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Arts & Culture

Crowdsourcing Project Aims to Preserve Work of African American Art Pioneer

Correspondence, Other Documents of Groundbreaking Artist, Scholar and Curator David C. Driskell to Be Widely Available Online

By Hayleigh Moore

David C. Driskell

Photo courtesy of the David C. Driskell Papers at the David C. Driskell Center

Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley (left), artist Charles White and curator, scholar and artist David C. Driskell talk at the "Two Centuries of Black American Art" exhibition in Los Angeles in 1976. A new crowdsourcing project run by the College of Information Studies and the David C. Driskell Center at UMD will involve the public in preserving Driskell's work.

If you have an internet connection, you can now help transcribe and preserve the works of the late African American artist, scholar, curator and Distinguished University Professor of Art David C. Driskell.

A crowdsourcing project that launched last week, led by faculty and students of the College of Information Studies (iSchool) and the David C. Driskell Center for the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora at UMD, will engage scholars, historians, artists and the public to help make the David C. Driskell Papers more accessible to anyone interested in broadening the field of African diasporic studies and preserving African American visual art. 

The center’s collection of approximately 50,000 items includes, among other things, various correspondences between Driskell and fellow artists, art collectors, former students and members of the public who came to know him. Crucially, it includes material relating to Driskell’s groundbreaking 1976 “Two Centuries of Black American Art” exhibition, which raised the profile of African American visual art and helped establish it as a distinct field of study. 

“[The exhibit], which was first organized at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art during the bicentennial year, had significance in terms of assessing what a nation had accomplished in the last 200 years and making sure the contribution of Black artists was brought to the forefront,” said David Conway, a Driskell Center archivist who has been working to digitize the Driskell Papers collection since 2017.

The project is an opportunity to address the conspicuous underrepresentation of people and groups who are major cultural contributors, said iSchool Assistant Professor Victoria Van Hyning, whose research interests lie in crowdsourcing methodology to help people gain experience and literacy in deciphering the past, and who is one of the initial leaders of this new effort.

“Particularly in the pandemic, crowdsourcing has completely exploded because it’s a thing people can do from home,” Van Hyning said. “Focusing on archives, [and] art cultural production by people of color in general, is really needed,” but more attention also must be given to how archival collection and preservation is done in the first place to ensure broad representation, she said.

The project initially includes about 1,200 digitized works from the Driskell Papers collection on From the Page—a collaborative online transcription website serving cultural heritage groups, archives, universities and libraries—all ready for transcription and review by anyone who wishes to participate. 

The Driskell Papers transcription project can be a foundational reference point to help archives and other institutions figure out how to effectively preserve and share data, radically improving research efforts, team members said.

“These crowdsourcing projects draw participants from diverse walks of life, with diverse interests and skills—every page is usually transcribed, edited and reviewed by one or more people,” Van Hyning said.

In addition, Van Hyning partnered last semester with Dorit Yaron, deputy director of the Driskell Center, and Conway on the course, “Outreach, Inclusion, and Crowdsourcing” to both honor Driskell’s legacy and teach students about crowdsourcing, engagement and Black cultural production. 

Despite its physical closure during the pandemic, the Driskell Center has been developing ways to engage the public with the Driskell Papers and other collections and exhibits typically on display. These have included several virtual exhibitions, including a Fall 2020 show curated by Conway devoted to the Driskell Papers. A new exhibition, “David C. Driskell’s Students,” opened Feb 1. 

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