50 years after shunning Black artists, Delaware museum atones for ‘institutional racism’

A half-century ago, when Wilmington artist and educator Percy Ricks was putting together a major exhibit of work by Black artists, he reached out to the Delaware Art Museum for its support and a venue to showcase the work.

Percy Ricks with one of his pieces in 1970. (Del. Art Museum)

The ambitious show featured 130 pieces — drawings, prints, photographs, paintings, and sculpture — by 66 African American artists, including some with national recognition such as collagist Romare Bearden and painter-sculptor Faith Ringgold and others with local ties, such as Wilmingtonians Edward Loper Sr. and his son Edward Loper Jr.

Ricks didn’t even receive a response from the state’s premier art institution.

Only silence.

The 1971 exhibition went on, however, albeit at the less-illustrious Wilmington Armory in Wilmington’s Little Italy neighborhood. The show was a relative success during its three-week run, drawing about 7,000 people, mostly students from area school and colleges, recalls James E. Newton, a professor emeritus of Africana Studies at the University of Delaware.

But Newton, who was then an assistant to Ricks at his multiracial artist collective, Aesthetic Dynamics, told WHYY News this week that the snub by the art museum “stunned” and rankled Ricks, who was putting on his first exhibit.

Percy Ricks works with students at Stubbs Elementary in Wilmington in the 1950s. (Del. Art Museum)

“He thought that the African American artist and African American culture in itself should be enjoyed, respected and appreciated, and that it should also be in the public view,’’ said Newton, who also dabbles in multimedia art. “He felt that any agency or any group that denies the artist or artist group a public view of their work is basically committing a crime against humanity.”

Percy Ricks, who died in 2008, painted Model and Still Life in oil on canvas in 1957. (Del. Art Museum)

Fifty years later, though, the art museum in Wilmington’s wealthiest neighborhood, the Highlands, is attempting to right the wrongs of its “institutional racism,’’ says curator Margaret Winslow.

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