Kevin Young, the Andrew W. Mellon Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), released the following statement on the death of American visual artist Richard Hunt, who died Dec. 16 at the age of 88:
“We at NMAAHC, with profound sadness, join the nation in mourning the passing of Richard Hunt. He was a titan among sculptors who created colossal works of art that challenge us to mine the depths of spirituality to find solace and strength, resilience and resolve.
One of his most riveting works, ‘Swing Low,’ was commissioned by NMAAHC and has been on view in our Heritage Hall since the museum opened in 2016. Hunt himself called it an homage to the power of spirituals, the enduring music and poetry that inspired and sustained generations of Black Americans. We thank Hunt for helping us keep the message of healing and deliverance alive. Our hearts go out to his family and all he left behind.”
According to Tuliza Fleming, interim chief curator of visual arts, who worked closely with Hunt on this commission, “Richard often expressed his excitement regarding the importance of the museum to the African American community writ large, as well as to national and international audiences. He told me how building the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall was a dream that he never thought would happen during his lifetime. When he saw the plans for the installation of his piece in Heritage Hall, he was so moved that he felt compelled to create ‘Swing Low’ and donate it to the museum for prosperity.”
Hunt descended from enslaved African Americans and grew up on the South Side of Chicago. He studied art as a child, first at the South Side Community Art Center and later at the Junior School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
At age 19, he attended the 1955 funeral of Emmett Till and identified that as a turning point for his artistic life. Before long, he would devote himself to civil rights and creating art that expressed the critical need for human freedom and social justice. Till, the murdered 14-year-old, had lived two blocks from Hunt’s home.
Shortly after this, he began welding art objects out of found metal objects such as bumpers and fenders from scrap yards. Later, he worked in steel and bronze, producing monuments to such towering figures as Martin Luther King Jr., Mary McLeod Bethune, Jesse Owens, Hobart Taylor Jr. and Ida B. Wells. He also created sculptures that commemorate moments of the Middle Passage and the Great Migration.
Hunt shattered many barriers as an African American and a sculptor. In 1960, while serving in the U.S. Army, he was the first African American to be served at the segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in San Antonio, Texas. In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson appointed Hunt to the National Council on the Arts, the first African American to serve in this capacity. In 1971, at the age of 35, he became the first African American sculptor to have a retrospective of his work mounted at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1981, Hunt served as one of eight jurors, and the sole African American, for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial competition in Washington, D.C. With over 150 solo shows, representation in over 100 public museums and more than 160 public art installations, Hunt’s stature and impact cannot be overstated.
Toward the end of his life, Hunt remained prolific as an artist. In 2022, former President Barack Obama commissioned him to produce a sculpture, “Book Bird,” which will be placed outside on the grounds of the new Chicago Public Library branch on the Obama Presidential Center campus in Chicago.
Just before his death, returning to a foundational moment of his life and career, Hunt was in the process of completing a monument to Till titled “Hero Ascending,” scheduled to be installed in 2024 at Till’s childhood home.