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About the Art and Artifacts Division

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The Art and Artifacts Division collects, documents, preserves, and interprets art and artifacts by and about peoples of African heritage throughout the world. Fine and applied art and material culture objects from the seventeenth century to the present are collected, with emphasis on the visual arts of the twentieth century in the United States and Africa. The Division collects art and artifacts encompassing four broad areas: traditional African art; painting and sculpture; works on paper (drawings, prints, illustrations, posters, and reproductions); and textiles and artifacts.

Traditional masks, bronze adornment items, statuary, instruments, utilitarian objects, and weaponry form the core of the African art holdings. These objects document aesthetic and ethnographic dimensions of traditional African societies and African cultures in South America.

The collection of painting and sculpture surveys the history of art by African American artists from the late nineteenth century to the present. The majority of works in this category represent the Harlem Renaissance, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the post-World War II era, and the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Urban genre themes and depiction of African American life dominate the work from this period. Other subjects include landscapes, portraiture, and religion. There are also non-figurative and abstract works and assemblages from the 1950s forward.

Posters and reproductions comprise the largest group in the category of works on paper. There are well over 4,000 posters in the collection documenting political, social, and cultural activities and events. Also included are nineteenth century lithographs and engravings depicting people of African descent in Africa and the diaspora as portrayed by artists from Europe and throughout the Western hemisphere. Original fine art prints and drawings depict social themes and concerns of the WPA and Civil Rights eras. Contemporary works represent a plethora of styles and themes.

The collection of artifacts includes a wide range of two- and three-dimensional objects, such as slave shackles, medallions, commemorative coins, currencies, stamps, and buttons depicting civil rights themes and political campaigns, slogans, and organizations. Textile holdings include quilts, uniforms, African women's fashion, strip weaving, tie-dyed, and commemorative cloth and appliques.

Collection Strengths

The Art and Artifacts Collection is one of the most comprehensive of its kind in a major public research institution. Especially strong are the holdings of African American painting and sculpture of the Harlem Renaissance, the WPA and the Black Arts Movement periods. There are also strong holdings of masks, statuary, instruments, and utilitarian objects contained in the Blondiau Theater-Arts and the Harold and Florence Rome collections. These collections contain old and rare items from Ghana and Democratic Republic of the Congo. African weaponry and bronze adornment items from Nigeria, Gabon, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Mali, Morocco, and Ivory Coast are contained in the Eric DeKolb and Arnold and Joanne Syrop collections. The objects contained in the Melville and Frances Herskovits collection provide extensive ethnographic documentation from Surinam, South America, and several West African regions. The materials in the Herskovits collection are supported by field notes and photographic archives in other divisions. In the category of artifacts, the Middleton A. "Spike" Harris collection represents one of the more important collections of anti-slavery medallions.

Within the category of works on paper the collection of anti-apartheid posters is an important primary source for documenting international sentiment for racial equality and human rights in southern Africa. The CEBA (Communications Excellence to Black Audiences) Collection is also one of the most significant holdings of contemporary visual resource materials portraying African Americans in national advertising campaigns since the late 1970s.

Accessing the Collections

The Schomburg Center's art and artifacts collections are being cataloged in The New York Public Library's online public access catalog; data for cataloged holdings are also accessible through the VIM file of the Research Libraries Information Network (RLIN) via the Internet, and the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC). In addition, the staff makes use of extensive accession records in providing reference and public service.

Special Features

Collections Presentations Information

The Art and Artifacts Division maintains a vertical file on artists whose works are in the collection; additionally, a limited number of slides and photographs of collection objects is maintained for quick reference and publication purposes.

Rules for Use of the Collection

Registration is required for consultation of materials in the Art and Artifacts Division, which will take place at the time of the first visit:

  • Applicant shall be required to show valid identification (e.g., driver's license, student or employee identification, passport).
  • Applicant must fill out a written registration form and provide name and address, institutional affiliation, and nature of project.

Final determination regarding access to materials is the responsibility of the staff of the individual special collection, in consultation with the researcher, and the rules of the division.

Reading Room requires that coats, briefcases, parcels, packages, bags, and umbrellas be checked in the first-floor Check Room. Materials needed to conduct research may be brought to the division. Lockers are provided to secure personal materials once collection materials are requested.

Access to collections in the Art and Artifacts Division is by appointment only. Call (212) 491-2241, Tuesday-Friday, 10:00 am–4:45 pm.