Eyes on Arlington: Smithsonian exhibit at Arlington Museum of Art will fulfill longtime dream

Posted Monday, May. 27, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Chris Hightower was only a teenager when his mother, Paula Pierson, first envisioned the Arlington Museum of Art hosting a Smithsonian exhibit. Now more than 20 years later, Hightower is the executive director of the museum, where a Smithsonian exhibit will open Saturday.

The exhibit, “William H. Johnson: An American Modern,” is part of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and was handpicked by Hightower among several exhibitions offered.

“We are honored to host this important exhibit organized by the Smithsonian here in Arlington. I was pleased this particular exhibit was available because I think it’s a perfect choice for many reasons, and visitors will love seeing it,” said Hightower.

Johnson was African-American. His works as a modernist painter are assembled in a group of rarely seen paintings that show his transition from post-impressionism and expressionism in the 1920s “to vibrant vernacular paintings” in the 1940s, at the end of his career, the museum said in an announcement. In the latter works, it said, “Johnson articulated his distinctive vision as an American modern artist.”

Hightower said that once he and museum board President Nancy Tice set a goal to host the exhibit; they focused on raising the funds to make it a reality. Replacing and upgrading the air-conditioning system, installing proper humidifying equipment and having adequate security are facility improvements made since Hightower took the helm.

Hightower recalls working as a high school student at the hardware store owned by the late Jenny Ruff, who, even back then, shared his mother’s fervent desire for Arlington to host an exhibition from the Smithsonian. Over the years, he said, others in the community interested in the initiative included Ruby Odom, Doreen Bruner and Sandra Campbell.

Through the kindness of several sponsors, the longtime dream has finally come true. “We took our vision to the investors, and the investors bought into it and have been very generous to help,” Hightower said.

When he was 17, Johnson, a native of South Carolina, went to New York to attend the prestigious National Academy of Design. He later studied in France. He returned to the U.S. briefly in 1929, but because of difficulties that black artists encountered in America, he moved to Denmark and exhibited throughout Europe until his return in 1938. His paintings from that time on reflect his memories from growing up in the rural South and the influence of later living in Harlem.

“We are planning a number of programs in tandem with this exhibit that will enhance the visitor’s experience, including lectures, musical performances and poetry slams,” Hightower said, adding, “We also have a companion exhibit from a private collection. The artists in this exhibit are also all African-American, and it focuses on the Harlem renaissance in New York City in the 1920s.”

After the success of the Rembrandt exhibit last summer and the Frank Lloyd Wright exhibit this winter, officials hope the Smithsonian show will attract even more visitors. More than 5,000 guests from 30 foreign countries and 44 states came to the museum for those shows, Hightower said.

Volunteers interested in serving as docents or working at the reception desk are asked to call the museum office at 817-275-4600.

The Smithsonian exhibit runs through Aug. 25. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and from 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. A preview and opening reception for sponsors and museum members is set for Friday from 6 to 9 p.m.

Tickets are available at www.arlingtonmuseum.org or at the museum.

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