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Shine the light 

Kenneth Rodgers and the NCCU Art Museum

click to enlarge Indies Arts Award winner Kenneth Rodgers at the NCCU Art Museum - PHOTO BY TIM LYTVINENKO
This summer the North Carolina Central University Art Museum is installing long-overdue track lighting in its galleries, which have heretofore relied on fluorescent tubes as the only available light source.

It's a fitting metaphor for the work of Kenneth Rodgers, the museum's director. Since arriving at the museum in 1996, he has quietly, methodically set out to make the best of African-American art happen within its modest walls, shedding light on works that much of the world hasn't seen.

It hasn't been easy, with a staff of one--registrar Pat Jones, who has worked there since 1993--to implement the many plans he has for the museum. Operating on a fraction of the budget of other state university museums, Rodgers single-handedly programs shows, secures funding, writes supporting catalogs and articles, arranges for visiting scholars and even uncrates paintings, as needed, as well as teaches courses in art history at NCCU.

This year, the museum presented William H. Johnson: Revisiting an African American Modernist, a landmark exhibition including many revelatory oils paintings from his Scandinavian period that had never been publicly exhibited, borrowed from Morgan State University's collection. Loan negotiations began in 1998 and stretched through 2002, while Rodgers worked on, and received, grants from the N.C. Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts, which funded the full-color, 160-page catalog he wrote. The exhibition was an extraordinary achievement by the standards of any university museum.

All totaled during his tenure, Rodgers has curated more than 13 shows, written the grant proposals for more than $300,000 in received funds, presided over more than $300,000 worth of gifts to the collection, and authored two books and a dozen smaller catalogs, as well as magazine and newspaper articles.

When he arrived at NCCU, he looked to the existing collection itself to provide inspiration from which future exhibitions could be built or artists researched. The generous representation of WPA artists such as Charles White, Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence and Richmond Barthe suggested the use of these artists as anchors for research and exhibition possibilities. Finding Henry Ossawa Tanner's "Poplars" and the only Robert Scott Duncanson (a member of the Hudson River School) in the state, as well as work by Edward Mitchell Bannister, was "an amazing experience and clearly whetted my appetite," he says.

One of the first exhibitions he organized for the museum was Edward Mitchell Bannister: American Landscape Artist in 1997, featuring 33 pieces and accompanied by a catalog. Rodgers is a firm believer in the value of such publications for their importance in documentation and encouraging further study.

Rodgers is also interested in giving scholarly attention to African-American artists who have not been the subjects of serious study. He was able to do so when the museum showed 57 of the known works of Harlem Renaissance artist Malvin Gray Johnson, whose career was tragically cut short at age 38. The 199-page book that accompanied this show, written by Rodgers, took top honors from the N.C. Museums Council as Best Catalogue for 2002.

"The mission of the gallery is to collect, promote and preserve art of African-American cultural importance," Rodgers says. "We go beyond that to provide an opportunity for artists." He has been gratified by being able to bring artists from California, the Midwest and New York to NCCU. The museum also collects works about the African-American experience by non-African-American artists.

"I was acutely aware that the other venues in the Triangle certainly focused on American 'majority' artists, so the niche established for us simply continued."

Rodgers is particularly proud of a 1999 show, Charles White: American Draughtsman, the third largest exhibition of his work anywhere. Participation in the To Conserve a Legacy project in 1999 was also a museum highlight, as was the 2001 show Elizabeth Catlett: Master Printmaker. Catlett, the preeminent African-American woman artist, received an honorary degree from NCCU, was feted at the museum, and even had a day declared in her honor during her visit to Durham.

While he is modest about his own role, Rodgers is passionate and proud when it comes to the museum. "Without places like this," he says, "North Carolinians, if not the larger populace, would be robbed of this tremendous resource. They would not know about these incredible artists who have made these amazing contributions. We are indispensable because we try to tell these stories that for whatever reasons are not being told. That is the long-term objective as well--to continue telling these stories about artists who have not been collected, who have not been given scholarly attention.

"I get really sad when I think about all these artists who get swept under the rug of art history," Rodgers says. "I want to pull them out and give them visibility. Bringing them out of the shadows is for me what it's all about."

Within the next 18 months, Rodgers is already planning to showcase one such pick. A.B. Jackson, represented in the NCCU collection, is going to have some of Rodgers' light shone his way.

Rodgers is an accomplished, award-winning artist himself. Last year he made North Carolina art history by painting the official portrait of the first black member of the Council of State and the first Black State Auditor for North Carolina, Ralph Campbell. The donated portrait, which can be seen in the Office of the State Auditor, became the first work of art by a black artist in any State Office building. Earlier this year, Rodgers was awarded the Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy Recognition, bestowed on him "as an unsung contributor to the cultural arts scene."

But he doesn't crave the spotlight. He wants the light to shine on the museum and the valuable works inside it, waiting to be discovered.

Visit the museum online at

More by Michele Natale


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