The world came to see the first exhibit of the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, Bearing Witness: Contemporary Works by African American Women Artists, which debuted during the centennial celebration of the 1996 Olympics. Since then, the museum has continued its global engagement. To honor its 15th anniversary of showcasing renowned artists from New York City to Nairobi, Kenya, the museum is launching 15×15, an initiative to acquire 15 works of art by 15 different artists. The infusion of new works, debuting as a collection in October 2011, will ensure the steady growth of the College’s permanent collection, and elevate the only museum in the nation dedicated to exhibiting works by and about women of the African Diaspora.

“Every effort will be made to acquire works by an array of emerging, midcareer, and established artists who have been featured in exhibitions that the museum has originated,” explained Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, Ph.D., director of the museum. “Also the selections will honor the museum’s mission to highlight works by and about women of the African Diaspora.”

This acquisitions effort is part of a longer tradition. One of the priorities of Donald Stewart, the sixth president of Spelman, was to purchase works by Black women artists beginning in 1983. The College’s permanent collection dates to the 1940s and includes more than 350 objects, which were acquired through the generosity of alumnae, trustees and artists. The permanent holdings include three-dimensional African art as well as works by celebrated African-American artists including Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence, Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Hale Woodruff and many others.

“Spelman College has amassed an internationally recognized collection of paintings, prints, and photographs as well as an impressive body of African sculptures and textiles,” wrote Spelman art professor Akua McDaniel, the first director of the museum, in the catalog that accompanied “Bearing Witness,” published in 1996. “With the founding of the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, located in the Camille Olivia Hanks Cosby Academic Center, the College has made certain that the arts will continue to play an integral part in the education of African-American women well into the next century.”

Already, four works have  been acquired by the museum with support from donors in honor of the 15×15 acquisitions initiative: Nandipha Mntambo’s 2008 “Mlwa ne Nkunzi,” diptych, archival ink on cotton rag paper, that was purchased with support from Spelman trustee Vicki Palmer and her husband John; Renée Cox’s 1994 “Hot-En-Tot,” a gelatin silver print, made possible by the generosity of an anonymous donor; and the photographs “Hell’s Gate” (2009) and “Chameleon” (2003) by IngridMwangiRobertHutter, both supported by contributions from the Friends of the Museum.

“The visual arts are so important and the strategy for the 15×15 is wonderful. The number of artists excited to participate is because Spelman is Spelman,” said artist Carrie Mae Weems, whose work is on the wish list of pieces the museum plans to acquire as part of the initiative. “I hope it will attract donors across the spectrum to consider the value of art to our culture.”

For more information about supporting 15×15, please contact the Office of Development at (866) 512-1690. — Joyce E. Davis is the editor of Inside Spelman and associate director of publications for the Office of Communications.