Art museum

50 years after avoiding black artists, the Del. Art Museum atones for “institutional racism”


Half a century ago, when Wilmington artist and educator Percy Ricks was preparing a major exhibition of work by black artists, he asked the Delaware Art Museum for support and a venue to display the work.

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

The ambitious exhibition featured 130 pieces – drawings, prints, photographs, paintings and sculptures – by 66 African-American artists, some with national recognition like collagist Romare Bearden and painter-sculptor Faith Ringgold and others with connections locals, such as the Wilmingtonians Edward Loper Sr. and his son Edward Loper Jr.

Ricks hasn’t even received a response from the state’s premier arts institution.

Only silence.

The 1971 exhibit continued, however, albeit in Wilmington’s less illustrious armory in Wilmington’s Little Italy neighborhood. The show was a relative success over its three weeks, attracting around 7,000 people, mostly students from area schools and colleges, recalls James E. Newton, professor emeritus of African studies at the University of Delaware.

But Newton, who was then Ricks’ assistant in his multiracial artist collective, Aesthetic Dynamics, told WHYY News this week that the art museum snub “stunned” and angered Ricks, who was hosting his first exhibition.

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

“He believed that the African American artist and African American culture itself should be appreciated, respected and appreciated, and that they should also be visible to the public,” said Newton, who is also interested to multimedia art. “He felt that any agency or group that denies the artist or group of artists a public view of their work is fundamentally committing a crime against humanity.”

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

Fifty years later, however, the art museum in Wilmington’s wealthiest district, the Highlands, is trying to right the wrongs of its “institutional racism,” says curator Margaret Winslow.