a visual artist requires talent, but, for the African-American artists,
talent is not always enough. In nineteenth century America, race often
determined who could be trained in the arts. There were no special
schools or places where African-Americans could freely exhibit their
talents for art. These talented artists were excluded from the
academies, associations, and teaching institutions available to white
artists. In rare cases, beneficent white families broke the rules and
provided knowledge, direction, and resources to budding African-American
talents in the visual arts. Many of these white patrons were among the
abolitionists of this period in American history.
After the Civil War, a host of African-American visual artists started to be recognized. From 1865 to the start of the 1920's, most of these artists produced works which could be acceptable to museums, patrons, or local salons or studios. They therefore created paintings, drawings, and sculptures in the classical and romantic traditions of scenes depicting nature, history, familiar places, distinguished personalities, and prominent families of wealth. The art world of this period was narrow, and African-American artists had to compete for recognition and earnings from pieces of art requested by their commissioners or patrons. For the most part, these African-Americans were seeking recognition and a place in the international world of art.
In the early 1920's there was a movement was called the "Negro" or "Harlem Renaissance". This resurgence of literature, knowledge, and the arts coming out of New York was powerful. A fertile and acceptable door had been opened to African-American musicians, writers, poets, intellectuals, entrepreneurs, and visual artists. The opportunity was now available to grow and show off their best talents. From 1919 to about 1929, Harlem, New York became the capitol of cultural activity for African-Americans. This period in American history was extremely uplifting to African-Americans as a people. Personalities and individuals connected their expressions in writings, music, and visual artworks as they related to the political, social, and economic conditions of being black in America.
By 1926, another stage in the developmental history of African-American visual artists came about. It was the establishment of the Harmon Foundation. The Harmon Foundation became an anchor for promoting the works of African-American artists. William E. Harmon, a real estate magnate, became the chief philanthropist and patron in the support of African-American artists and culture. Harmon's interest in African-American artists reflected "his interest in promoting justice and social commitment." The "deprivation of black Americans, he reasoned, was a national problem, not simply a burden on blacks alone." The Harmon Foundation existed from 1922 to the end of 1967.
The 1940's and 1950's were not easy times for the African-American visual artists. Only the acceptable, critically acclaimed few were able to work and produce lucrative pieces of art. Patrons of the arts were still mostly white and wealthy. Artists like the Florida "Highwaymen" found an unique way to sell and display their art, by producing in mass quantities and selling their artwork on the side of the road. Thornton Dial's art functions like folk tales, combining African and American traditions to tell stories that are at once personal, political, and spiritual. Dial's work is stretching the borders of both folk art and modern art. When asked how Buck came to be an artist he replied "I didn't have no real job, so I made a job making art." In the beginning his family laughed at his paintings, he buried them and created many of his works in secrecy.