DC’s Own Alma Thomas Rises to New Heights in the Art World

Career trajectory for African-American expressionist led from DC Public Schools to the Whitney Museum

This article was written for The DC Line. You can read it on their website here.

Forty years after her death, DC artist Alma Thomas is becoming a museum idol, one of a hyper-select group of artists around whom institutions are building their permanent collections.

Artwork by the trailblazing African-American expressionist hit a new auction high last year, and the list of prominent institutions acquiring her work in recent months includes Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas; the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire; the National Museum of African American History and Culture; the White House Historical Society (for display in the White House); and the Smith College Museum of Art in Massachusetts.

Alma Thomas, shown in a 1976 photo by Michael Fischer that’s in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, became the first African-American woman to have a solo show in New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art in 1972. (Photo © Michael Fischer 1976; courtesy of Smithsonian Museum of American Art)

Emma Imbrie Chubb, curator of contemporary art at the Smith College Museum of Art, pushed for the 2018 acquisition of Thomas’ 1973 painting Morning in the Bowl of Night, which has since become a centerpiece of the museum’s redesigned permanent collection.

“A work by Alma Thomas was a priority for Smith for a few reasons. First and foremost, Thomas made a signal contribution to abstraction,” Chubb said.

In 2016, Hood Museum of Art director John Stomberg recommended that museum’s purchase of Thomas’ 1969 painting Wind Dancing with Spring Flowers, which he found exhibited at an art fair in Chicago.

“[The piece] is a total knockout,” Stomberg said. “It is a singular and forceful work of abstraction that embodies the joy of color and harmony in the best of the modernist tradition.”

Former President Barack Obama helped bring appreciation of Alma Thomas’ art to this new level by selecting multiple works by the artist in his first-term redecoration of the White House. The Obamas added a third Thomas, in 2015, at the head of the table in the renovated formal family dining room. Owned by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Gallery, one of the artworks displayed in the Obama White House is visually similar to the painting acquired by Smith College.

First in her class — and first a teacher

Theater aficionados may know that actor and comedian Robin Williams was the very first graduate of the theater program at Julliard, the famed New York City music academy. Similar fun fact: Alma Thomas was the first graduate of the fine arts department at Howard University.

Alma Thomas, shown in a 1976 photo by Michael Fischer that’s in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, became the first African-American woman to have a solo show in New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art in 1972. (Photo © Michael Fischer 1976; courtesy of Smithsonian Museum of American Art)

After graduation in 1924, Thomas was active in the local arts community, including helping to establish a gallery that represented black artists. She also worked as a teacher of visual arts in DC Public Schools (DCPS) for more than than 30 years, retiring in 1960 at the age of 68. It was only after her retirement as a teacher that Thomas began regularly exhibiting, and all of her acknowledged masterworks are from this “late” period.

“Alma Thomas left an indelible mark on countless DC Public Schools students as a teacher at Shaw Junior High School,” interim DC Public Schools Chancellor Amanda Alexander said. “Her legacy lives on today and thanks in part to her dedication to DCPS, arts education remains an integral part of our efforts to ensure joyful and rigorous learning in our schools.”

When she retired from DCPS, Thomas’ reputation as a teacher was firmly secured. In the succeeding years, with newly available time and energy, Thomas re-established her studio practice as an exhibiting artist and, in a most unusual fashion, received overwhelmingly positive response.

“From an outside perspective, Thomas’ ‘mature’ style seems to have appeared out of nowhere, when in fact she worked very hard to get to where she got,” said Jonathan Walz, director of curatorial affairs and curator of American art at The Columbus Museum in Georgia and co-curator of an Alma Thomas retrospective currently in development jointly with the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va. “She deserves all the credit she received and then some. She definitely paid her dues, just in a quieter way than many other artists.”

Acclaim late in her career

Vincent Van Gogh had a tragically brief career, dying at age 37 and having enjoyed no commercial success at all. Johann Sebastian Bach was in his own time a composer of modest reputation, better known as an organist, who made his living as a church music director. Thomas, whose career as a working artist began only after her retirement from teaching, had amazing success — but only very late in life. In 1972, when she was 80 years old, she became the first African-American woman to have a solo show in New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art.

