African American art and the Harmon Foundation

by Anne Evenhaugen


1928 Harmon Exhibition Brouchure featuring Sargent Johnson

1928 Harmon Exhibition Brouchure featuring Sargent Johnson

When wealthy real estate developer William Elmer Harmon founded the Harmon Foundation in 1922, it originally supported causes as varied as playgrounds, biblical films and nursing programs. But it is better known today as one of the first major supporters of African American creativity and ingenuity.

Harmon grew up in the Midwest, where his father was an officer in the 10th Cavalry regiment, a black unit known as the Buffalo Soldiers.  Growing up among the soldiers likely had an impact on his attitudes toward blacks, and in particular, Harmon himself became interested in supporting them after meeting an artist who was unable to sell his paintings because of his race. The Harmon Foundation gained its now well-known focus in 1925 when it began presenting cash awards to blacks for distinguished achievements in eight fields: business, education, fine arts, literature, music, race relations, religious service, and science. Between 1928 and 1933, the Foundation was one of the first to give national recognition to the achievements of African Americans.

It is best known for its impact on African American art of the Harlem renaissance. Only a few years after the first awards were presented, the annual program was receiving such large numbers of high-quality art works that the Harmon Foundation began organizing a corresponding exhibition to provide an opportunity for the candidates to show and sell their work. These awards exhibitions gained even more national attention when they were toured to art museums, colleges, public libraries, and even YMCAs all around the country.

Record Attendance and reviews of the Harmon Exhibition in San Diego, 1948

Record Attendance and reviews of the Harmon Exhibition in San Diego, 1948

1946 story noting that the exhibition will be greeted by both white and Negro hostesses, a first for this type of occasion.

1946 story noting that the exhibition will be greeted by both white and Negro hostesses, a first for this type of occasion.

Among the many recipients of the awards were Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Laura Wheeler Waring, Sargent Johnson, and Walter White. Hale Woodruff and Palmer Hayden were the very first recipients of the William E. Harmon Foundation award for Distinguished Achievement among Negroes for fine arts.

The Foundation did face criticism for actually perpetuating racial segregation in its all-black exhibitions and for patriarchal practices, in particular, using mostly white juries. Artist Romare Bearden wrote a scathing opinion article in 1934 in which he accused the Foundation of coddling artists and lowering artistic standards. The Harmon Foundation did later shift its focus from the awards to different avenues of support for black artists. But during its existence, the purpose of the awards was to stimulate creative achievement among and to bring attention to the work being accomplished by African Americans, and it became almost synonymous with Negro visual art.

Marian Anderson and Ralph Bunche attend Harmon Exhibition opening in Hartford

Marian Anderson and Ralph Bunche attend Harmon Exhibition opening in Hartford (from the AA/PG Library Collection)

When the Foundation closed in the 1960s, it dispersed its considerable art collection among several institutions, including the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum and brand new National Portrait Gallery. Those conducting research or just simply interested in the artists supported by the Harmon Foundation over the years have a great wealth of information available to them at the Smithsonian Institution. The AA/PG Library has many of the rare original exhibition catalogs from the 1920s prizes, numerous books on the Harmon Foundation and African American artists in general, as well as Art & Artist Files for the Foundation and many of the Harmon winners, in addition to archival material donated to the library when the Foundation closed.


Invitation to the 1948 Harmon exhibition in Fresno

Invitation to the 1948 Harmon exhibition in Fresno (from the AA/PG Library Collection)

Works consulted include:

Against the odds: African-American artists and the Harmon Foundation / / Gary A. Reynolds and Beryl J. Wright. Newark, N.J.: Newark Museum, 1989.

“Breaking Racial Barriers: African Americans in the Harmon Foundation Collection” 1997 National Portrait Gallery exhibition website and exhibition catalog.

Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. New York: Macmillan Library Reference, 1996.

Harmon Foundation Art & Artist File, Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery Library, Washington D.C.

Library of Congress Finding Aid for the “Harmon Foundation, inc., records, 1913-1967” collection

5 thoughts on “African American art and the Harmon Foundation

  1. Marc Cheshire

    I thought you might be interested in the blog post I did about William E. Harmon after discovering your post yesterday. Residents of Croton-on-Hudson have all heard of William’s brother Clifford—part of the village was originally Harmon-on-Hudson—but even the local expert on Harmon knew nothing about William’s philanthropic activities.

  2. George-McKinley Martin

    I am a researcher and librarian with a particular interest in American art with a specialization in African American art. Thank you for this post, highlighting the Harmon Foundations and artists of the period many of whom have been become groundbreaking artists and masters in the field.

    In addition, this post brings to the public’s attention the rich resources that are a part of the AA/PG Library’s collection. The depth, coverage, and focus of your various collections truly support the study and understanding of American art and many complementary areas such as photography, furniture, the decorative arts, architecture, and etc. More specifically, “African American Art and the Harmon Foundation” is a classic example of the depth, including catalogues and ephemera that you have of materials that focus on specialized areas such as African American art.

  3. Pingback: James A. Porter: The Father of African American Art History | The Lyfe

  4. Pingback: 2 paintings from my collection in museum exhibit | Auction Finds

Leave a Reply


Follow Us

Latest Tweets