In the 1970s, African art wasn't getting the attention it deserved, according to Doris Ligon.
Ligon, then a student at Howard Community College and Columbia resident, noticed her “Art in Man’s Culture” class did not include African art. Years later, when Ligon worked as a docent at the then-Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., she saw few visitors coming through the doors.
So in 1980, Ligon and her husband, Claude, decided to open their own African art outreach program and gallery.
“We had no art, no money, had never been to Africa and had no friends from Africa,” Ligon says. “I felt it was something I needed to do.”
They bought their first pieces — masks from the Ivory Coast — from Abram “Al” Engelman, a local art collector. Then, they began touring. The first Saturday and Sunday of every month, the Ligons displayed their collection at interfaith centers in the villages of Wilde Lake and Oakland Mills. Their motto: “Have art, will travel.”
As the collection and interest grew, the Ligons found temporary homes for the art, ranging from their family room to the former Rockland Arts Center in Ellicott City and Phelps Luck Elementary School in Columbia. They also renamed their initiative the Maryland Museum of African Art.
It was in 1989 that Ligon and the museum got their biggest break: a new home at the historic Oakland Manor.
The museum, which occupied the mansion’s second floor, finally had space to display hundreds of African wood carvings, tapestries, sculptures and masks — and a high-end place for people to appreciate the art, Ligon says.
“Traditional African art deserved that kind of background,” she says.
The museum, now called the African Art Museum of Maryland, also held events and hosted African ambassadors at the manor to spread awareness of African art.
In 2011, the museum moved to its current home in Fulton.
Building a museum wasn’t easy, Ligon says. Finding art and funding was a constant challenge.
“It was a whole lot more fun to talk about it than to do it,” she jokes.
Still, she says she’s glad she took the leap with her husband.
“If you have an idea, have a partner to be there with you,” she says. “It makes it easier. And start small.”