By AVIVA KEMPNER NOV. 29, 2017 New York Times
It’s heartening that so many Confederate statues are being taken down in the South. But that’s not enough. We must also restore pieces of our national heritage that were wrongly destroyed. First on the list should be “The Harp,” a magnificent work by the noted African-American sculptor Augusta Savage that was demolished at the closing of the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.
Savage was born in Green Cove Springs, Fla., in 1892. She moved to New York in 1921, where she studied at Cooper Union. Around 1923, Savage was rejected by a summer program at the Fontainebleau School of Fine Arts in France because of her race. Savage publicly protested, and the rejection became a cause célèbre covered by newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic.
But Savage didn’t let this snub deter her. During the Harlem Renaissance, she established herself as an artist and teacher, creating busts of prominent African-Americans like W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey.
In the 1920s she produced “Gamin,” a plaster bust likely based on her nephew now in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which helped her win a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship to study art in Paris in 1929.
With the Rosenwald grant, Savage made works that were displayed at the Grand Palais in Paris. She went on to win two additional Rosenwald Fellowships, as well as a grant from the Carnegie Foundation. These awards permitted her to stay in Europe for a bit longer, allowing her to escape American racism.
Augusta Savage working on a sculpture in New York in 1938.
Hansel Mieth/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Savage returned to New York in 1932. Soon afterward, she founded the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts, where artists like Jacob Lawrence and Norman Lewis developed their skills.
Her big break came in 1937, when Savage was commissioned by the World’s Fair to create a sculpture which would symbolize the musical works done by African- Americans. She took a two-year leave of absence from a job as director of the Harlem Community Art Center to concentrate on this project.
Savage called her sculpture “Lift Every Voice and Sing” after James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson’s song, the Negro national anthem. But the organizing committee renamed her piece “The Harp” against her wishes.
A 16-foot-tall plaster piece, “The Harp” was Savage’s last major work. It featured 12 stylized black singers representing the strings of the harp. The arm of God forms the sounding board with a young man in front kneeling and holding sheets of music.
It was one of the most popular pieces of art displayed at the World’s Fair. “Miss Savage’s creation stands in a niche at the focal point of the building front and is commented upon by practically everyone who passes,” wrote the journalist Lillian Johnson in The Afro-American, a Baltimore newspaper.
Despite the widespread praise, Savage lacked the money to store her the sculpture or have it cast in bronze. It was bulldozed at the end of the fair. (The Schomburg Center in Harlem does have a small bronze version of the sculpture.)
It gets worse. After the fair, Savage discovered that the Harlem Community Arts Center had given her job to someone else. She tried to create independent art centers in Harlem, but didn’t have enough money to sustain them. Savage died in March 27, 1962, after a long battle with cancer.
While Savage is gone, her great work, “The Harp” need not be lost forever. It should be recreated and displayed in New York City, where it had such an impact in 1939. The City Council should earmark funds to do this.
Or better yet, how about placing a second replica of “The Harp” in front of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington for all to see? It would be a fitting tribute to Savage, whom the art historian Richard Powell calls “a legend in African-American art history because so much of her life was filled with struggle, with perseverance and with creativity, all mixed up.”
Aviva Kempner is the director of the documentary “Rosenwald” about the philanthropist Julius Rosenwald.
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