David C. Driskell

National Humanities Medal


"I am connecting my life to someone else's life," says art collector David C. Driskell, "someone who had a vision about another time, or someone who had different experiences, who wanted to give a view of a person's mood, or the beauty of landscape."

As an educator and art collector, Driskell respects the significance of the past. "The humanities for me are the basis for the whole learning experience. They inform us so much about the past."

Recently retired, Driskell was a teacher and curator at the University of Maryland for more than twenty years. He has lectured at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago, among other museums, and has curated numerous exhibitions. He puts his expertise to personal use as well. Since college, he has devoted himself to preserving cultural traditions by collecting African American art and artifacts dating from the era of slave ships to modern times.

By buying and preserving pieces outside what he calls the "quality canon," Driskell has helped change art collecting trends. In recent years, museums have become more inclusive in their selection of art, in terms of race, gender, and ethnicity. Ever the activist, Driskell calls for a deeper revision of artistic standards and a diversification of the canon. He praises private collectors like Bill and Camille Cosby for gathering a broad range of American art. Their collection is showcased in the book The Other Side of Color, which Driskell put together. It will be released in March 2001.

Driskell's own collection of paintings, lithographs, drawings, and sculptures span almost four hundred years. The art in his collection includes that of nineteenth-century painters Robert Scott Duncanson and Henry O. Tanner, sculptor and social activist Augusta Savage, and colorist Alma Thomas. The collection is currently on display in the touring exhibition "Narratives of African American Art and Identity: The David C. Driskell Collection." The show presents artwork, archival photographs, rare books, and film, and demonstrates his inclusive philosophy towards art. Though its heart is African American art, it incorporates African, European, and Asian pieces--revealing the eye of a collector who is as moved by beauty on its own terms as by items of specific cultural significance.

Educated at Howard and Catholic Universities and the recipient of nine honorary doctoral degrees in art, Driskell has studied African and African American art around the globe. A sampling of the schools at which he has taught includes Bowdoin College, Fisk University, and Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria. He was asked by President and Mrs. Clinton to choose artwork for the White House. For decades, he has published books and essays on subjects ranging from colonial art to Klee and Kandinsky, and from aesthetics to printmaking.

The Humanities Medal joins his Distinguished Alumni Awards in Art, three Rockefeller Foundation fellowships, and other honors. Driskell is currently traveling with the Narratives collection and also as a visiting lecturer. He quips, "I'm busier now that I'm retired than I ever was before."

By Chrissa Gerard

About the National Humanities Medal

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year.