After more than two years of courtship, Paul R. Jones donated his vast collection of African-American art to the University of Alabama.
The new stewards of the $4.8 million collection plan to display pieces on campus and loan works to other universities and museums.
“It’s significant beyond measure,” said Robert Olin, dean of the Colleges of Arts and Sciences at a news conference Tuesday. “We’ve only begun the possibilities this gift brings.”
With more than 1,700 pieces, it is considered one of the largest collections of African-American art, and was coveted by more than Olin and UA. But Jones said he picked Tuscaloosa for several reasons, chief among them is Alabama. Though he lives in Atlanta, he was born in Bessemer.
“This is my way of coming back home in wanting to give a gift to the state of my birth,” he said. “This is a gift to Alabama and Alabamians.”
Jones, 80, grew up in the mining town of Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Co. and went to Alabama State University, where he played football. He finished his college education at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and was then denied admission into UA’s School of Law in 1949 after it was discovered he was black.
He lived in Birmingham and worked for the Community Chest, formerly known as the Birmingham Interracial Committee of the Jefferson County Coordinating Council for Social Forces.
He then embarked on a 15-year career with the federal government. He worked with the departments of Justice and Housing and Urban Development before becoming deputy director of the Peace Corps based in Thailand.
Though frugal and a smart investor, Jones is not independently wealthy like many art collectors. After buying three pieces from a street vendor in the 1960s, he was hooked on art. He went to free lectures and talked to artists to learn, and decided his collection would be African-American art.
He said museums would rarely display works by black Americans, and, when they did put on an exhibition, it was usually in February, which is also Black History Month.
“My goal had been to incorporate African-American art into American art,” he said.
By 2001, he had more than 1,500 pieces, and he decided to donate 900 of them to the University of Delaware, where those works are still on permanent display.
Jones said Delaware’s commitment to preserve the collection and a strong art program were factors in that donation. Also, Atlanta’s historically black institutions, Spelman and Morehouse colleges, could not afford to house the collection while showcasing it permanently, Jones said.
But Delaware had another advantage — Amalia Amaki, an art professor and curator of the collection. She met Jones in 1982 when, as a volunteer for an Atlanta museum, she catalogued his collection in exchange for the museum displaying some pieces.
Olin hired her in January 2007 to fill a faculty vacancy at UA.
“Whether we got the collection or not, we got an outstanding professor and scholar,” Olin said.
Olin met Jones in August 2006, when UA awarded an honorary degree to the collector before he was the keynote speaker for the graduation ceremony. From there, Olin and his staff developed a relationship, he said.
Since his donation to Delaware, Jones rebuilt his collection even larger, and he talked with museums, Delaware and other institutions such as the University of Georgia about donating. But though Amaki’s presence in Tuscaloosa helped, he donated to UA because he’s from Alabama, he said.
And rather than selling and walking away a multimillionaire, he wanted a university to use it to teach.
“I wanted to see this rolled into the curriculum so students see African-American art as American art,” he said.
Although not a star-studded collection of masterpieces — the most valued piece is worth $13,000 — Jones’ collection is noteworthy for its breadth and scope, Amaki said.
“It’s very eclectic,” she said. “Not everything was purchased because it satisfied the taste of an individual collector.”
Included are photographs and paintings of all sizes, materials and form. The only rule for Jones was that the pieces be created by black Americans, and often the works come from young or struggling artists, Amaki said.
Through October, 24 pieces will be in the Sarah Moody Gallery of Art, and the bulk of the collection will be on display at the Bryant Conference Center in early March, Olin said.
Now that Jones has twice given to universities, he is collecting again, Amaki said. Last week, she and four others stripped the works from the walls and nooks of his house, but when she returned Monday to pick him up, Amaki said she saw about a dozen more pieces stacked on the wall waiting to be hung.
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