Art from the Cheyney University collection

Fine art festival to celebrate the gift planned for November 11-13

PHILADELPHIA—Few universities have undergone as drastic a transformation as Cheyney University in recent years.  Once on the brink of closure, Cheyney has been reborn as a model of excellence in higher education.  Thanks to the tireless efforts of its faculty, staff, and students, Cheyney is now a thriving institution with a bright future.  When you talk to Cheyney’s faculty, staff, returning students, and alums, you’ll hear a familiar refrain: This is a new Cheyney! 

A new vision.  A new trajectory.  A new leadership team.  A new applied research institute.  This is the spirit of innovation that drives Cheyney today.  “The vision for this university is that it strives for excellence in academics, character, and social responsibility,” said President Aaron Walton, who is leading the charge.

Julani Ghana is an academic success center director at Cheyney University, an HBCU.

As a result of this vision, Cheyney University is poised to host possibly the largest fine arts festival ever held on an HBCU (Historically Black College and University) campus.

HBCUs have played a vital role in preserving Black art and culture. While initially created to provide educational opportunities for Black Americans, HBCUs have always been much more than simply institutions of higher learning.  They have served as incubators for Black creativity and achievement, nurturing some of our time’s most influential artists, thinkers, and leaders.  Today, HBCUs continue to play an essential role in ensuring that the history and legacy of Black art are not lost or forgotten.


Recognizing this legacy, October Gallery, the oldest Black art gallery in Philadelphia, generously donated over 100 pieces of art at Cheyney University, the oldest HBCU in the country, this summer.  This followed the donation of 170 pieces to commemorate the school’s 170th anniversary 15 years ago.  The permanent collection of the school now consists of 270 pieces.  The addition of such a generous and significant donation has elevated Cheyney’s status as a destination for high culture.

In celebration of this achievement, October Gallery will host an opening exhibition November 11-13 and a Fall Art Exhibition at Cheyney in the Carnegie Library, which houses the art.  This is an important event for the school and Philadelphia as a whole. Organizers say it is an opportunity to celebrate Black excellence in the arts and to showcase the importance of HBCUs.

Joyce Abbott a Cheyney graduate, Philadelphia teacher, and namesake for the hit TV series Abbott Elementary, will have her portrait unveiled at the art expo.

The art on display features some of today’s most outstanding Black artists.  Many highly valuable and significant pieces of artwork are included in the donated art collection. Artists whose work will be featured in the exhibition included Andrew Turner, Romare Bearden, George Hunt, James Murphy, Charles Bibbs, Larry “Poncho” Brown, John Biggers, Cal Massey, Samuel Byrd, Kevin Williams, Frank Morrison, Paul Goodnight, Betye Saar, Annie Lee, Edwin Lester, Joseph Holston, Arthello Beck, Brenda Joysmith, Frank Frazier, Gwendolyn E. Redfern, William Tolliver, Ted Ellis, Gilbert Young and many more.

 “The donation of new art and an upcoming exhibition is a pivotal moment in the transformation or re-imagining of Cheyney University.  This will spark renewed interest from both external communities and students who have been showing up recently at Carnegie Hall with more curiosity about what’s going on here than ever before!” Julani Ghana, Director of Academic Success, told The Final Call.

“The creative arts got pushed to the side as we were trying to train people to be accountants and communications professionals and teachers and all those things, all of which are good.  So, it’s great to see Cheyney have the opportunity to spearhead a resurgence in the arts maybe and maybe even double down by expanding their programs here,” he said.

Philadelphia artist Muhsana Ali in front of her art at the Cheyney University collection.

Richard Watson, artist in residence and exhibits manager with the Philadelphia Afro-American Museum, has contributed to the donated art.  He told The Final Call, “Cheyney University has been making strides in getting more visibility for being as culturally relevant and artistically creative an institution.  Now it is a perfect storm that will bring art to the academic arena, giving everyone access, whether from inside or outside our community!”

“I think it’s tantamount that people understand Cheyney has never gotten its right sense of recognition as a major institution for so many great artists who have come out and developed young Black minds in the communities.  We have some key figures like Laura Wheeler Waring or John T. Harris; these are crucial thinkers within the 20th-century art world,” Mr. Watson said.

“The work of an artist has the power to speak volumes, not just through words but also with visuals.  And when you donate your art to support someone else’s creativity and vision—that makes it even more powerful because they are receiving these donations from people who supported their growth as well!” he added.

Joyce Abbott, a Cheyney graduate, Philadelphia teacher, and namesake for the hit TV series Abbott Elementary, will have her portrait unveiled at the art expo. She said to The Final Call, “I think the art collection is awesome.  It’s great because, as we know that Cheyney has undergone some challenges and struggles in its past, even with a great history!  The pieces are an investment not only for themselves but also on behalf of future generations who will be able to learn from them too.”

She added, “I am so excited for October Gallery’s exhibit!  The artwork will be impactful and inspire not only those who love art but also many students at the school that might never have considered an interest in painting or drawing before.  This collection is another source of pride.”

Mercer Redcross, the owner of October Gallery and Cheyney graduate, sat down for a personal interview with The Final Call.  He provided the back story of the generous art donation and his decision to hold the fall art exhibition at Cheyney.

“It is not just October Gallery that is donating the artwork.  The project was a collaborative effort.  We contacted Black baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964.  Most of them went to HBCUs.  Initially, we asked if you would consider donating a piece to this collection.  There was no pushback whatsoever.  They stepped up because they realized that institutions like Cheyney helped them succeed,” he said.

“The idea was to bring people to see the art.  Furthermore, to see how beautiful this campus is.  Seeing the collection might make them want to bring their children, grandchildren, and friends back, and they might also find out that there is a spirit here,” Mr. Redcross continued.

“Education was a big part of what we did.  Previous shows were educational, and you could show it by buying something.  So, we kept saying we might find a school and do it there.  In time and knowing the history of HBCUs, supporting Black artists and African American artists forever, and since we had donated these pieces to Cheyney, we thought, let’s do it there.  Our legacy is tied to the legacy of the Black community,” he said.