The bright lights and joyous colors of the city call out, buildings stacked one upon the other.
We’re right in the middle of Harlem, and it’s the early 1940s.
The Savoy on Lenox Avenue was one of the great dance halls and home to jazz, and the Hotel Theresa, recently desegregated, centered Black cultural life in New York.
Looking more carefully, you’ll notice figures on either side.
A man in profile speaks to a woman, who gazes into the spectacle.
This pair makes it clear who the audience really is for this dazzling painting of Black vibrancy.
Segregation prevented the artist, William Carter, from attending art school in St. Louis, so he moved to Chicago to study at the Art Institute.
To support his studies, he worked day jobs, including as a janitor for the all-White Palette and Chisel artist’s club.
He’s also a UI alum, first coming to study in Champaign-Urbana in 1935, completing his degree in the 1950s.
For Carter, The Savoy also evoked Chicago. The famous Bronzeville ballroom that anchored the 47th-South Parkway — Chicago’s Harlem — shared the same name.
With its half-acre dance floor, it was one of the legendary sites for jazz in the city and a well-known space for nightlife — both gay and straight.
In 1940, Carter helped found the South Side Community Art Center, the oldest African American art center in the U.S.
The Savoy hosted its biggest fundraiser, the Artists’ and Models’ Ball, and Carter was one of the many artists who created the sets, posters and costumes.
So, the painting, with its Cubist planes and brilliant palette, represents both the excitement of 1940s New York and the exhilaration of arts and culture in South Side Chicago.
Krannert Art Museum was thrilled to receive this work as a gift from M. Christine Schwartz, an Illinois alum who has collected art from Chicago for over 15 years.
Since 2021, she has been distributing her holdings to museums, and her four recent gifts have been utterly transformative for KAM.
In the case of Savoy, it’s the first painting associated with the Harlem Renaissance in the collection, a pivotal moment in American cultural history.
It’s also an excellent example of the impact of Cubism.
We can tell a more complete and inclusive history of modern art in the U.S. by increasing representation of Black artists, and importantly an artist connected to the South Side Community Art Center.
And did you know, Alan Stringfellow — the Champaign-born, UI alum — was Carter’s artistic accomplice and partner?
(Stringfellow was the subject of a recent exhibition at the University Y.)
To have work by both artists at KAM is a real homecoming, a testament to their collaborations and relationship, and a way to tell more complex LGBTQ histories through the collection.