Pyramid Club’s black arts legacy
I was checking out the upcoming auction at one of my favorite places when I spotted it: A program for the Philadelphia Pyramid Club’s art exhibition from the 1940s.
Was it possible? I had wanted to find one (or two or three) of these original programs forever. For nearly 20 years, the club held one of the pre-eminent black art exhibits in the country, and the programs are hard to find.
The first one I ever saw was at the Free Library of Philadelphia, and I believe it was also from the 1940s. So when I saw the program up for auction recently, nestled behind two pencil studies of a nude African American woman and man, I knew I had to have it.
The Pyramid Club was founded in 1937 by Dr. Walter F. Jerrick and a group of black professional men as a cultural and social outlet at a time when they were excluded from white organizations. The group eventually purchased a building on Girard Avenue to hold events - the most important of which became its annual art exhibitions, which began in 1941.
Many up-and-coming black artists were given their first nudge by the club, and became renowned through its very popular shows. The exhibits were headed by Philadelphia artist Humbert Howard, who by the late 1940s had expanded the artists’ list to include whites who painted black subjects – raising the ire of some members. Among the white artists was a Russian-born painter named Ralph Taylor, who drew the studies for the nude man and woman accompanying the program at the auction.
The program I bought (for $12.50 in back-and-forth action with another bidder) was apparently from Taylor’s estate, and the artist had an oil painting in the exhibit called “Life Class.” I passed on the study, though, because the auctioneer said that others of Taylor’s works would be auctioned off later.
The show featured works by 57 artists and ran from Feb. 20-March 20, 1948. It was held at the club’s headquarters (the building was padlocked in 1963 by the IRS for nonpayment of employee taxes, and the club basically dissolved. The building is now on the market for $1.2 million).
According to the program, several of the club’s members also exhibited their own paintings in another gallery. Included were Howard, John Harris, Dox Thrash, Frank Syres and Beatrice Clare Overton (who’s listed among the members although the club excluded women up to some point).
This eighth annual invitational exhibition was held in memoriam to artist Laura Wheeler Waring, a Philadelphia artist, who had just died on Feb. 3, 1948.
What I found fascinating about the program was the names of the black and white female artists whose works were included – some of whom I had not heard of before and could find little information about. Waring was a familiar name. The others were Etelka Greenfield, Elsie Reber, Edith Townsend Scarlett, Reba Klein, Naomi Lavin, Elizabeth Coyne, Hilde Foss, Sarai Sherman, Maude C. Lewis and Overton.
Although the club did not admit women as members, it did have a Pyramid Wives Club and a Women’s Coordinating Committee, which managed the reception at the exhibit, according to the program. Women were also on the club’s exhibition committee.
Other featured artists I recognized were Allan Freelon, Julius Bloch, Paul Keene, Edward Loper, Samuel J. Brown and Claude Clark.
This is a wonderful piece of ephemera that I intend to keep.