Our Views: Southern University System builds an art legacy

The Southern University System is the nation’s only historically black university system. With campuses in Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Shreveport, it serves about 15,000 undergraduate, graduate and law students. That includes opportunities to explore African and African American art.

There are a number of HBCUs with art museums, each with a different focus. Hampton University in Virginia has a collection that includes Henry O. Tanner’s “The Banjo Lesson.” Atlanta’s Spelman College focuses on art by Black women. Xavier University of Louisiana’s collection highlights masters including Elizabeth Catlett and Romare Bearden.

The Southern University Museum of Art has eight galleries in its Harvey Hall location. It opened in 2001. The Southern University Museum of Art at Shreveport opened in 2002.

Dr. Leon Tarver II was Southern’s president and an avid art collector. It was his urging, and some of his art, that made the Baton Rouge and Shreveport collections a reality. He left the leadership role in 2005 and the Southern University campus in New Orleans didn’t have an art museum. A lot of art had been shipped to the Pontchartrain Park campus, but Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of it.

Seventeen years later, SUNO finally has a museum of its own. The Southern University at New Orleans Museum of Art — SUNOMA for short — opened recently with 15,000 square feet of space in four galleries in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences building. A Federal Emergency Management Agency grant was used to restore works that could be saved, and those works are now in two of the galleries. The SUNO African art collection includes pieces that Tulane University professor of public health William E. Bertrand acquired while working in Africa. There’s also room for faculty, student and regional work to be displayed.

Tarver and Bertrand, good friends, attended the ribbon cutting and proudly enjoyed watching the crowd view various artifacts, paintings and sculptures. 

SUNOMA is a welcome addition to the New Orleans arts community, and we encourage visitors to see what survived Katrina and experience how this art adds to our rich Louisiana culture.

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