The David C. Driskell Center in Transition

Jerry Langley

Dr. Steele with Dr. Johnetta Cole,  speaker for the April 2012 Annual David C. Driskell Distinguished Lecture Series. Photo: courtesy David C. Driskell Center, UMD     The transition in leadership at the University of Maryland’s Driskell Center illustrates how this cultural institution stands at the confluence of several streams in the history of African Americans, their education and their art.

      There is the outgoing executive director, Robert E. Steele, whose interested in art was sparked when, as a Morehouse college freshman in 1961-62, he worked at the Trevor Arnett Library.  Works by the winners of the juried Atlanta University Annual Art Exhibitions by Negro Artists, on view in a gallery in the library basement, comprised an early pantheon of now-renowned artists such as Charles White, Lois Mailou Jones, and Jacob Lawrence.  Although the art works captivated the interest of this young man from Pritchard, Alabama, Steele says that “only later did I realize that I was looking at (masters such as) Romare Bearden and John Wilson.”   Steele’s introduction to art was reinforced during his junior and senior years at Morehouse when he roomed with Edmund Barry Gaither, who is now director of the Museum of the National Center of Afro American Artists in Boston. Fascinated by the psychological power and technical perfection of works in the Trevor Arnett such as James Reuben Reed’s Depressed (1949), Gaither had decided then and there that his career would somehow be linked to the celebration of African American art. 

       Curlee Holton, Interim Executive Director of the Driskell Center. Photo: courtesy Curlee HoltonRobert Steele later received a masters degree in divinity and ultimately got masters and Ph.D. degrees from Yale on his way to becoming a professor of psychology. For 40 years, Steele and his wife, Jean, have been ardent collectors of African American art.  (An article on the Steeles' collection appears in the print IRAAA, vol. 18, no 3.)

       Then there is the incoming interim executive director, Curlee Holton, a self-described “bent arrow” in his youth. Born in Mississippi of parents whose circumstances prevented them from completing high school, and raised in the Midwest, Holton was drafted after high school, and through a series of accidents, later enrolled in college as an art major.  He now is the David M. and Linda Roth professor of art and founding director of the Experimental Printmaking Institute at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania.

       Finally there is the artist after whom the Center is named. In 1949 David C. Driskell, son of Georgia sharecroppers, arrived in Washington, D.C., with eleven dollars and a copy of his high school report card.  He wasn't aware that to enroll in Howard University students were accepted for admission only after having submitted an application in advance. Nevertheless, in 1953 he finished the art program at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, and in 1955 earned a B.A from Howard, where he encountered art professors Alan L. Locke, James A. Porter, Lois Mailou Jones, James Lesesne Wells and James V. Herring. His achievements as an artist, educator, historian and curator are magnificent.

 Creative Spirit: The Art of David Driskell, Driskell Center Exhibition Fall 2011. Photo: courtesy David C. Driskell Center, UMDSpecial Projects

       A member of the Driskell Center's advisory board, Curlee Holton has worked with several renowned African American artists to produce limited edition prints used to raise funds for the center.  Holton also has been closely associated with David Driskell, himself, and, for the past ten years, the two artists have worked together on printmaking projects at Holton’s Institute.  A highlight of that association was the one-person show of Driskell’s work that Holton organized in 2010 in Oaxaca, Mexico.  

          As the Driskell Center moves into a new era, one of the most immediate tasks for its leadership is the continuation of major exhibitions.  African American Art Since 1950: Perspectives from the David C. Driskell Center opens September 20, 2012, with a 5:00-7:00 P.M. reception and runs through December 14, 2012.  The exhibition features works produced over the last 60-plus years by more than 50 prominent African American artists.  Works by Emma Amos, Herman “Kofi” Bailey, Stephanie Pogue, Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Jeff Donaldson, Alma Thomas, Sam Gilliam, Jacob Lawrence, David Driskell and James Lesene Wells are included.  Like many of the Center’s past exhibitions, this one is expected to travel to other prominent venues across the country after it closes at the University of Maryland.  Its first stop will be at the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the spring of 2013.

           David Driskell; Karima Muyaes, Mexican artist; and Curlee Holton at opening of Driskell's person show in Oaxaca, Mexico, February 26, 2010.  Photo: courtesy Curlee Holton.The University of Maryland’s David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora was founded in late 2001 to honor David C. Driskell, UM’s distinguished university professor emeritus of art.  Robert E. Steele assumed the position of executive director in 2004 and brought the Center into national prominence as a leading institution for the study of African American visual arts over the next eight years.  Steele stepped down as its executive director on June 30, 2012.

Steele’s Legacy

           Before serving as the executive director, Steele was a professor of psychology for 29 years and associate dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences at the university.  He was tapped for the Driskell Center director position by the UMD president who recognized his strong administrative skills and his serious interest in collecting art.

         The Center’s efforts under Steele included:

  • education and work opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students
  • a high school arts program to educate future generations about the outstanding contributions of African American artists to the field of American art
  • an education internship program for students at two-year junior colleges such as Maryland’s Montgomery College
  • the development of a new archive collection, which contains more than 50,000 objects for art research
  • the ten-fold expansion of the Center’s permanent art collection to approximately 1,300 works of significant African American art
  • the creation of the Stephanie Pogue Scholarship for 3rd and 4th year University of Maryland art students interested in printmaking, and
  • the Center’s annual schedule of lectures, conferences, and exhibitions, which have provided a wealth of scholarly presentations and vibrant visual art displays on African American art and culture.

Photo: courtesy Curlee HoltonAccomplished Staff

        During his tenure, Steele was committed to establishing a strong infrastructure and financial footing for the Center.  Several factors appeared to have contributed significantly to his success in these areas.  First, and perhaps foremost, Steele was able to attract and retain very talented staff to help run and implement its activities, such as Dorit Yaron, who became his deputy director in 2004; and Adrienne Childs, the Center’s Curator-in-Residence until June 2010.

           Steele and his staff were very successful in securing endowments and grants to fund a number of the Center’s activities from prominent government and private entities such as the Ford Foundation, the National Endowment of the Arts, the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Maryland State Arts Council.

           Steele and staff were also successful in moving the Center in 2007 from its original small office space to its current, much-larger facility at the Cole Student Activities Building at the university.  This site provides state-of-the-art accommodations and ample space for the Center’s expanded staff, the storage of its large art collection, and the many lectures, conferences, exhibitions and other activities that have attracted audiences from across the country.

            In announcing Steele’s departure, Dean Bonnie Thornton Dill of UM’s College of Arts and Humanities emphasized that Steele was instrumental in putting a “public face” on the Center which is “the only facility of its kind at an American research university.”  She also stated that the college has initiated a national search to fill his position.

 During the Transition

        Commuting between Easton and College Park to direct operations at the Driskell Center until a permanent appointment is made, Holton continues teaching and directing the Experimental Printmaking Institute at Lafayette College.  He is supported by acting director Dorit Yaron, who will assume additional responsibilities and manage the Driskell Center’s day-to-day operations in Holton’s absence.  In accepting the appointment, Holton pledged to protect the Center’s assets, promote its educational programs and future exhibitions as well as continue to enhance and expand the Center’s permanent art collection and funding strategy.

           David Driskell and Curlee Holton working together at EPI, May 2003. Photo: courtesy EPIOne of Holton’s first actions was the establishment of the Robert E. Steele Curatorial Fellowship Fund.  In tribute to Steele’s leadership, the Fund supports students interested in curating and promoting works of African American art.

Jerry Langley is an art collector and contributing writer to the print IRAAA.