Sunday, March 19, 2000

Collection frames rich culture

David Driskell started buying friends' art and amassed an amazing group of works

The Cincinnati Enquirer

'Maternal Family'
Earl Hooks
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        Art collections are often built on wealth, as rich families enhance their lifestyles and impress their peers with buying and displaying expensive artwork. The David C. Driskell Collection is not one of those collections. Mr. Driskell says he collected art because “I felt I had to.”

        Mr. Driskell, an artist, writer and professor, collected the work of his friends and colleagues. He traded his own paintings for the work of artists he admired.

        “Sometimes my wife and I say that we took a little milk out of our two daughters' mouths to buy art,” Mr. Driskell says. “But we are delighted that we did, because now they have a framework for culture that they would not have had otherwise.”

        Nor would the art world, because that “framework of culture” has grown during the past five decades to become the basis of Narratives of African American Art and Identity. The exhibition opens today at the Cincinnati Art Museum. It is a primary source of African-American cultural history.

  • What: Narratives of African American Art and Identity: The David C. Driskell Collection
  • When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, noon-6 p.m. Sunday, through May 14
  • Where: Cincinnati Art Museum, Eden Park
  • Admission: $5, $4 seniors and students, free for children under 18 and museum members.
  • Information: 721-2787.
        “There are many collections, but this one is unique in that Mr. Driskell knew so many of the artists,” says Timothy Burgard, curator of American Art at the M.H. deYoung Museum in San Francisco, where the exhibition just closed on its six-city national tour.

        “He has carried on a legacy that goes back to Aaron Douglas, who headed the art department at Fisk University and passed the torch on to Mr. Driskell, who followed him, and who has passed the legacy on to his students, many of whom came to San Francisco to see the exhibition here,” Mr. Burgard says.

'I Baptize Thee'
William H. Johnson
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        There are no Van Goghs, Picassos or Pollocks. The artists in this exhibition, which include collagist Romare Bearden, painter Jacob Lawrence and Elizabeth Catlett, one of the first African-American feminist artists, are well known, but only to those who look beyond the European-based art world. This exhibition chronicles the history of African-American art, and it is a history written by, among others, David Driskell.

        Many people become artists because they see it as a glamorous profession. But when Mr. Driskell began collecting art in the 1950s, the artists he knew were different.

        “Art was not a glamorous profession for an African American in those days,” he says. A career as an artist “was going to be a difficult road because these artists weren't going to get the attention of the so-called mainstream world. There were very few teaching positions. Very few had access to commercial galleries.”

Passion began at school
        Mr. Driskell, 70, grew up in the mountains of North Carolina. He began to study and cultivate a passion for art in 1951 at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

'The Black Woman Speaks'
Elizabeth Catlett
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        “To be truthful about it, when I started collecting I didn't really know the significance of it. Part of it I did because I was told to do it by my teachers like Lois Jones, James Porter, James V. Herring, the founder of the art department at Howard University in the 1920s.” All three are represented in Mr. Driskell's collection.

        “Mr. Herring and Alonzo Aden had a gallery, the Barnett-Aden Gallery, in Washington. I had the good fortune to work for these men, mainly for food, but I learned how important art was in imprinting what he (Herring) then called "Negro culture.'

        “They encouraged me to collect, and not only African-American art but Euro-American art and Japanese art. So I grew up in this atmosphere of collecting world art.

        About 10 years into collecting, when Mr. Driskell was a professor of art at Howard University, he realized its impact.

        “I realized, from the internships with Professor Porter, Professor Jones and Professor Herring, that this really was going to be something of great importance. I had taken courses in African-American art history in the 1950s, but when you're young, you don't really see the significance of these things.”

Started with colleagues
        Mr. Driskell began collecting the work of his colleagues, the people “I was teaching with and some of the better students. Then I branched out to friends, and we would exchange works.”

        Mr. Driskell had the advantage of collecting the work of living artists. Not only could he buy their art, he could meet them and learn about them.

        “One of the greatest honors that I have had in the whole collecting area came from the respect that I got from the artists such as Romare Bearden, who gave me work when I visited his studio, Sam Gilliam (an abstract painter) who exchanged with me and William T. Williams (printmaker) who exchanged with me. But I bought a number of them, and my wife and I made sacrifices early on. We just felt that we wanted to live in the presence of these works.

        “I knew Charles White. I knew Romare Bearden. I know Jacob Lawrence. I know Richard Barte, Elizabeth Catlett. You name them, most of the artists that I've selected for my collection I had the good fortune of knowing. That was one of the great joys of the whole journey.”

Back in the studio
        Along the journey he curated exhibitions and wrote books, including Two Centuries of African American Art and African American Visual Aesthetics (out of print). For 20 years he has been curator of comic Bill Cosby's extensive private collection.

        He was adviser to President Clinton on the selection of the first works of African-American art to be added to the White House Collection in 1997. And, until his retirement in 1998, he was chair of the department of art at the University of Maryland.

        Now, after 45 years in the classroom, he's returning to his studio at his home in Hyattsville, Md.

        “I have had to devote a great deal of my time to mentoring those who would carry the mantle; who would do the kinds of things that we wanted done, just as my mentors did for me. And so often people say "I didn't know you painted.' Well, I've been painting since I was a kid.

        “There are two of my pieces in that collection simply because they are part of the family collection. One is from 1953, the other from 1956, which points out that I've been at this thing a long time.”

Collection runs gamut of this genre, Driskell says
Works from permanent collection coincide with Driskell exhibit
Museum acquires sculpture by Elizabeth Cattlett

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