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David and Art - “The Story of a Local Art Center"

In the middle of the Great Depression, an art center opened its doors whose echoes still linger.

A couple of weeks ago the Christian Science Monitor offered a wonderfully evocative headline that read “For Harlem, can a Renaissance Remembered also be Revived?” In addition to echoing one of the most famous poets of the Harlem Renaissance—and even one of his most famous poems—it also asks an interesting question. Can a Renaissance be revived?

Ken Makin is a cultural commentator for the Monitor and recently took a walking tour of Harlem. He notes that today, a full century after the Harlem Renaissance began, it “remains relevant, whether it’s inspiring the next generation of artists or providing a gateway to a proud cultural past.” The occasion for his perambulation is a new exhibit that just opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art called “The Harlem Renaissance and Trans-Atlantic Modernism.”

When it comes to cultural history, the Harlem Renaissance is one of my favorite topics to teach. I always say that it’s the single most coherent cultural movement in all American history. Its heyday was in the 1920s as most people probably know, but it had echoes that lasted much longer.

One of the earliest attempts at reviving the Renaissance would more accurately be described as an attempt to keep it going. It emerged during the later years of the Great Depression with the creation of something called the Harlem Community Art Center. It was a cultural center in Harlem that was only open from 1937 to 1942, but its effects on its community were notable. It was created by the Works Progress Administration of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and administered through the WPA’s Federal Art Projects wing.

It opened its doors in a building at 125th and Lenox Ave on December 20, 1937. Eleanor Roosevelt attended the opening. It offered free classes in drawing, painting, photography, and sculpture. It also had a printmaking studio that offered classes in lithography.

Its students ranged from children to senior citizens. In its first year and a half over 70000 people came through its doors. Thousands took art classes. Lots of the artists involved with the center came out of the Harlem Renaissance and basically the center continued and spread the energy of that profound movement. Langston Hughes, the poet who awakened generations to the question What happens to a dream deferred, was among the group of Harlem-based artists who taught at the center.

It inspired the creation of an organization called the Harlem Arts Alliance which is located still today in the building that housed the community art center. It’s one of the echoes of the renaissance.