Monday, February 16, 2009

Collecting As a Way of Life

The National Gallery of Art is sponsoring a series of programs focusing on collecting African American art. This auditorium lecture series, of three programs, commenced on Sunday, February 8, 2009 and will end on February 22, 2009. It starts at 2:00 P.M.

I missed the first lecture in the series, but did attend the second, this past Sunday. The second in the series focused on "Collecting as a Way of Life," featuring the art collection of Juliette Bethea. This was not a lecture, but a conversation between Juliette and Ruth Fine, curator of special projects in modern art, National Gallery of Art. The backdrop on the stage featured an enlarged image of a central wall in Juliette's home and the two sat in front of that image, allowing the audience to peer into the personal space of the collector. It was an effective means to present the art. I felt that I had been invited into Juliette's living space and was a part of a tour without being intrusive. Each piece of art on the central wall was described, mentioning artist, title, medium, year, provenance, and anecdotal stories as they existed. The anecdotal stories added a richness to the visual tour and gave it a familiar and personal touch. Throughout the explanation of the art, select pieces of art were highlighted, featuring visual detail and projected on another portion of the wall on the stage. This technique afforded the audience an opportunity to see an even clearer image of the art and allowed the conversation to focus specifically on what was being highlighted. The overall presentation worked.

A few of the visual artists represented included: Romare Bearden, Herbert Gentry, Richmond Barthe, Elizabeth Catlett, Dox Thrash, Frank Smith, Samella Lewis, etc. The overall collection was strong in textiles, representing international weavers. Also, there was a major collection of Mary Jackson's baskets; Juliette has collected baskets since 1993 and is a strong supporter of the fiber artist, Mary Jackson, owning a large collection of her intricately coiled vessels that preserve the centuries-old craft of sweetgrass basketry.

There were a couple of personal favorites that I liked in the lithographs of James Wells. One was Wells' "Rendezvous" (1930), featuring a male and female, in which the faces were very similar to that of "The Negro Worker." They were signature Wells' faces. The collector expressed that she collected works that were not widely known images. Again, such is the case with Wells' "Waterfront and Cape Cod."

There was a short question and answer period, but the following was gleaned from the questions posed, as suggestions to help the young or new collector:
  • Stay true to yourself. This collector is non-traditional in her selections and her art selections come from her passion and belief in conserving the culture.
  • Tips to being a successful collector include being actively involved in the process of collecting by going to museums, art shows, galleries, meeting artists, and studying.
  • Buy what you like.

One of the most salient points made in the conversation is that Juliette collected as a working class individual and is not wealthy, and she looks at herself as the custodian of the works that she has collected. In many instances, she got to know the artists and supported the efforts of many young artists, trying to make a difference in their lives in a tangible way. She believes very strongly in encouraging young artists, and she collects their works, but they were not featured in the visual presentation. In planning the program, the decision was made to stay with the historical artists.

See the podcast:

The final segment in this three part series will be on February 22, 2009 at 2:00 P.M., featuring Harmon and Harriet Kelley, collectors in conversation with Deborah Willis, university professor and chair, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.

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