One of America’s most powerful and under-recognized artists, Dr. Charles Smith expresses profound narratives about American and African-American history and culture through his sculptural figures. The largest museum exhibition to present his work, Dr. Charles Smith: Aurora, will be on view at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center from July 14, 2019, through May 17, 2020.

The exhibition will focus on more than 150 works that were part of a major installation at his home in Aurora, Illinois, from 1986 to 1999, which he titled The African-American Heritage Museum and Veterans Archive. The exhibition seeks to show the relevance of the artist’s work beyond its original setting. Most of the work has not been on public view since it was last seen in Aurora in 1999.

The Arts Center’s collection of works by Dr. Charles Smith (b. 1940) is one of thirty-eight collections of artist-built environments that will go to the Art Preserve, now under construction in Sheboygan, Wis., and set to open in August 2020. The Art Preserve is designed to be a research hub and a platform for collaborative exploratory programming. It will be a dynamic site of discussions, interdisciplinary investigations, and workshops dedicated to the conservation, preservation, and the presentation of artist-built environments.

Beginning in 1986, Dr. Smith set to work to transform the entirety of his home and its surrounding property in Aurora, Illinois, into the African-American Heritage Museum and Black Veterans Archive. Over the next fifteen years, Dr. Smith made hundreds of figural sculptures memorializing historical figures, community members, and celebrities, and depicting the tragedies and triumphs of the African-American experience.

After a fateful stop in Hammond, Louisiana, convinced Dr. Smith that he needed to relocate his project there, the majority of the sculptures from his Aurora site were removed, conserved, and acquired by several museums. The 218 sculptures acquired by the Arts Center make it the largest single institutional holding of the artist’s work. Dr. Smith continues his work on the African-American Heritage Museum and Black Veterans Archive today in Hammond.

In the spirit of experimentation, this exhibition is a testing ground for the principles and experiences that will be generated within the Art Preserve. While on view at the Arts Center, the exhibition will evolve as more information is revealed about the collection through audience engagement, interviews with the artist, and ongoing institutional investigation. It will be a laboratory, updated in real time as Dr. Smith is engaged as an artist-consultant and an active participant in the presentation of our collection of his work.