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Smithsonian acquires Martin Luther King portrait bust for African American history museum

A similar work sits in President Obama’s Oval Office, next to a sculpture of Abraham Lincoln

by Julia Halperin  |  18 January 2016
Smithsonian acquires Martin Luther King portrait bust for African American history museum
A rare copy of a 1970 Charles Alston sculpture of Martin Luther King. Photo: courtesy of the National Museum of African American History and Culture
The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, is celebrating Martin Luther King Day with a fitting addition to its collection. The museum has acquired a 1970 bust of the Civil Rights leader by the artist Charles Alston, according to Smithsonian Magazine.

The sculpture has a distinguished history: in 1990, another edition of the work became the first image of an African American to be displayed at the White House. President Obama moved it into the Oval Office in 2009, where it now sits next to a bust of President Abraham Lincoln.

Alston, who rose to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance, was the first African-American supervisor for the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. The Reverend Donald Harrington of New York’s Community Church originally commissioned him to create the sculpture for $5,000, two years after King’s assassination. The Chicago-based collectors Eric and Cheryl McKissack bought their edition from a Miami gallery five years ago, but felt it was such a natural fit for the Smithsonian’s new museum that they could not hold onto it any longer.

The work joins another painting by Alston—Walking (1958), which is inspired by the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott of 1955 and 1956—in the museum’s collection. Both works are due to be part of the inaugural display when the David Adjaye-designed institution opens to the public in September.

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