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Erasing An Absence

Erasing An AbsenceThe Paul R. Jones Collection’s Inaugural
Exhibition of African American Art Treasures Debuts at University of DelawareBy Ronald Roach

With the opening of “A Century of African American Art: The Paul R. Jones Collection” at the University of Delaware this fall, the inclusion of African American art in the annals of American visual art is believed to have taken a significant leap forward.

The inaugural exhibition of 101 works by 66 African American artists has been celebrated as a landmark debut for what represents one of the collections -largest collection of African American art housed at a public U.S. institution. The exhibition is culled from more than 500 works of art Jones has donated to the University of Delaware. The expected total donation from Jones will be roughly 1,000 pieces out of a collection of more than 1,500 art works he’s collected, according to officials.

“We’ve been entrusted with an extraordinary educational and cultural asset. Our commitment is to preserve, enhance and to share that asset,” says Dr. Daniel Rich, the University of Delaware provost. 

“Paul Jones was motivated to collect largely because of absence — too few works of African American artists on museum walls, in gallery displays and at auctions,” according to Dr. Amalia Amaki, the curator of the Jones collection.

Last month, Jones, who has been called the “dean” of African American art collectors, helped preside over a series of public events at the campus based in Newark, Del., to commemorate the inaugural exhibition. A popular and much appreciated figure in the African American art world, the 76-year-old Jones showed considerable enthusiasm at events that reunited him with several of the artists whose works are included in his collection and brought him in contact with dozens of art fans who had traveled to Newark to celebrate the exhibition. 

“My contention is that we need to push forward the African American presence in art,” declared Jones at a forum during the celebration.

On display in the exhibition are works by 20th-century African American masters in American art. Among the original paintings, prints, sculpted pieces and photographs are works by Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Charles White, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Jacob Lawrence, Hale Woodruff, Margaret T. Burroughs, James Van Der Zee and Leo Twiggs. The works occupy spaces in the Old College university gallery and Mechanical Hall, both historic buildings on the Delaware campus. Officially the home of the collection, Mechanical Hall has undergone a $4.6 million renovation, paid for primarily through university funds, to create a museum for storage, conservation, academic activities and exhibition space.
Witnessing the energetic Jones during the exhibition celebration, just a week after the U.S. presidential election, proved similar to watching a candidate savor election victory while in the company of his closest supporters. In receptions, talks and a book signing, Jones eagerly interacted with those around him. Full of hugs, joking banter and friendly chat, Jones exuded the charm and down-to-earth affability that has helped make him one of the most recognized figures in American art.

“You don’t have to be a Rockefeller or a Mellon to buy art. Timing is key,” he told nearly 100 people who attended one of his talks.

Launched this past September, the inaugural exhibition is scheduled to run through June 2005 at the Delaware campus. Afterwards, the exhibition will travel to Spelman College in Atlanta, a move which represents the fulfillment of a cooperative arrangement the University of Delaware has with Spelman in regards to sharing the collection with historically Black institutions.

Beaming with pride, Margo Humphrey posed for pictures while standing between “Hometown Blues” and “Pulling Your Own Strings,” two of her lithographs that hang in the Old College gallery. Humphrey, an art professor at the University of Maryland College Park, considered it “an honor to be included in the Paul Jones collection.”

“(Paul’s) very serious about giving African American artists their worth,” she explained.

Humphrey also expressed admiration for what she considered a quality environment for the exhibition. Taking note of the colors in the floor and the walls as well as the lighting, Humphrey said it was gratifying to have her work on display.

“The lighting is beautiful and the colors are great,” she said, noting that the curator Amaki deserved much credit for the well-designed space.

“I am impressed with the way the art is presented. It’s been installed wonderfully,” said Larry Walker, a retired Georgia State University professor and artist whose painting “Prelude” is in the exhibition. 

He expressed appreciation for the earth-tone colors in the flooring and the walls in the gallery. “I’m glad they grouped the art for presentation, and they’ve spaced the paintings well,” Walker added.  

For Marvin Mosely, the son of the late artist and former University of Maryland Eastern Shore faculty member Jimmie Lee Mosely, seeing the exhibition helped him to reconnect with the legacy of his father. The late Mosely sold “Humanity #2,” a 1968 watercolor painting, to Jones sometime in the early 1970s, according to Mosely.  

