In 1888 an enterprising student at Fisk University petitioned his fellow senior classmates to join with the fledgling Fisk Alumni Association (organized in 1884) to raise funds for a new multipurpose building for the school’s campus. The unwavering dedication and persuasive eloquence of the student, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963), brought generous results, and an imposing brick structure in Eclectic architectural style was constructed during 1888-89 on the western edge of the Fisk campus. The tall building with a full basement served as the gymnasium and mechanical arts building, the first such facility constructed on a black college campus.
After the university constructed a new gymnasium in 1948, the original gymnasium underwent renovation to serve as a gallery for the school’s extensive collection of art. The name given the gallery honors Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964), New York music critic, novelist, and benefactor of Fisk University. It opened to the public in its new guise in November 1949.
Carl Van Vechten Gallery won international acclaim for its display of modern art. Because of the generosity of his widow, eminent painter Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), a major portion of Alfred Stieglitz’s collection of modern art hangs in the gallery. Stieglitz (1864-1946), an accomplished photographer, magazine publisher, and influential gallery owner, supported the avant-garde artists of both Europe and America and helped launch the careers of an extraordinary number of artists. In 1916 O’Keeffe had her first exhibition in his famed “291” gallery in New York and married Stieglitz in 1924. After his death in 1946, she gave Fisk University nineteen of Stieglitz’s photographs on chloride, as well as a major portion of his outstanding collection of modern art. Included in the collection, in addition to two oil paintings by O’Keeffe, are original works by Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Diego Rivera (1886-1957), Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), John Marin (1872-1953), Marsden Hartley (1877-1943), Charles Demuth (1883-1935), and Arthur G. Dove (1880-1948).
The Van Vechten Gallery underwent a major renovation in 1984 with funding from the U.S. Department of Commerce and other donors. Changes included the reconfiguration of the interior and the addition of new systems of stringent climate control, improved lighting, and new security measures. The architectural and engineering firm of McKissack, McKissack and Thompson of Nashville designed the renovations.
The Tennessee General Assembly established an endowment fund for the gallery in 1987, making it possible for all Tennessee school children to visit the Fisk University galleries free of charge.
Reavis L. Mitchell Jr., Fisk University Since 1866: Thy Loyal Children Make Their Way (1995)