PBS American Masters Shorts Launches the Documentary ‘Searching for Augusta Savage’ Tonight




Animation of the creation of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” Augusta Savage’s 16-foot sculpture for the 1939 World’s Fair. Credit: TMVRTX Studio for Audacious Women Productions

Searching for Augusta Savage, a 22-minute film that tells the story of an inspiring and enterprising artist, who in the 1920s and 30s, created a pipeline of creative opportunities for Black artists, will kick off American Masters Shorts, a new digital series from PBS’ flagship biography series, American Masters. Narrated by art historian and curator Jeffreen M. Hayes, Ph.D. (traveling exhibit and book, Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman), with Lorraine Toussaint (Orange is the New Black; The Glorias, The Equalizer) providing dramatic readings of the words of Augusta Savage, Searching for Augusta Savage premieres Thursday, February 15 on American Masters YouTube channel, PBS and the PBS App.

Augusta Savage in her studio working on her 1939 New York World’s Fair monument Lift Every Voice and Sing. Credit: Courtesy of Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library

Sculptor Augusta Savage opened the first gallery in the U.S. dedicated to exhibiting the work of Black artists in 1939. She also founded several organizations that provided free art education and training to 2,500 people, and mentored many celebrated artists, including Romare Bearden, Gwendolyn Knight, Jacob Lawrence, Selma Burke, Norman Lewis, and Kenneth B. Clark. Savage was the first African American elected to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors, later renamed the National Association of Women Artists, and was the only Black artist, and one of four women commissioned to create an exhibit for the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing, New York. While Savage was both active and prolific, only half of the approximately 160 pieces of sculpture she created have survived today, and little is known about her extensive accomplishments.

Searching for Augusta Savage investigates why evidence of Savage’s life and legacy appears to have been erased. Dr. Denise Murrell, Merryl H. and James S. Tisch Curator at Large, and Associate Curator of 19th- and 20th-Century Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, provides analysis in the film about why Savage’s work is missing from most museum collections, stating that, “[In] the museum market, the art market, the galleries, the critical attention was given to male artists.” Murrell is curator of the Met’s exhibition, “The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism,” which opens February 25, and includes two of Savage’s works of art.

Sculptor Augusta Savage with two of her statuettes (left to right) Susie Q and Trucking’ in 1939. Credit: Courtesy of Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library

Searching for Augusta Savage is written, produced and directed by Charlotte Mangin and Sandra Rattley, the makers of UNLADYLIKE2020, the award-winning series of animated documentary shorts distributed by American Masters, which profiles 26 little-known, diverse women history makers, whose acts of courage changed this nation before women had the right to vote. Mangin says, “Searching for Augusta Savage continues our dedication to bringing untold stories to life. Savage’s life has contemporary relevance, as a 2019 analysis by Williams College of more than 40,000 works of art in the permanent collections of 18 major museums revealed that 85% of the artists exhibited in the most visited U.S. museums are white, and 87% are male. Just 0.5% of acquisitions were of the work of Black women.” Rattley adds that, “Audacious Women Productions is proud to revive Augusta Savage’s work and legacy as one of her best known works, ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ commissioned for the 1939 World’s Fair, was bulldozed when the fair ended, and only exists today in souvenir miniatures and archival photographs. Our digital reconstruction of this missing monument helps to expand the archive and reverse Savage’s historical erasure.” Complimentary U.S. history and social studies educational materials for grades 6-12 based on the Searching for Augusta Savage film, produced by The WNET Group’s Kids’ Media and Education team, will be available via PBS LearningMedia.

Searching for Augusta Savage is a production of Audacious Women Productions, LLC in association with American Masters Pictures, and Black Public Media, with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Executive Producers for Searching for Augusta Savage are Charlotte Mangin and Sandra Rattley. Executive Producer for American Masters is Michael Kantor. Digital Lead is Joe Skinner. Executive Producers for Black Public Media are Leslie Fields-Cruz and Denise A. Greene. Support for Searching for Augusta Savage was provided by the National Endowment for the Arts; Heather L. Burns and Kathleen A. Maloy; Humanities New York; Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; Devin and Gina Matthews; Anderson Family Charitable Fund; and The Marc Haas Foundation.