“It does me good seeing his work,” said Mosely, whose father died in 1974.

When Jones and university officials announced in 2001 that the university would permanently hold the core of the Jones collection, the announcement set the higher education art world abuzz (see Black Issues, March 29, 2001). Although it is no secret that the university has had one of the more renowned programs in American art history, as well as one of the top art conservation programs, people familiar with Jones’ long-time association with historically Black colleges and universities still wondered at the selection of the University of Delaware instead of a Black school.  

“He’s very well-known among the artists at the historically Black schools. He’s always willing to speak and come to the Black institutions,” says Dr. Peggy Blood, a Georgia artist.

Blood, who is an art professor at Savannah State University, says she asked Jones why his collection wasn’t going to an HBCU. 

Blood says she happened to be visiting Jones at his Atlanta home when visiting Delaware representatives were negotiating with him about donating his collection to the university. “This was about four or five years ago. He had two of my paintings and he had wanted them to go to a Delaware exhibition,” she explains.

For his part, Jones has explained that out of several schools, including both HBCUs and non-HBCUs, the University of Delaware proved the most willing to meet conditions he felt would enhance the exposure of the collection, as well as its integration within the larger context of American art.

“I got to know the University of Delaware over several years. The people at Delaware were responsive to what I had to say,” Jones says.

Lori Crawford, the chair of the art department at historically Black Delaware State University, says she has been in conversations about Jones’ choice of Delaware over the past few years. She defends the choice given that it made the most sense for such a large collection to go to a school where it could be part of a full-scale museum rather than one that simply has just gallery space for art exhibitions, which is often the case with HBCUs, according to Crawford.

Hampton, Morgan State, North Carolina Central universities and Spelman College are among HBCUs which have art museums on their campuses.

Georgia State’s Walker says he’s pleased to see Delaware making the commitment it has because “not every school is so willing.” Atlanta-based Georgia State was among the non-HBCUs that competed to win the collection, according to Walker.

Among the conditions met by the University of Delaware was committing the collection to be part of the art history and studio arts curriculums, as well as making it available to faculty and students in the arts and sciences and from other institutions. Jones also insisted the school hire an African American curator to oversee the collection. That request led to the hiring of Amaki, who has been involved with the Jones collection for more than two decades.

In addition to the University of Delaware’s willingness to exhibit, conserve and use the collection in academic programs, the school pledged to develop cooperative agreements with HBCUs and to use cutting-edge technology to digitize the works for online viewing.  So far, Spelman College has developed the most extensive relationship with the University of Delaware, according to officials. The university is also working with Delaware State University and hopes to establish a relationship with Howard University, according to the provost.

Dr. Judith Wilson, a professor of art history and an expert in African American art at the University of California-Irvine, says the University of Delaware arrangement addresses a number of admirable goals, which can serve to advance the study and appreciation of African American art. Though the American art history field has long ignored the contributions of Black artists, Wilson says that is changing as public and private museums and galleries include increasingly more works by African American artists.

Wilson also notes that the HBCU agreement pays homage to the legacy established by HBCUs as the only institutions that actively purchased works by Black artists for the first half of the 20th century. “Howard, Fisk, Atlanta University and Hampton were the major buyers of Black artists,” Wilson says.

Dr. Phyllis Jackson, an art history professor at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., says it is possible that Jones assembled what many consider a highly representative collection of Black artists in the 20th century largely because he came along during a transitional period of African American art history. An entrepreneur, Jones is a former federal administrator and mediator during the civil rights movement who began collecting art in the early 1960s. She contends that after the Harlem Renaissance, there ceased to be serious activity on the part of individual collectors who were amassing significant collections of Black art.

“Between the Harlem Renaissance and the 1980s, nobody’s buying Black art,” Jackson says.

Since the late 1980s, collecting Black art has grown fairly popular among a broad spectrum of people, according to Jackson. Celebrities such as Bill Cosby have also helped to spark interest in African American art collecting. There’s considerably more work to be done in getting African American art included in academic study, she says.

It’s still rare for exhibitions of African American art to visit Southern California where she can have students study the works, Jackson continues. So it’s critical that collections such as the one in Delaware bring into circulation African American-produced art works that can be studied and appreciated, she says.

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