Alma Thomas’ 1966 painting “Air View of a Spring Nursery,” acrylic on canvas, is part of the collection of the Columbus Museum in Georgia. The acquisition was in part a gift of the National Association of Negro Business Women and the artist. (Photo courtesy of Columbus Museum)

“Once she started making her own work, she was showing fairly quickly at galleries and then had the Whitney show,” visual arts scholar Lauren Haynes said in a 2016 interview with CultureType.

Haynes — now curator of contemporary art at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art — was co-curator of a highly regarded Alma Thomas exhibition in 2016 that was organized jointly by The Studio Museum in Harlem and the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

“She was able to see her work in museums while she was alive, which is something that not all black artists who were making work at the same time that she was really were able to do,” Haynes said. “That was this amazing, really I think important, part of her story.”

While some have pondered what Thomas might have achieved had she begun exhibiting at a younger age, Haynes pushed aside such speculation in a recent interview with The DC Line. “It’s hard to comment on how her career would have developed if she had achieved success when she was younger because her work wouldn’t have necessarily been the same,” she said.

In the years since Thomas’ 1972 Whitney solo show, museums and high-end galleries have frequently displayed her works, but the past decade has brought an additional dimension to that attention: an intense effort to research and understand the artist.

In May 2018, responding to public interest, the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art unveiled a fully digitized Alma Thomas archive, including primary source materials once owned by the artist.

“I think of greatest interest are her autobiographical writings, her exhibition files … and her scrapbooks that document her teaching career at Shaw Junior High School,” said Liza Kirwin, deputy director of the Archives of American Art. “They give an intimate view of her life and work.”

Living in ‘the fast lane’ on 15th Street NW

Charles Thomas Lewis, a federal government employee, has his own intimate understanding of his famous great aunt. After spending parts of two summers living with her — first in 1969 and again in 1970 — Charles and his mother moved from Columbus, Ga., to DC and into Alma Thomas’ house on 15th Street NW the next spring. The pair lived with Thomas on and off for the rest of her life.

Alma Thomas’ “Clown Marionette,” dating to the 1930s and made from wood and fabric, is part of the collection of the Columbus Museum in Georgia. It was a gift from Miss John Maurice Thomas in memory of her parents John H. and Amelia W. Cantey Thomas and her sister Alma Woodsey Thomas. (Photo courtesy of the Columbus Museum)

“It was like going from the slow lane of traffic into the fast lane, and everyone was speeding,” Lewis said in an interview with The DC Line. “I met people who I would never have met if it was not for her.” 

Thomas’ social circle included fellow artists Jacob Kainen, Lois Jones Pierre-Noel, Delilah Pierre and Sam Gilliam. Lewis also recalls meeting Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey with his aunt.

Lewis, who is executor of his great aunt’s estate, supports the efforts by a growing number of institutions to participate in her artistic legacy.

Alma Thomas and her extended family have deep ties to the western Georgia city of Columbus, where work is underway for the retrospective. She was born there in 1891 to John Harris Thomas and Amelia Cantey Thomas, who moved their family to DC in 1907. Alma Thomas had three younger siblings.

The Columbus Museum owns an important tranche of archival materials related to the artist, once property of the artist’s youngest sister. Along with materials from the Archives of American Art and additional public and private collections, the documents held by the Columbus Museum are helping to shape the exhibition that Walz is developing with Seth Feman, curator of exhibitions and photography at the Chrysler Museum of Art.

The co-curators are striving to present a holistic picture of the artist in their exhibit, which will be augmented by a catalog of scholarly essays published jointly by Yale University Press and the Columbus Museum. The traveling exhibition will debut at the Chrysler Museum of Art in the summer of 2021 and then visit two yet-to-be-selected cities before winding up at The Columbus Museum in 2022.

“Over time, Thomas has become mythologized, and there is this persistent triumphalist narrative that makes her seem almost superhuman,” Walz said. “As co-curators, we can confirm her many accomplishments, but we’d like to present her as a fully rounded human being who was incessantly curious, continually growing, and always learning — even from her mistakes and failures.”

