This is the beginning of a series of blogs relating to the IMA’s acquisition of art for its African American collection. Eight works by African Americans have come into the American Art before 1945 collection since 1993, the first of which has the most unusual story.
I was in the process of organizing the exhibition A Shared Heritage: Art by Four African Americans when I made my first African American acquisition for the museum in 1993. It was an atypical purchase because the painting, Little Brown Girl by Indiana artist John Wesley Hardrick, had been a gift to the museum in 1929. At that time the IMA was known as the Herron Art Museum or the John Herron Art Institute. The policy in those days for lending works from the museum’s collection was very broad and record keeping was not what it is today. This resulted in the painting being listed as missing in inventory in 1942. Repeated inventories failed to reveal its whereabouts. The painting remained unaccounted for until 1993 when it was offered to the IMA by a New York dealer because of the artist’s Indianapolis connection. A discussion with the dealer revealed that the painting belonged to a collector in Maine, but the trail leading back to the Herron Art Museum had gone cold. The museum’s director went to see the painting and noticed the number 29.40 on the frame, the wooden stretcher and the back of the canvas. This number confirmed the painting belonged to the IMA, since it was the accession number placed on the work when it was acquired by the museum. The number indicates that it was the 40th piece of art to be added to the collection in 1929.
John Wesley Hardrick was one of the artists in A Shared Heritage exhibition, which was why research was being done on him and his work. Little Brown Girl had been awarded the Harmon Foundation Bronze Medal in 1927. The Harmon Foundation presented awards to African Americans for distinguished achievement in the fine arts. The painting became so popular that a group of African Americans in an Indianapolis congregation took up a campaign to raise funds to purchase it for the museum. The sitter, Nellie Henderson about eleven years old, was a singer in the church choir at Allen Memorial Chapel where Hardrick was a member. Hardrick chose this young girl to sit for a portrait required for his class at Herron. Every Saturday Nellie’s father would bring her to the art school to sit for the artist.
The problem of how to bring the painting back into the collection had to be solved. The museum could not buy back a painting that was already part of its collection, but it could compensate the dealer for her financial investment in the painting. Negotiations are often difficult with any acquisition, but they were even more problematic since the IMA was trying to acquire a painting it already owned. The dealer bought the painting in good faith and the seller knew nothing about its history. After numerous discussions, the dealer and the museum reached an amicable agreement that resulted in the return of Little Brown Girl after more than a 50-year absence. Through an accident of fate, Little Brown Girl was offered to the IMA at a time when I was researching Hardrick for the Shared Heritage exhibition. Otherwise, I would not have recognized the work as ours or realize its importance to the artist and the collection. However, fate cannot always be depended upon to make things right, so we now rely on strict rules and regulations along with meticulous record keeping to ensure that such a loss is never repeated.
Filed under: Art