Quest For Economic, Human and Cultural Dignity

The Atlanta Life Insurance Company proudly features selections from the corporation’s widely acclaimed African-American Art Collection assembled from the Atlanta Life National Annual Art Exhibitions and Competitions.

In September 1980, Atlanta Life celebrated its 75th anniversary and the dedication of the new Atlanta Life headquarters building. One of the highlights of the commemorative activities was the Atlanta Life First National Annual African-American Art Competition and Exhibition founded by former President and Chief Executive Officer, Jesse Hill, Jr. We wanted to emphasize our corporate commitment to the ongoing support of the Black uplift struggle and combine our “Quest For Economic Dignity” with “A Quest For Human and Cultural Dignity.” We believe the community must have cultural enrichment as well as economic stability.

One of the primary reasons for interest in this National African-American Art Exhibition and Competition was the fact that very few attempts were made to hold a national exhibition of black art. The program was molded after the Atlanta University Annual Art Competition and Exhibition which ran from 1942 until 1969. In a manner similar to Atlanta University, the company extended the opportunity to expose African-American artists nationwide. Atlanta Life’s exhibit deliberately appealed to under-exposed artists. As a result, many unknown talents gained visibility while Atlanta Life began to build a corporate art collection.

The exhibit and competition was planned and guided by an art advisory committee. In the first year, Jess Hill, Jr. served as Honorary Co-Chair along with Margaret Burroughs, whose national reputation stemmed from both her art and work as Founder and Director of Chicago’s DuSable Museum. Assisting them as Co-Chairpersons were Jenelsie Walden Holloway of Spelman College’s Art Department, Dr. O.T. Hammonds, an ardent collector, and T.M. Pennington, an Atlanta artist. Crystal Britton, a local gallery owner at the time, was the process planner. The remainder of the committee included such individuals as Azira Hill, Jewel Simon, John Riddle, Jr., Jan Meadows, Lev Mills, Millicent Dobbs Jordan, Paulette Potts, Alma Simons and other distinguished members of Atlanta’s black community.

Jurors for the historic year were E. Barry Gaither, Director/Curator, Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts; Dr. Samella Lewis, artist, educator, editor and author of Afro-American Artists, Claremont, California; and Dr. Richard Long who chaired the Afro-American Studies Department at Atlanta University.

The collection has reflected the input of several prominent figures in the art field as well as important patrons. Assistance has been provided from such knowledgeable jurors as Dr. Lowery Sims, Associate Curator for 20th Century Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Dr. David Driskell of the University of Maryland and Curator of the exhibition, Two Centuries of Afro-American Art; and Robert Blackburn, founder and director of the Printmaking Workshop in New York. Ed Spriggs, K. Joy Ballard Peters, Bill Day, Freddie Styles, and Curtis Patterson, additional members of the local art community, also contributed time and effort to the program.

Atlanta Life has maintained its position of supporting, encouraging, appreciating and purchasing the works of African-American artists. In doing so, its annual event became a must attend affair for a number of artists, art patrons and culturally inspired individuals across the country.

The program continued to draw 400 to 500 entrants per year, and the company holdings have increased more than 300 works with every medium represented. While the primary focus of Atlanta Life has been on the younger, newer and under-exposed artists, the collection includes the works of well-established artists such as Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett, Hale Woodruff, and Romare Bearden.