In 1987 a handful of visionaries that included Trustees and staff of the Wadsworth Atheneum, joined forces with independent foundations, corporations and the State of Connecticut to purchase, protect and provide public access to the Randolph Linsly Simpson Collection, which was housed in the collector’s farmhouse in Northford, Connecticut. This extraordinary collection of 6,000 works of art, artifacts and archives, documents more than three hundred years of the Black experience in America – a truly rich resource of immense educational value and testimony to America’s diverse and dynamic culture.
An organization was formed to carry out this important mission, The Amistad Foundation. The collection was placed at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, the nation’s oldest and continuously open public art museum and the first major museum in the region to house a gallery devoted to the subject matter of African American culture. Under the Foundation’s ownership and auspice, the first collection-based exhibition in 1990 was held titled “Stand in the Place: Images from The Amistad Foundation’s African American Collection.”
In 2005, after careful consideration, the Foundation’s Board of Trustees voted to change the organization’s name to The Amistad Center for Art & Culture to distinguish ours from other organizations that carry similar names. Our name has changed, but our essential mission is the same: “Inspired by the collection, to interpret and celebrate African American art and humanities and to educate the public about their importance and influence in American life.”
On this website, images from the collection that offer a glimpse of the many objects and range of thematic ideas that, over the past eighteen years, have inspired our exhibitions and our signature culture-based educational and outreach program initiatives. For example, from time to time we bring art luminaries before a live audience for energetic and informative dialogues that explore the vast topic of creating and collecting African American art. Family days offer the opportunity for adult and child partnership with hands-on crafts and learning. And we actively engage the various segments of our community through for example the TAG , our teen advisory group and our Contemporary Associates membership group for young professionals. These exemplar groups and programs, along with our other efforts, offer insight and access to works of art and build understanding of the value of African American history and culture in our daily lives.
While our programs have become a staple in the cultural life of Greater Hartford, the key element of our institutional identity is our collection. Interdisciplinary in composition, the collection includes eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth century materials. There are shackles and chains, a slave tag, and a pair of handmade chairs thought to be made and owned by slaves; historical photographs; slave contracts; books and manuscripts, maps and ephemera including broadsides; Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s newspapers; Currier and Ives lithographs; political cartoons; and paintings and sculpture.
The collection speaks to the origins and advancement of slavery, Black resistance and the abolitionist movement; the Civil War and Emancipation; Reconstruction; major artistic, literary and political figures; daily life; the church; military participation; minstrelsy and satire; the civil rights movement; and modern-day celebrities. It tells the stories of many major personalities in American history. For example, John Brown is immortalized in prints, sheet music, photographs, and newspaper accounts of his execution. Abraham Lincoln occupies a large place as well in two unusual and provocative depictions: an oil painting pairing him with a female figure in the classic abolitionist pose thought to be by the nineteenth century painter, David Bustill Bowser of Philadelphia; and Lincoln and Slave; by twentieth-century sculptor Richmond Barthé.
The collection’s strength lies in part in its more than two thousand late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century photographs that range from vivid images of slave life to the reconstruction era through the turn of the century to some of the most memorable news photos of the Civil Rights movement, entertainers, and political figures. Mid-to-late twentieth-century works such as William Anderson’s photographic documentation of daily life in Georgia in the 1970s and the paintings and prints of important artists such as Hale Woodruff, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Herbert Gentry, and the recently discovered Connecticut folk artist Ellis Ruley, chronologically bring the collection forward.
Today, more than two decades beyond the acquisition of the collection, with more than fifty exhibitions having been created and presented to the public, with a large and growing membership group and a range of educational program offerings, The Amistad Center has evolved into a major cultural resource. We recognize and take seriously our role and responsibility locally, regionally and nationally, to build public understanding of the art and cultural expressions of people of African descent, and to ensure that our magnificent collection is cared for and made available to the public for generations to come.