Virginia Jackson Kiah

'Live Your Vision: An online exhibition'

Virginia Jackson Kiah, Ph.D., was a painter, educator, museum founder, and civil rights activist. Born in 1911, Kiah grew up in Baltimore, and spent her formative years working alongside her parents at voter registration drives and other community-based, political activation events. Kiah was a trained portrait painter and arts educator, but as a young artist she was prohibited from entering museums and exhibiting her work solely because of exclusionary and racist practices. Committed to creating spaces of open access, in 1959 — just eight years after moving to Savannah — she opened the Kiah Museum as a "museum for the masses."

Virginia Jackson Kiah
Virginia Jackson Kiah

Kiah had a close, decades-long relationship with SCAD and cared deeply about creating a positive and accepting environment for students to learn and create. In 1986, SCAD awarded her an honorary doctorate of humanities. A year later, she was appointed to the SCAD Board of Trustees where she would serve until 1997. Interested in fostering young artists' work, Kiah created the Kiah Painting Endowed Scholarship, which is still active today.

In 1993, honoring Kiah's lifelong dedication to creating equity in the arts and support for emerging artists, SCAD renamed a prominent SCAD Museum of Art building in her honor. That same year, Kiah donated a selection of her paintings and drawings to the museum. In her donation letter, she explained, "It is my desire that the Kiah collection serve as an inspiration to future artists so that they, too, may live their vision."

Gathered from this significant donation, Live Your Vision brings together a wide range of Kiah's figurative works, from casual self-portraits to regal military portrayals to life drawings. Using an array of media — oil, watercolor, and graphite on supports including canvas, Masonite, and paper — Kiah captured the essence of family, friends, celebrities, and strangers alike. Individually, these portraits are acts of attention, focus, and dignity. Taken as a whole, the exhibition reflects Kiah's deep belief in humanity and the vital role of inspiration and creativity in re-envisioning our future.

About the artist

Virginia Jackson Kiah, Ph.D. (b. June 3, 1911 - d. Dec. 28, 2001) was an artist, educator, civil rights activist, museum founder, philanthropist, and nationally acclaimed portrait painter. She studied portraiture at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art and, in 1931, she graduated with honors. Kiah continued her studies at the University of Pennsylvania and at the Art Students League of New York. In 1950 she received her master's degree from Columbia University. Her work was exhibited at the Baltimore Museum of Art; the Baltimore Women's Civic League; the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh; the first National Council of Negro Women's Conference; the Eggleston Galleries, New York; and the SCAD Museum of Art.


The artist

Virginia Kiah had a wide range of artistic and cultural interests and prioritized engagement with her community. The artworks in this grouping include a self-portrait, a portrait of Kiah's husband, and archival materials including a letter written to her from President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Art school

Virginia Kiah studied with Robert Brackman and Frank Vincent DuMond at the Art Students League of New York. Founded in 1875, the Art Students League was based on the 19th-century French atelier system. This unique approach to teaching visual art cultivated both technical skill and intellectual rigor. This grouping includes portraits Kiah created while studying at the Art Students League.

Nudes and sketches

Drawing the human form from a live model is one of the most enduring practices in Western art education. From highly detailed, photorealistic renderings to loose, expressive gestures, life drawing can develop a trained eye with an expert awareness of light and dark and masterful grasp of musculature and anatomy, as well as many other foundational skills. This grouping encourages a more expansive understanding of Virginia Kiah's artistic practice through examples of her life drawings as well as her more gestural sketches on paper.

Civil rights

Virginia Kiah's interest in art was connected to her advocacy for civil rights. This grouping features portraits of people Kiah worked alongside helping to advocate for a more equitable society. Oftentimes we think of iconic personalities as being the most important figures in social movements, but Kiah's portraits remind us that everyone has the ability to help make change.

In the community

In addition to prominent community figures, Virginia Kiah was also interested in painting members of the community she was less familiar with or people she didn't know at all. From strangers she noticed in a park to movie stars, Kiah used her acute attention to detail and artistic skill to show her deep respect for everyone sharing the world with her.


Born June 3, 1911

Daughter of Keiffer Jackson (1884-1970) and Lillie May Carroll Jackson (1889-1975), Kiah was born and raised in Baltimore. Later, Kiah would meet and marry Calvin Lycurgus Kiah (1910-1994) and move to Savannah, Georgia.

Calvin and Virginia Kiah dedicated their lives to education and the arts. Continuously working between the cities Savannah, Atlanta, and Baltimore well into the 1990s, the Kiahs left a substantial impact on these places and the people they met there.

Graduated with a B.A. from Philadelphia Museum School of Art, 1931
Served as membership secretary for Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, 1935

Kiah received her B.A. in portraiture at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art (1931) and her M.A. at Columbia University (1950). She also briefly studied at the University of Pennsylvania and at the Art Students League of New York where she worked with Robert Brackman and Frank Vincent DuMond.

In Savannah, Kiah taught at Beach High School from 1951 to 1963. Retired from teaching, she pursued her careers as an artist, museum director, and activist.

Graduated with an M.A. from Columbia, 1950
Moved to Savannah, 1951

Kiah and her husband moved to Savannah, Georgia, in 1951 and opened the Kiah Museum in 1959. As a young artist often restricted from visiting museums due to exclusionary and racist practices. Kiah dreamed of opening her own museum that would emphasize inclusivity — a "museum for the masses."

The Kiah Museum was based in their family home in Savannah and was in operation until 2001, with the closure of the museum closely following Kiah's death.

Opened the Kiah Museum, 1959

Kiah's activism began at an early age. Born into a family of activists, facing racial injustice head on was a part of her nature. In the early 1930s Kiah and her sister Juanita Jackson Mitchell formed the City-Wide Young People's Forum in Baltimore. Around the same time Kiah became the membership secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

In addition to these achievements, Kiah was a founding member of the National Conference of Artists in 1959. The initial goal of the NCA was to create an organization that supported African American artists and, "by extension, the creative health of the racial community of which they are a part."

Opened the Lillie May Carroll Jackson Civil Rights Museum, 1978

Kiah's activism was greatly influenced by her mother Lillie May Carroll Jackson. Jackson was the president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP for 30 years and was one of the first people to advocate for nonviolent protests against racial segregation.

Following her death, Kiah inherited her mother's home and used it to open a museum dedicated to Jackson's activism and role in the civil rights movement. The museum is still active today, currently managed by Morgan State University, and plays an important role in the community and the history of Baltimore.

Received an honorary Ph.D. of Humanities from SCAD, 1986
Joined the Board of Trustees, 1987

In 1986, Kiah received an honorary doctorate of humanities from SCAD and was appointed to the SCAD Board of Trustees from 1987 to 1997.

Interested in fostering young artists' works, Kiah and SCAD worked together to create a positive and accepting environment for students to learn.

Dedication of Kiah Hall, 1993

Formerly known as the "Gray Building," Kiah Hall was renamed for Virginia Kiah in 1993 in honor of her dedication to helping emerging artists and to creating equality in the arts.


During her time as a SCAD trustee, Kiah donated money to the school for a painting scholarship. In 2002, a year after her death, her scholarship was combined with the Brooke Reeve Jr. Painting Scholarship and is now the Kiah Painting Endowed Scholarship. The scholarship is active today, providing students the opportunity to learn the art of painting.

Died Dec. 28, 2001

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