Part of a revised, more diverse art history canon

Thomas’ ascendance comes amid broader changes happening in museums today. “It’s critical to acknowledge that the story of modernism and abstraction has, for a long time, been shown in U.S. museums and taught in its classrooms as the sole domain of a few artists, who were mostly male, straight, white and in New York,” Smith College’s Emma Chubb said. “Even though that was never the reality.”

To revise the story told on museum walls, the works on display are changing.

Several months ago, when the Baltimore Museum of Art de-accessioned works by highly regarded white male painters from its permanent collection, gallery officials said they hoped to use the funds to acquire works by a more diverse set of artists, including Thomas.

Alma Thomas’ 1973 painting “White Daisies Rhapsody” is part of the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. (Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum)

“Every museum in the country that actively collects art currently strives to rewrite art history in such a way that past transgressions are acknowledged and corrected,” Hood Museum director John Stomberg said. “That inclusiveness now informs our mandate. While Alma Thomas figures in this corrective moment, her work transcends the vicissitudes of history.”

With her place in art history expanding, contemporary descriptions of Thomas’ artwork are increasingly detailed. New York Times visual arts critic Roberta Smith noted, “Her dappled fields, stripes and concentric rings of color bring an energetic bluntness and unencumbered joy to the usual refinements of Color Field and Minimalism.” And New Yorker visual arts critic Peter Schjedladl wrote, “The uncompleted arc of her talent makes her a perennial artist’s artist.”

Recognizing her importance as a local public figure, the DC Public Library is reportedly considering prominent recognition of Alma Thomas within the library system. Asked for comment by The DC Line, library spokesperson George Williams said, “It is too early for us to discuss what shape that might take.”

Meanwhile, an unincorporated but influential group of arts supporters have organized themselves as the Friends of Alma Thomas to support similar efforts.

DC Public Schools, where Thomas spent so many years as a teacher, is also considering honoring her legacy. School officials — currently in the process of selecting a name for a new Ward 4 middle school scheduled to open next fall — are offering “Alma Thomas” as one of 10 potential choices in an online survey open through Oct. 30. The survey’s biographical sketch highlights the art clubs, lectures and student exhibitions that Thomas organized at Shaw Junior High, alongside her many other local ties.

DC is in many ways a small town, so it’s a matter of pride when artists with local ties — whether that’s author and screenwriter George Pelecanos, opera singer Denyce Graves or comedian Dave Chappelle — enjoy success. Now, 40 years after her passing, not just DC but the art world writ large is celebrating the artwork of DC artist Alma Thomas.

Exhibit Documents Historic Neighborhood Change, Successful Collective Action

This article was written for The DC Line and you can find it on their site here.

What are the boundaries for collective ownership, and which residents own what “rights” to their communities? A new exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum dives into these complex questions, exploring real-life stories of change and activism across six DC neighborhoods.

The mixed-media exhibition,  “A Right to the City,” sheds light on change in the communities of Anacostia, Brookland, Chinatown, Southwest, Shaw and Adams Morgan over the last half-century. “A Right to the City” showcases past examples of the same forces that continue to reshape D.C. today — including public policy, development, gentrification and displacement.

The mixed-media exhibition highlights stories of change and activism in Anacostia, Brookland, Chinatown, Southwest, Shaw and Adams Morgan. (Photos by Robert Bettmann)

Curator Samir Meghelli says the exhibit, which draws on more than 200 oral history interviews conducted over the past three years, “tells the story of how and why DC neighborhoods have changed and been transformed.”

In a June 9 talk at the museum, author and American University professor Derek Hyra added to the conversation, presenting research and analysis from his 2017 book Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City.

Hyra discussed the need for proactive and inclusive housing policies in neighborhoods with skyrocketing property values — against a complex backdrop of race and political factors.

Since Home Rule was instituted in 1973, and until very recently, the city experienced majority black leadership, Hyra noted in an interview. In the days when DC was dubbed “Chocolate City,” over 70 percent of its population was black, he said.

“And now you have a larger percent of whites who live in the city,” Hyra said. “And with that demographic shift you’ve seen a political shift, and since 2015 whites have been the majority in the city council.”

Meghelli’s exhibit documents dramatic episodes of change in the years before and after Home Rule. These include cyclical patterns of segregation in Anacostia; Adams Morgan residents taking control of their neighborhood school from the DC Board of Education; the defeat of a planned freeway in Brookland; and federal urban renewal projects that leveled neighborhoods in Anacostia and Southwest DC.

