Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. The exhibition brings together major works of art from two world-class collections—the National Museum of African Art and the collection of Camille O. and William H. Cosby Jr. It acknowledges the visionary leadership of Warren M. Robbins, a retired Foreign Service officer who founded the private Museum of African Art on Capitol Hill, in Washington, D.C., in 1964.
The museum opened during the challenging times of the civil rights movement and centered its efforts on education in, and dialogue about, the arts. This strategy, Robbins felt, would address the appalling state of race relations that persisted in the United States at that time. Located in a townhouse on A Street NE that had been the home of Frederick Douglass, the noted African American writer, statesman, and abolitionist, the museum was a place where works of both African and African American art were collected and displayed. In 1979, when the museum became part of the Smithsonian Institution, its collecting mission was redefined to focus exclusively on the arts of Africa, resulting in the transfer of many of its African American artworks to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where they remain today.
Since the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art on the National Mall in 1987, the museum has expanded its collection of outstanding works of African art, but it has also continued, through exhibitions and programs, to emphasize connections between Africa and the African diaspora. Thus Conversations looks both to the museum’s past and to its future in demonstrating the relevance of Africa and Africa’s arts to succeeding generations the world over.