About 140 Spencer Museum of Art supporters oohed and aahed Friday when they saw the newly purchased painting "The Founding of Chicago" by Topeka native Aaron Douglas.
"Aaron Douglas, this native Kansan, was looked upon as one of the most talented young black artists in America," Kansas University Chancellor Robert Hemenway said at the unveiling.
The chancellor also called the painting a great example of Douglas' work during the artist's contribution to the Harlem Renaissance.
Hemenway and Susan Earle, Spencer's curator of European and American art, revealed the painting during the annual meeting and purchase party for the Friends of the Art Museum group.
The work, created between 1930 and 1933, depicts a laboring man and an enchained mother viewing an urban vista. It is painted with gouache on paper.
Museum and university leaders also announced the painting will be part of an upcoming exhibition on Douglas' work.
The piece is among more than 80 works currently planned for the exhibition, which opens in September 2007 at the Spencer. But the painting first will travel to the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tenn., the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York.
Saralyn Reece Hardy, director of the Spencer museum, said the acquisition showed both short- and long-term vision.
"We will have the Douglas work here in the collection for people to enjoy, for people to study, for people to excavate for meaning forever," she said. "It also is going to be a centerpiece in a very important project scheduled for 2007."
The acquisition took years to accomplish. Earle said she began actively seeking Douglas works in 1999.
"They rarely come on the market, and they get snatched up," she said. "Getting a painting that's actually freestanding and on the market is virtually impossible."
The painting came from a private owner who first displayed the work to Earle in a home tour several years ago. The painting almost went to a private collector, but Earle convinced the seller the painting belonged in public display in Douglas' birth state.
"It all worked out, but it took many months of negotiating," she said.
"He's really articulating a vision of both the hardships that African Americans have suffered and a hope for the future," Earle said of Douglas' work. "You see that embodied in 'The Founding of Chicago.'"
Stephanie Fox Knappe will be the exhibition's coordinator. Knappe has written a narrative chronology of Douglas' life that will be included in an exhibition book published by Yale University Press.
Also during Friday's meeting, Don Steeples, KU's vice provost for scholarly support, challenged the Friends of the Art Museum to contribute about $33,000 to remodel a new gallery. KU and the Spencer museum will pay for the remaining two-thirds of the $100,000 project, he said.