The exhibition includes photos, artifacts, text, and oral history video footage. The only non-interview video included is a prominently displayed loop of a powerful 1968 speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., supporting Shaw residents in their organized (and ultimately successful) fight against urban renewal projects in that neighborhood. In his speech — delivered just months before his assassination — King exhorted the crowd to “prepare to participate.”

Hyra’s recent study of the Shaw neighborhood details not only how gentrification has forced longtime residents to move, but also the new segregation that exists within the neighborhood as its demographics have changed with the influx of affluent, white residents.

“The amenities that seem to be undergirded by the DC government these days seem to be things like bike lanes and beer gardens and coffee shops, and high-end condominium buildings,” Hyra said. “And these amenities aren’t always appreciated by long-term, low-income African-Americans, who feel like these amenities are not for them.”

As Rebecca Summer,  a scholar of DC gentrification, put it: “In DC, stories about neighborhood change are always stories about race.”

Summer, a DC native and doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is currently writing a dissertation on the history of alleys as public space in the city. She noted that DC’s current changes “are building on well-established and deeply rooted legacies of segregation and marginalization.”

One section of Meghelli’s exhibit documents the destruction of Southwest DC and parts of Anacostia through urban renewal projects.  Framing the discussion is a quote from author and poet James Baldwin equating urban renewal with “Negro removal.”

While Summer noted that race is an “essential” factor in understanding neighborhood change in DC, she said “it would be a mistake to attribute all change to wide-sweeping racial categories of black, brown and white.”

“This oversimplification is tempting,” she said, “but the reality is that there’s more nuance to neighborhood change in DC.”

The forces, and nuances, of change are effectively displayed in “A Right to the City,” which offers an unflinching look at policies that destroyed neighborhoods as well as inspiring examples of individuals and groups that bridged cultural and racial divides for community benefit. With the DC government in the midst of considering major revisions to its guiding Comprehensive Plan for development, “A Right to the City” is an instructive exhibition, appropriate for all ages, but probably best-suited for ages 13 and older.

“A Right to the City” will have a two-year run, through April 20, 2020. The exhibit is part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum, which is located at 1901 Fort Place SE and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

My Experience with Nazi Reparations

Top image is of the author’s grandmother on vacation with her parents and sisters, her hand over the side of a boat.

In 1982, when I was nine years old, my grandparents took us on vacation to Austria and Germany. It was a chance for my siblings and me to see where they had grown up, but a lot of the meaning of the trip went over my head at the time.

We met my grandparents in New York, flew with them to London, and then on to Vienna. In Vienna we stayed in a ‘pension’ – a small bed and breakfast – and spent a lot of time wandering around the city streets looking at the fountains and the buildings. It was impossible for me to understand what that meant to my grandmother. Before our trip she had returned to Austria once since fleeing Nazi persecution in 1938.

In 1938, my grandmother lived with her parents and two sisters in an apartment in central Vienna. In March of that year Germany annexed Austria and nearly overnight all of the Austrian laws were replaced with German laws. One month later, in April 1938, my great-grandfather was dragged from their apartment in the middle of the night, taken to the police station, and beaten unconscious. When he was released in the morning they told him they could have killed him and no one would care.

They had close family friends, neighbors with kids of similar age with whom they had gone on vacations, and when I was older my grandmother recalled that her father knew they had to flee – even after the beating — when they were walking down the street and that family crossed the street to avoid talking to them.

And there we were, in 1982, walking those same streets.

Part of what is so horrifying about the Holocaust is that we all – my family, our community, all of us German citizens, French citizens, Hungarian Citizens – were going about our ordinary lives and suddenly the only thing that mattered was that we were Jews. Suddenly we were no longer professionals, citizens of a community, a city, a country. We became only Jews.

Growing up I saw my grandparents struggle with their identity. My grandfather was very proud of being German. Our relatives (including my grandfather) fought for Germany in World War I. My grandparents were immigrants, parents, New Yorkers… but maybe they were only Jews. They were professionals, suburbanites, music lovers… but maybe they were only Jews. They were activists, proud Germans, proud Austrians… but maybe they were only Jews.

