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One of the most significant collections of African-American art in the world was assembled not by a wealthy patron but by a middle-class couple from San Antonio. In the 1980s, Harmon and Harriet Kelley began buying the occasional painting of a Texas landscape. But in 1986, the San Antonio Museum of Art brought in the touring exhibition, “Hidden Heritage: Afro-American Art from 1800-1950.”
The Kelleys attended the show – and it changed their lives.
HARMON KELLEY: We went there with essentially no understanding, no realizing what we were going to see. And we saw things we’d never seen before.
“Hidden Heritage” was a landmark exhibition created by art historian David Driskell. It showcased dozens of notable artists who were not that widely known. Artists such as Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden and Elizabeth Catlett.
The Kelleys were inspired to learn more – and to buy their first work by a black artist. It was a 1910 pastel by Henry Tanner.
HARMON KELLEY: We were basically finding things that had been kind of neglected in textbooks, museums, media and everything.
Actually, even in the 1980s, the art world knew about a painter like Jacob Lawrence. But Harmon Kelley points out there still wasn’t a big demand for Lawrence’s work. Museums would buy a single painting by him, and that was all.
It was artistic tokenism. But it worked to the Kelleys’ advantage. Works by major African-American artists remained affordable. Harmon Kelley is a gynecologist, Harriet is a biologist. Yet in the past two decades, the couple has acquired more than three hundred pieces by black artists. The selection of 92 artworks at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth features etchings, lithographs, watercolors and drawings.
While educating themselves about black art, the Kelleys pursued their own preferences for landscapes and portraits. But as African-Americans, what the couple also looked for were positive images of working blacks, of middle-class blacks.
HARMON KELLEY: In lots of cases, there were black people that worked that helped to make America great that often times weren’t depicted. So the black artist depicts who helped move America, helped make it great. And those are scenes that Harriet and I absolutely enjoy.
As a result, the exhibition at the Amon Carter has two clusters. One is from the ‘60s and ‘70s when the civil rights movement inspired black artists. The other is from the ‘30s and ‘40s, when the New Deal’s Federal Art Project gave some African-Americans their first real paying jobs as artists.
Ron Adams is a master printmaker in New Mexico. His portrait of Robert Blackburn (above) is the exhibition’s signature image. Blackburn was a New Deal artist, and Adams has been around long enough to have worked with some of the New Deal pioneers.
RON ADAMS: I got a lot of admiration for the artists because during that particular time, for a black person to be in art, there was no money in art, there’s no money in it now, hardly. You know, they did it because that’s what they loved doing.
Blackburn founded the Printmaking Workshop in New York. He won a MacArthur genius grant and became a major teacher and collaborator with other black artists – artists like Ron Adams, Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence.
That portrait of Blackburn at his printing press is a quintessential image from the Kelley collection. It depicts a working African-American, a working black artist. And it does what the Kelley collection also does: It honors a tradition, a lineage, in African-American art.
In doing so, the Kelleys helped bring these artists to public attention. Now museums avidly bid for their works. Ironically, that’s made the Kelleys’ collecting harder. When they started in the ‘80s, paintings or prints by Jacob Lawrence would sell for a few thousand dollars.
Two years ago, then First Lady Laura Bush unveiled a modern masterpiece acquired through a private trust fund as part of a renovation of the White House’s Green Room. The 1947 painting by Jacob Lawrence — called “The Builders” — was purchased at auction at Christie’s.
Its price? $2.5 million dollars.
The Harmon and Harriet Kelley Collection of African-American Art: Works on Paper is on view at the Amon Carter through Aug. 23.