The Center’s art collection contains over 300 artworks in a range of media, including sculpture, painting, print, photography, and collage. The first artwork to enter the collection was Richmond Barthé’s Shoe Shine Boy. The sculpture was donated by attorney Frank Breckenridge to the Center in 1941, less than a year after the galleries of the Center opened to the public for the first time.
In the early years, many local artists exhibited at the Center and assisted with its programing and administration. The most notable was Margaret Burroughs. A talented and ambitious leader, Burroughs joined other artists and community leaders to raise money to open the Center, and served on the board for many years. Burroughs’ prints—several of which are in the Center’s collection—reflect her vision for social progress. In School Together and Riding Together picture the benefits of a future racial integration for African Americans.
Works by other artists, such as Elizabeth Catlett and Harlem Renaissance photographer James van der Zee, reflect a similar interest in the lives and struggles for equality of African Americans in the early twentieth century. Archibald Motley’s Sunday in the Park—like many of his works in area collections such as the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago History Museum—presents the complex markers of racial and class identities in Chicago’s social and recreational spaces.
Despite the Center’s origins as a WPA project, artists associated with the Center did not feel restricted to the social realist, figurative style. Abstract imagery was a way for artists to experiment with form, investigate their African heritage, and interpret the texture of daily life. Jose William’s Ghetto conveys the textures and rhythms of urban neighborhoods. Allen Stringfellow’s collage, Untitled, merges modernist abstraction with the patterns and objects of black middle class domestic spaces. Layered with cut paper and swathes and splatters of paint—especially Stingfellow’s signature color, red—are fashion advertisements, floral patterns and cut crystal glasses cut from magazines, a family photograph, and cropped modernist paintings.
Works in the collection from the 1960s represent the intensity of the turbulent decade. Large scale paintings and mural panels made for the Center by William Walker, founder of the Chicago mural movement, reflect the artist’s commitment to making and exhibiting art for and in the community. The compositions both celebrate and instruct their black viewers. Additionally, the Center has several significant paintings, prints, and sculptures by AfriCOBRA artists, including Sherman Beck, Jeff Donaldson, Barbara Jones-Hogu, Carolyn Lawrence, Howard Mallory, and Gerald Williams. AfriCOBRA, the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists, formed in Chicago in 1968 amidst the political upheavals of the student protests and the revolutionary politics of the Black Power movement. AfriCOBRA wanted to make art relevant and available to their community, whether as affordable poster prints or in Mallory’s alley exhibitions.
The collection also contains ephemera and photographs from events and exhibitions at the Center and the South Side of Chicago, such as posters for the famous Artists and Models Ball and photographs of the Wall of Respect. The Center continues to collect and exhibit more recent works by Chicago artists, such as Marva Jolly and Douglas Williams, maintaining a collection that reflects the continuing vitality and creativity of the community.