The author's grandfather in his German military uniform.
The author’s grandfather in his German military uniform.

In addition to the apartment in Vienna my grandmother’s family had a country home not far outside of Vienna where they spent weekends. In 1982 we took a train out to the countryside and walked a series of ordinary streets up from the train station to that house, and I remember naively holding my grandmother’s hand as she knocked on the door. An old man opened the door and my grandmother told him that she used to live there. He seemed nervous and refused to let us in, but told her we could look around outside, which we did.

It was an everyday home with an everyday back yard nestled on a hillside street and I mostly remember the leaves on the ground. As a child it was all entirely unremarkable and I wasn’t really sure what we were doing there. I knew it was somehow special and I can remember showing a handful of fallen leaves – pine needles and deciduous leaves mixed – to my grandmother, sort of asking: is this the special part?

After the war the apartment and country house were returned to my great-grandparents but by then they had new lives in the United States and they chose to immediately sell (for nearly nothing.) The post war economy was dire and the apartment had been damaged in Allied bombing.

My grandfather’s side of the family had a similar-but-different experience. My grandfather grew up in Leipzig, a metropolitan center in the eastern part of Germany best known for being the location of the Thomaskirche (the church where J. S. Bach worked as music director for the majority of his career.) His father was a physician who practiced from a storefront surgery a few blocks from the Thomaskirche. When they fled they were allowed to leave with only the clothes on their backs and that property became owned by the Nazi state.

After the war, the Allies divided up the old German state into quadrants. West Germany acknowledged that it was a successor state to the old Germany and attempts were made to return properties owned by the state to prior owners. But East Germany, a part of the Soviet Union, did not consider itself a successor state and no property reparations were made to survivors or their heirs.

When the Berlin wall fell in 1989 and the reunification of Germany became possible Western Germany was still under Allied control and it was the Allies – including the United States – that negotiated terms of the German reunification with the Soviet Union. Those terms included: settlement of prior ownership claims in the former East Germany. Subsequently codified in (new) German law, the period negotiated for the filing of reparation claims was October 1990 to December 31, 1992, followed immediately by a complete accounting for all claims by a successor organization.

The first successor organization was incorporated in 1947, and the concept of the successor organization was to prevent formerly Jewish-owned assets becoming the property of the state simply because no heirs existed. Before the war there were more than 9 million Jews, and after just over 3 million. Many whole family trees were wiped out. The successor organization became a collective heir — a successor — for the Jewish people, using heirless assets to serve survivors.

In 1995 the successor organization, a non-profit based in New York city, secured ownership of the Leipzig property formerly owned by my great grandfather, and sold it, before my family was even aware of the opportunity to file for reparations. (My grandfather Ernst was born in 1899 and passed away in 1988.) Through the successor organization our family will receive a percentage of the 1995 value of the property.

The reality of Nazi reparations fifty years on is complicated, and what was stolen from our families goes far beyond anything that can be repaid. I recently searched the internet for the address of our old family home in Leipzig, and the family apartment in Vienna, and used the street view function to take a virtual walk around those neighborhoods. I couldn’t help but think: this is where we lived before they tried to kill us.

Three years ago a painting showed up for auction that had been owned by my maternal grandfather. Weeks before they fled Vienna, and while they were still living in it, the contents of their apartment were forcibly sold, auctioned off. One of the items sold that day was a painting of modest value that happened to have three daughters in it. One could speculate that perhaps my great-grandfather bought the painting because he had three daughters, and it reminded him of his family. Because the individual who brought the painting to auction had purchased it legally from a third party, my family was given the opportunity to purchase the painting — right of first refusal — but it was not returned to us. After the auction all proceeds from the sale went to the individual that brought the painting to auction.

Photo emailed to the author's family by the auction house.
Photo of a painting once owned by the author’s family, sold by the Nazis. The picture was emailed to the author’s family by the auction house.

I grew up with our emigration stories, and as a child imagined that somehow my family was special. As an adult I look back and realize that they were just ordinary people, ordinary Jews, who were incredibly lucky to survive.

It seems as if every other day there is another story of some great treasure stolen by the Nazis returned to its rightful owner. The reality of Nazi reparations, fifty years on, is not so simple.