Richard J. Powell, a recognized authority on African American art and culture (and a frequent lecturer and media commentator on this topic both in the United States and abroad), has organized numerous art exhibitions, most notably: The Blues Aesthetic: Black Culture and Modernism (1989); Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance (1997); To Conserve A Legacy: American Art at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (1999); Back to Black: Art, Cinema, and the Racial Imaginary (2005); and Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist (2014). Among the major museums where his curated exhibitions have been presented are the Phillips Academy’s Addison Gallery of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the New Orleans Museum of Art, London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Lowery Sims, Andrea Wells, Erica James, Paul Domela, Christopher Cozier, Dominique Brebion and Richard Powell, BDVA Symposium (2009) Image by Waugh Office
Richard J. Powell is the John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art & Art History at Duke University, where he has taught since 1989. After receiving his B.A. at Morehouse College, he earned the M.F.A. (with a specialization in Printmaking) from Howard University. Shortly thereafter Powell completed a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship in Museum Education at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and, after a brief teaching stint in Virginia, he entered Yale University, where he received the M.A. in African American Studies and the M.Phil. and Ph.D. in the History of Art. While attending Yale, Powell was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, which enabled him to conduct dissertation research in Copenhagen’s National Museum of Denmark and throughout several Scandinavian countries.
It was during Powell’s time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that he became interested in art criticism and organizing art exhibitions. In 1979 the Studio Museum in Harlem enlisted Powell as guest curator for Impressions/Expressions: Black American Graphics, one of the first art museum surveys of works by African American printmakers. After Powell’s year in Denmark, he settled in Washington, D.C. where, while completing his dissertation under the auspices of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, he became Director of Programs for the Washington Project for the Arts (WPA): one of several alternative art spaces in the 1980s whose contemporary exhibitions and programs fueled that era’s “culture wars.” Powell’s curatorial contributions to this historical moment ranged from a retrospective exhibition of the Washington, D.C.-based Harlem Renaissance artist James Lesesne Wells, to arranging cutting edge art installations and performances by conceptual artist David Hammons, poet/gay activist Essex Hemphill, and legendary dancer/choreographer Katherine Dunham.
As a visual artist, Powell has exhibited his prints and drawings in group and solo exhibitions in the U.S. and abroad and, in the 1980s, worked as a periodical and book illustrator, most notably for: The Massachusetts Review; Callaloo; Roseann Bell, Bettye Parker and Beverly Guy Sheftall’s Sturdy Black Bridges: Visions of Black Women in Literature (1979); and Jessica Hagedorn’s Pet Food and Tropical Apparitions (1981). His works are in the permanent collections of the Bradford Art Galleries and Museums (Bradford, UK), the Library of Congress, the Yale University Art Gallery, and in many private hands. His current art project is an illustrated, art historically themed novel.
Along with teaching courses in American art, the arts of the African Diaspora, and contemporary visual studies, he has written extensively on topics ranging from primitivism to postmodernism, including such titles as Homecoming: The Art and Life of William H. Johnson (1991), Black Art: A Cultural History (1997, 2002, & 2021), Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture (2008), and Going There: Black Visual Satire (2020). From 2007 until 2010, Powell was Editor-in-Chief of The Art Bulletin, the world’s leading English language journal in art history. In 2013 Powell received the Lawrence A. Fleischman Award for Scholarly Excellence in the Field of American Art History from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, and in 2016 was honored at the College Art Association’s Annual Conference as the year’s most Distinguished Scholar. In 2018 Powell was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 2021 he was offered membership in the American Philosophical Society.