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Samella Lewis, tireless champion of African American art, dies at 99

 

“Art is not a luxury as many people think,” she said. “It is a necessity.”

When Samella Lewis began teaching art history in the 1950s and ′60s, Black artists were often shut out of major American museums, passed over in favor of European masters and White abstract expressionists. Artists of color had few opportunities to reach a wide audience, she later recalled, and “there was no African American museum west of the Mississippi.

So Dr. Lewis, a New Orleans native with a PhD in fine arts, began building alternative institutions, aiming to promote and preserve the work of Black artists like Sam Gilliam, Jacob Lawrence and her mentor, Elizabeth Catlett. Settling in Los Angeles in the mid-1960s, she founded three galleries for artists of color, created the city’s Museum of African American Art, published a landmark survey of contemporary Black art and wrote one of the first textbooks on African American art history.

“Art is not a luxury as many people think,” she said, according to the website Black Art in America. “It is a necessity. It documents history — it helps educate people and stores knowledge for generations to come.”

A tireless champion of African American art, Dr. Lewis was also an accomplished painter and printmaker in her own right, with works in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, both in New York City. She was 99 when she died May 27 at a hospital in Torrance, Calif., after suffering a kidney ailment, according to her son Claude.

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