things I was looking for, it was like Christmas! The James Van Der Zees in their outdated gold frames with gaudy purple matting looked somewhat cheesy and dated. They were reframed for this show, but in doing the research I came across an original [Van Der Zee] print with a price tag of $35 on back of the frame. We have a limited edition piece by Renee Stout, one of Dr. Hammonds’ later acquisitions, which addresses funk and voodoo that’s so powerful. And there’s a six-piece, large abstract oil on canvas by Mildred Thompson that I’m really excited about.
ArtsATL: Did Dr. Hammonds collect for investment purposes or passion?
Comer Lowe: This was clearly a passion for him, from what I know. He often entertained in his home around art . . . and would have artists stay with him when they came to town. He and Romare Bearden had a friendship, so Bearden would stay in the house with Dr. Hammonds when he came to Atlanta.
ArtsATL: Where were artists like Bearden, Benny Andrews and Jacob Lawrence on the ascendency when Dr. Hammonds started collecting their work? Or were they already established?
Comer Lowe: It’s a mixed bag. Some of these artists were established, but others were building their brand. They were working artists, known in Black spaces more than mainstream spaces. I remember meeting Benny Andrews at the McIntosh Gallery here in Atlanta. He’s a prime example of artists who were intentional about working in smaller spaces so they would have access to African American people . . . because they wanted to make sure that Black people were collecting their art as their prominence grew.
ArtsATL: Does any quote stand out in your mind from the archival interviews as prescient for where we find ourselves today?
Comer Lowe: There is a quote that resonates with me that I’ve repeated to all of my friends and I’ve encouraged them to watch the documentary to hear it for themselves. At the beginning of the film, Mildred Thompson says, “My life is just as I expected it to be.” For me, as a woman — even at my age trying to figure things out and going through life — I hope to be able to say that one day. That speaks to the power of being confident in your person and knowing that you are on the right path.
ArtsATL: How did curating this show expand or confirm what you already knew about the life-affirming power of art, regardless of our circumstances?
Comer Lowe: I already knew that art is transformative and it could take you to places, mentally, that you couldn’t imagine. There are so many works in this show that when you stand in front of them, you go inside the art and forget where you’re standing for that moment. I’ve had so many people run up to it and say, “Oh my God! This is a Charles White!” Pulling and discovering exquisite pieces like White’s is magical. When you look at his painting, you want to know: How did he do that? How did he make this?
ArtsATL: Is there a way for visitors who are socially distancing to enjoy any aspect(s) of the exhibition without coming to the museum?
Comer Lowe: Before the show ends, we will have a virtual component to allow guests to engage the exhibition online. But we have safety protocols in place for guests, including timed tickets to restrict crowds and requiring all visitors to stay masked.