The museumís founder, Dr. Samella Lewis, passed away on May 27, 2022.
(Photo of Dr. Samella Lewis from the Museum of African American Art's 40th anniversary celebration program book in 2016.)
“Generally speaking, the work is never finished.” —Dr. Samella Lewis
It is with profound sadness that we acknowledge the passing of the Museum of African American Art’s founder, Dr. Samella Lewis, who died on May 27, 2022, at the age of 99. Dr. Samella Lewis was an internationally recognized artist, art historian, author, activist, and educator known for her visionary leadership in representing the voices and experiences of African American artists.
Dr. Samella Lewis founded the Museum of African American Art as a nonprofit in 1976 with a group of academic, artistic, business, and community leaders. Their goal was to increase public awareness of and support for African American art. The museum was established as an educational and cultural institution dedicated to the interpretation, promotion, and preservation of art by or about people of African descent and their contributions to world culture. Dr. Lewis served as the museum’s director for the first 10 years, from 1976 to 1986, and she remained active on the museum’s board of directors through the late 1980s.
Samella was a visionary who looked beyond the canvas she painted on. She reached beyond her own gifts as an artist, mentored many other artists, collected art, and was a talented arts administrator. She was soft-spoken but carried a big stick in the arts community. She was well respected as an advocate for black artists, and she worked very hard to help ensure that state and federal funding was granted to black artists and black art institutions.
The Museum of African American Art featured exhibits of Samella’s artwork in 1984, 1999, and 2009. While leading a gallery talk at MAAA in 2009 for her exhibit Samella Lewis: Creative Vision, Then and Now, she paused and said: “Generally speaking, the work is never finished.” She was referring to the way artists regard their own artwork, but her statement is also true of arts organizations and museums. The work of advocating for the arts and artists in our communities is never finished, and the Museum of African American Art is dedicated to ensuring that the mission Dr. Samella Lewis started more than four decades ago will continue for years to come.
Dr. Lewis curated a Richmond Barthé exhibit called Barthé: His Life In Art at the Museum of African American Art in 2009, which corresponded with her publication of a book by the same title, and she briefly returned to the museum’s board of directors from 2009–2010.
Samella was unable to attend the museum’s 40th anniversary gala celebration on February 27, 2016, since she was spending her birthday in her home state of Louisiana that year. As the museum’s 40th anniversary honoree, she graciously participated in the creation of the video Dr. Samella Lewis: Celebrating 40 Years and Looking Ahead to commemorate the museum’s milestone.
For those who had the honor of visiting Samella’s home, it was instantly clear that you were sitting with not only a master artist and historian but also an amazing storyteller. She openly shared her insights and wisdom — and it was a privilege to listen. Among many pearls of wisdom, she advised: “Don’t give children coloring books.” She believed the pre-drawn lines were too restrictive and felt strongly that children should be free to draw whatever they imagine.
Dr. Samella Lewis founded the Museum of African American Art with the idea that art can and should be part of our everyday lives. Over the years, Samella shared ideas and strategies to move the museum forward and sustain its collections, programs, and operations well into the future. We remain guided by her vision for the museum and inspired by her exemplary life.
Board of Directors The Museum of African American Art May 31, 2022