There’s no shortage of galleries around town to peruse for the art lover in Nashville, but you may not immediately think to explore Fisk University’s own Carl Van Vechten Gallery. If you haven’t been yet, now is the time to get acquainted with this Nashville treasure. Located on Fisk’s campus, the gallery boasts an impressive permanent collection and stunning gallery space. It’s the perfect place to soak up some culture and find your new favorite spot in town for taking a quiet moment with works by some of the finest artists of the modern era. We stopped in for a visit with director and curator of the gallery, Jamaal Sheats, and Professor of History and Dean of the School of Humanities and Behavioral Social Sciences, Dr. Reavis Mitchell, to find out the exactly what makes this gallery such a special place.
The Carl Van Vechten Art Gallery: A Noteworthy History
Long before the beloved Cheekwood, Frist Center for the Visual Arts or 5th Avenue of the Arts, there was the Carl Van Vechten Art Gallery. During a time when access to the arts for people of color was extremely limited across the country, the Van Vechten gallery provided Nashvillians of all races an oasis to view spectacular works of a caliber less frequently available elsewhere in the city. After opening its doors in 1949, the gallery was given the Alfred Stieglitz Collection (a gift from Stieglitz’s then-wife, Georgia O’Keefe). But even before then, the University had been a collecting institution since the 1870s, accumulating works from The Andrew Carnegie Corporation, American illustrator Cyrus Baldric and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, founder of the Museum of Modern Art, to name a few. To say the legacy of art at Fisk University is venerable would be an understatement, and the art dispersed throughout the campus is a testament to that.
The Alfred Stieglitz Collection
The aforementioned Alfred Stieglitz Collection is definitely one of our top reasons to visit the gallery this year. The collection includes works by Pablo Picasso, Arthur Dove, Georgia O’Keefe, Paul Cezanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and countless more. The famed collection, now shared by the Carl Van Vechten gallery and The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas, departs in December 2017. With the works rotating every 90 days, pencil in a few visits before the end of the year to see as much as you can before the collection’s departure.
When asked to choose a favorite work, gallery director and curator Jamaal Sheats is understandably unable to choose: “That’s a very difficult question to answer. My favorite changes on a daily basis,” he shares. “Yesterday it was Florine Stettheimer’s ‘Portrait of Alfred Stieglitz.’ It is absolutely gorgeous, coded and clever … Last week it was Author Dove’s ‘Red Tree and Sun.’ He is one of the great American abstractionists. In this piece you truly see how complex his decisions were to retain visual cues. Today it’s Alfred Stieglitz’s ‘Hand of Man,’ an incredible photograph both in terms of its conceptual framework and its composition.”
The indecision is understandable; walking through the pristine space, it is impossible not to want to run from piece to piece as your eyes are drawn along the gallery’s walls.
We asked Jamaal what will replace the Stieglitz Collection when it returns to Crystal Bridges for its duration in Arkansas, and luckily we will not be disappointed. The year to come, he says, promises “more contemporary artists that feature experimental, digital media and performative exhibitions. We will also continue to highlight works from our permanent collection.” If it isn’t already, The Carl Van Vechten Gallery needs to be a part of your regular art gallery rotation.
Carl Van Vechten: Depth of Field
Our most time-sensitive reason to drop by the gallery is the photography exhibition, Carl Van Vechten: Depth of Field, which departs March 3, 2017. Yes, this is the same Carl Van Vechten for whom the gallery is named, known for his patronage of the Harlem Renaissance, his talent as a photographer and novelist, as well as for encouraging Georgia O’Keefe to donate the Stieglitz Collection to Fisk University in the first place. Depth of Field showcases portrait photography taken by Van Vechten from the 1930s to the 1950s. Using a 35 mm Leica, he captured an array of distinguished artists and influencers of the day. The walls of the exhibit are lined with complex portraits of subjects like Henri Matisse, Diego Rivera, Georgia O’Keefe, Prentiss Taylor, and the list goes on and on.
Van Vechten, though remembered for many things, was also known as party host extraordinaire. Many of the sitters in the portrait collection were frequenters of these gatherings, which Van Vechten used to facilitate the commingling of artists, scholars and other patrons of the arts without the constraints of race and class. The portrait collection illustrates the narrative of Van Vechten’s efforts to promote cultural awareness and inspiration among artists of varying levels of renown, regardless of race.
Take a Walk Through History: Fisk University and The Civil Rights Movement
While you are on campus, take a minute to explore the grounds. Not only are many of the university’s buildings architecturally striking (the campus was designated as a National Historic District in 1978), but history abounds. Fisk’s narrative begins when it was established shortly after the Civil War and continues to this day, with stories of Fisk students’ reliance and determination never leaving the center stage. From the Fisk Jubilee Singers performing internationally in 1871 and bringing in the funds to keep the classrooms open, to being the first black university to gain accreditation in the world of academia in 1930, the university sets the bar high when it comes to students demanding access to higher education. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Charles S. Johnson, the first black president of the university, sponsored gatherings promoting interracial discussions in an academic setting. Fisk University students have also taken charge of pivotal leadership roles throughout the Civil Rights Movement, leading sit-ins and protests around the region.
Dr. Reavis Mitchell emphasizes that Fisk student activism is not limited to participation in the Civil Rights Movement, but that activism and promotion of intellectual dialogue have been deeply ingrained in the student body since the university’s inception. The legacy of Fisk University’s involvement in civil rights activism is something in which the university continues to take pride.
Thank you to Tausha Dickinson for the gorgeous visual peek into the Carl Van Vechten Gallery and Fisk University Campus!