This Pioneer, Fabulous Situation: the 1951 Arts Festival at Texas Southern University

Corey Stout

by Corey Stout, Rice University’s Department of Art History. Visiting Research Fellow for African American History and Culture.

I recently had the privilege of visiting the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library to examine the papers of John T. Biggers (1924-2001), an important muralist and educator at Texas Southern University in Houston. Although my dissertation focuses on the Texas artist Forrest Bess (1911-1977) and the role of landscape in his painting, a significant part of my research also places Bess in the context of modern art along the Gulf Coast.[1] In 1951, Bess headlined the Arts Festival at TSU with a solo exhibition of his work, and I came to the Rose Library to investigate and reconstruct this event. Specifically, I wanted to learn how Biggers shaped the festival, why Bess was included in such a substantial way, and how the festival fit into more extensive conversations around modern art at the time. 

I started with the printed program from the 1951 Arts Festival, which is still in relatively pristine condition.[2] The cover is aquamarine with red and black text, and its four pages detail the weeklong schedule, including art exhibitions, plays, symposiums, and musical performances. Along with the solo exhibition of Bess’s painting, there was also a large exhibition of student and faculty work from TSU. (A similar exhibition occurred a month earlier at the state capitol building in Austin, TX.[3]) Local high school choruses and professional singers and musicians were invited to the festival to perform. Original plays were staged by the drama department. They worked with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, to help coordinate the Bess exhibition, and the still-new Contemporary Arts Museum even loaned them a painting from their recent Van Gogh exhibition. This program demonstrates the importance placed not only on showcasing students and faculty from TSU but also on the greater Houston community within the broader context of modern art. 

Harvey Johnson (L) and John Biggers (R), undated. John Biggers papers.

It’s in this interconnectedness that we can start to see Biggers and TSU’s reach on the art scene in Houston, which is demonstrated further in his correspondence in the archive. A couple of years prior, in 1949, Biggers first came to work at the art department at TSU. However, this university was not his first choice, and he initially declined their offer and accepted a chairman position at Morgan State College in Baltimore instead.[4] Yet, Biggers was eventually persuaded to take the job at TSU, and this seems to be based on two things: the prospect of Houston as a bourgeoning new center for contemporary art and the possibility of shaping the art department at TSU as he saw fit. For instance, in a letter from James E. Dorsey (the Chairman of the Division of Fine Arts and Head of the Department of Music at TSU) to Biggers on May 26, 1949, Dorsey responds to Biggers’s initial decline: “I want you to see this pioneer, fabulous situation which can be molded according to your talents. What could happen here can never happen in the more settled sections of the country. The rapid growth of this City and the related art opportunities will not occur again in our life time, I am sure.”[5] Houston, Dorsey argued, offered Biggers not just a job but a chance at influencing the growing art world in the city. 

Similarly, Biggers’s friend and mentor, the art education professor Viktor Lowenfeld, wrote to him and encouraged Biggers to take the TSU position: “According to your letter, you have a very unique opportunity at the Texas State University and it will entirely depend on you both as to whether you can meet their great challenge. John, don’t let yourself be taken away by money!! While money is a grand thing to have—it is a great danger at the same time!! One easily loses the significant aspects, blinded by material values. Ultimately only those things are significant which are lasting.”[6] Lowenfeld urged Biggers to focus more on the bigger picture of this position, assumingly the potential of creating an art department from scratch. This, combined with Dorsey’s description of a city on the rise, must have been an enticing offer. I find this initial insight from my research into these papers fascinating. They reveal that Biggers did not simply come to TSU for a stable job; instead, his ambitions were nourished, and he was given the chance to be a part of both the shaping of modern art in Houston and the arts education at TSU. And it’s the Arts Festival that partly reveals that crossover. 

As I analyze and research these documents further, I expect to continue constructing this engaging era in Houston’s contemporary art scene of the late 1940s and early 1950s and how it connected to the broader discourse around modern art at the time. Notably, both Biggers and Bess worked from othered positions and marginalized spaces, each trying to carve their say in the dominant artworld, and these voices came together at the 1951 TSU Arts Festival, an overlooked venue that played an active role in the complicated history of modernism. By continuing to examine the Biggers papers from Emory, I also hope to understand further the importance of pedagogy for Biggers and how it intersected with modern art and, in turn, how it overlapped with Bess’s ideas of self-understanding and truth-seeking in his painting practice. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to do this research and for the incredible help and support from the Rose Library archivists and staff.


[1] Forrest Bess, known for his visionary paintings, lived and worked along the Gulf Coast, exhibiting at Betty Parsons Gallery in the 1950s and 60s while earning a living as a fisherman in Chinquapin, Texas.

[2] Third Annual Fine Arts Festival, Texas Southern University, May 6-13, 1951. Box 38, Folder 1, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library, Emory University.

[3] Several of the same faculty and students were included in both exhibitions. Student-Faculty Art Exhibit, State Capitol Building, Austin, Texas, Monday, April 2-9, 1951. Box 38, Folder 1, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library, Emory University.

[4] John Biggers, “John Biggers to O’Hara Lanier,” May 15, 1949, Box 1, Folder 3, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.

[5] James E. Dorsey, “James E. Dorsey to John Biggers,” May 26, 1949, Box 1, Folder 3, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library, Emory University.

[6] Viktor Lowenfeld, “Viktor Lowenfeld to John Biggers,” August 31, 1949, Box 1, Folder 3, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library, Emory University.