New documentary on influential Harlem Renaissance artist launches in honor of Black History Month

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

A new documentary on one of the most influential Harlem Renaissance artists — and her erasure — launches the new American Masters Shorts series in honor of Black History Month.

“Searching for Augusta Savage” is an exploration of the life and work of sculptor Augusta Savage and how her legacy and works of art have been ignored or neglected.

Savage’s words are brought to life in the documentary by Screen Actors Guild, Critics Choice and NAACP Image Award-winning actress Lorraine Toussaint (The Equalizer, Selma, Orange is the New Black). The film is written, produced and directed by Charlotte Mangin and Sandra Rattley.

The only African American commissioned to create an exhibit for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the sculpture that Savage created was dismantled and destroyed after the fair.

In fact, nearly 44 percent of her artwork has been lost or is missing — 70 of 160 pieces. This is despite the fact that Savage was a mentor to the likes of celebrated artists Romare Bearden, Gwendolyn Knight, Jacob Lawrence, Selma Burke, Norman Lewis and Kenneth B. Clark, and trained a new generation of artists in the school she created in 1937, the Harlem Community Art Center.

Savage also opened the first Black art gallery, the Salon of Contemporary Negro Arts in Harlem, and was an arts advocate.

Born in Green Cove Springs, Fl, she eventually moved to Harlem, where she entertained the likes of Bessie Smith, Zora Neale Huston, Richard Wright, W. E. B. Du Bois and Countee Cullen.

“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, kicked off on Thursday on American Masters Shorts, a new digital series from PBS’ flagship biography series, American Masters.

Jeffreen Hayes in conversation with Tammi Lawson, curator of art and artifacts at the Schomburg Center. Photo by Jane
Jeffreen Hayes in conversation with Tammi Lawson, curator of art and artifacts at the Schomburg Center. Photo by Jane Macedo Yang for Audacious Women Productions

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” premiered on American Masters YouTube channel, PBS and the PBS App.

Sculptor Augusta Savage opened the first gallery in the US 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.

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, Queens.

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.

“[In] the museum market, the art market, the galleries, the critical attention was given to male artists,” says Murrell, curator of the Met’s exhibition, “The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism,” which opens Feb. 25, and includes two of Savage’s works of art.

Sculptor Augusta Savage with her monument Realization (1936), which is missing today.
Sculptor Augusta Savage with her monument Realization (1936), which is missing today.Photo 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.

“’Searching for Augusta Savage’ continues our dedication to bringing untold stories to life,” Mangin told Caribbean 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 percent of the artists exhibited in the most visited US museums are white, and 87 percent are male. Just 0.5 percent of acquisitions were of the work of Black women.”

Rattley said 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,” she added. “For over 40 years, Augusta Savage was ‘all in’ in her support and advocacy for arts education, teaching art to children and establishing institutions to further that mission.

“As a result, her legacy and impact has been limitless in all the young people, aspiring artists and established artists she trained, inspired and supported,” Rattley continued. “Her dedication and commitment to creating a pipeline for success and creative output for others has been groundbreaking, and the benefits from that will continue for generations to come.”

Virginie Danglades – editor of the film, whose family comes from Martinique in the French Caribbean and who works in documentary and narrative films, as well as television – also told Caribbean Life that she didn’t know about Augusta Savage before joining the production team and editing this short film.

“Augusta Savage’s work is phenomenal, evocative; her personal story poignant,” said Danglades, who edited the 2024 Oscar-nominated short film, “The Barber of Little Rock”. “She was a talented Black female artist; however, her window of success had been cut short and recognition inexplicably faded away.

“Historically, not only was she a leading artist herself but also an art teacher and mentor who championed the burgeoning group of new Negro artists who, at the time, weren’t given any opportunities to shine,” added Danglades, who, for Netflix, edited “Harry and Meghan” and “Principles of Pleasure.”

She said “Searching for Augusta Savage” provides “the opportunity to re-introduce Augusta Savage and her work to art lovers and to help reestablish the important place she held on the Harlem Renaissance art scene.

“She was fierce and played a definite part in advancing the career of many of the talented African-American artists. whose work is admired today,” said Danglades, who also edited the archival-based series “Unladylike2020” and the 2020 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Award-winning “Reconstruction: America After the Civil War”.

Danglades also served as editor for the 2017 Cannes Film Festival documentary feature “No Farewells” (Sans Adieu) and worked on several seasons of CNN’s “This is Life” with Lisa Ling and OWN’s “Our America” with Lisa Ling.

She said her Caribbean roots are part of her cultural identity, stating that she was “proud to be of Caribbean descent and happy if it can infuse my work.

“This heritage might give me a certain type of inquisitiveness and perspective, when I approach the way to edit a film, especially on projects exploring art and creativity, ancestry and the question of race,” Danglades said.

Complimentary US 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.

Websites:,, @PBSAmerMasters,,