LAKE CITY, S.C. — More than 80 years after his first showing in the Pee Dee, artist and Florence native William H. Johnson is being remembered in style with a Smithsonian Institute traveling art exhibit of his work at the Jones-Carter Gallery in Lake City.
The $24 million art installation will be on display at the gallery, a 1920s converted hay and seed store, through Dec. 29, and gallery manager Hannah Davis said she couldn’t be more thrilled to play host to the Smithsonian exhibit.
“For us to be able to bring this,” Davis asked. “I mean, come on. It’s just been really great.”
For the Lake City gallery, meeting the guidelines to host Johnson’s work was no small feat.
In order to comply with the Smithsonian’s extensive requirements for display, Davis had to complete a 40-page application and submit temperature and humidity readings for the gallery for the last several months. But that wasn’t all.
At a cost of $200,000, donated by the Lake City Partnership Council, the gallery had to complete updates to the building that had only just been renovated in preparation for ArtFields earlier in the year, installing both a fire suppression system and a backup generator that can run the entire building in case of an electrical outage.
The effort was well worth the end result, according to Darla Moore, board chair of the Lake City Community Foundation.
“He (Johnson) was an integral part of the Harlem Renaissance and early 20th century American art, and we believe he is also going to be an integral part of the renaissance of the Pee Dee area,” Moore said. “We’re especially excited that Lake City has the privilege of having this exhibition. When you look at other locations this exhibit has been, like Philadelphia and Phoenix, it’s truly heartwarming to have Lake City in that mix.”
Sadly, Johnson, who is still growing in popularity around the world as a top African-American artist 43 years after his death, never lived to see his home state recognize his talent.
The only time Johnson ever saw his paintings recognized in South Carolina was in 1930 at a three-hour art show held at the Florence YMCA. No work was sold.
Not a very welcoming atmosphere for a hometown boy who was popularly received throughout the Northeast and Europe at the time, even earning a gold medallion from the Harmon Foundation in New York City for distinguished achievement among African-Americans in that same year.
All that has changed now, however.
This collection of Johnson’s work has traveled to five other locations around the nation, but for Smithsonian project director Marquette Folley, who works with the institute’s traveling exhibition service, bringing the artist back to the Pee Dee has been the most meaningful.
“It is our pleasure to be here,” Folley said. “It’s (the exhibit) been to five other locations, and I do declare that I think Lake City is one of the most exquisite of all the installations. It is the rare moment when we can join hands nationally and regionally and speak the truth. This American artist, who understood the truth, who understood that the African American ideal is American, that from it you can carve truth and inspiration about our identity and our significance. The fact that this man was born here, in Florence, he was cutting edge.”
WANT TO GO?
The exhibit is open to the public through Dec. 29 at the Jones-Carter Gallery in Lake City with free admission.