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Something All His Own

Something All His Own
The NBA’s Grant Hill hopes his collection of African American art will inspire, excite a younger generationBy Crystal L. Keels

NBA star Grant Hill is known for his skills on the basketball court, his marriage to Grammy award-winning singer, Tamia, and, most recently, for his courageous comeback after several surgeries that jeopardized his professional basketball career. Yet, Hill’s off-the-court activities currently are being considered as exemplary as his athletic performances. “Something All Our Own: The Grant Hill Collection of African American Art,” the 46-piece personal collection of paintings, sculptures and prints currently touring the nation, has gained center court attention in the art and educational arenas.

For the past eight years, Hill has been following the example of his parents — former NFL football great Calvin Hill, and Janet Hill, a Washington, D.C., consultant and trustee at Wellesley College, her alma mater — and has been acquiring the works of African American artists. In the process, the 32-year-old athlete has amassed a remarkable collection (worth an undisclosed amount) that documents the career of the late Romare Bearden and showcases the work of award-winning sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, who, well into her 80s, continues to create. Works by talented African American artists Phoebe Beasley, John Thomas Biggers, Malcolm Brown, Arthello Beck Jr., John Coleman, Edward Jackson and Hughie Lee-Smith complete the collection that debuted in November 2003 at the Orlando Museum of Art in Florida, where the Orlando Magic forward now makes his home.

“(The exhibition) was a great success here,” says Maureen McKenna, assistant curator at the Orlando Museum. “Total admissions were over 50,000, and many school groups attended.” McKenna notes that because of Hill’s celebrity, children admire him. That admiration, she says, increased young people’s interest in the exhibition. “One of the reasons this exhibition was so successful is the (power of) visual arts, of course. Children can relate to them so easily,” McKenna continues. “But these works also have them dealing with history. It was so wonderful to have the work of such important Black artists.” 

McKenna points out that Hill’s personal appearances at the museum were also a big draw.

“Grant was available to do interviews and talk with patrons,” she says. She adds that the exhibition may have helped to dispel notions of the museum as a formidable place. “We appreciate the effort Grant made,” she says. “He made a high quality of art accessible on many levels and that made it a wonderful experience.”

At Morgan State University in Baltimore, which was home to “Something All Our Own” from mid-September until late November, a group of African American middle school children and teachers made their way through the exhibition.

Since the exhibition opened in September, public elementary and high school students have been coming to view the collection on Tuesdays and Thursdays, says E.L. Briscoe, instructor of art theory and criticism and assistant curator of the James E. Lewis Museum of Art on the Morgan State campus.

“The younger kids ooh and aah when they see the works,” Briscoe says. “They ask questions like, ‘Where do they come from?’ and ‘Why did someone do it?’ Older students are interested in stories behind the work,” Briscoe says. He adds that one older art history student even identified some irregularity in the perspective of one of the paintings. Regardless of their ages, Briscoe says students appear to engage significantly with the collection.

And making those types of connections is the primary reason Hill organized his collection as a traveling exhibition.

Dr. Elizabeth Alexander, an adjunct associate professor in African American studies at Yale University, says the motivation behind “Something All Our Own” is to excite and inspire children about the visual arts.

“To see art, talk about it, even if they don’t understand it, if they can stand in the color, that works to encourage the creativity that children have inherently,” says Alexander, a renowned poet, essayist, author of The Black Interior and contributor to the exhibition catalogue. “That is something that gets bred out of us as we get older. To be affiliated with an educational institute is part of the vision (of the project).” 

Commenting on the importance of experiencing a museum, Alexander says she loves to see people taking their children.

“As a young person, I could go to the museum for free. The new Museum of Modern Art (in Manhattan) has a $20 price tag for admission. That makes me sad,” adding that “Something All Our Own” gives children and young adults the opportunity to view the work of what she describes as some of the nation’s most important artists at no cost, thanks to Hill’s generosity.

“I’m glad that a young man has chosen to use his resources this way. It is really, really wonderful, what he is doing with his money in a public way. He is part of a new generation of art collectors,” Alexander says.

“What if the Negro people be wooed from a strife for righteousness, from a love of knowing, to regard dollars as the be-all and end-all of life?” Du Bois prophetically asks in his 1903 work, The Souls of Black Folk, warning of the danger of pursuing money at the expense of losing touch with African American culture and traditions.

Today, with many troubling representations of Black life perpetuated through sports, music and other venues through which individual African Americans have enjoyed economic success, the fears Du Bois expressed about materialism may have materialized.

In that regard, “Something All Our Own,” a line taken from a literary work by Margaret Walker, makes a different statement. Hill’s collection is on tour at the same time the National Gallery of Art’s “The Art of Romare Bearden” — on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York until early January — is also traveling the country.

“This moment hasn’t come before,” Alexander says about the concurrent exhibitions that showcase African American art and artists.

She says she is pleased at this particular point in history with Hill’s interest in collecting and his willingness to share his enthusiasm with others.

“It’s not about bling,” Alexander says about Hill’s endeavor, “it’s about culture. I hope the exhibition will provide an example for other young people to do what they can to caretake our culture.”

African American art collection and the caretaking of culture seems to have clear generational demarcations, however, according to Chicago collector Patric McCoy.

“People (now) go after entertainers who have ready cash and can get them into the market for established artists, not impulse buying,” explains McCoy, who is president of Diasporal Rhythms, an organization of African American art collectors. “This new generation has come into a lot of money. They rely on art dealers and galleries to tell them what pieces you need to have — a Bearden, a Catlett.”

Walter Shannon, who with his wife, Cathy, established E&S Gallery in Louisville, Ky., concurs. Noting generational differences, Shannon explains, for example, that African American painter Jacob Lawrence never entered an art gallery until he was 19 years old. That is not necessarily the case with the new generation of art collectors.

“New collectors are young and have a greater awareness, more exposure to African American art, and many (collect) by the book,” Shannon says.

The canonization of artists and their work in this way has a significant down side, some long-time collectors argue.

“Master collectors collected the work, not just a commodity,” says McCoy, who has been acquiring African American art since the late 1960s. “I feel I have to know the artists I collect. Collecting always involves your feelings about a piece, then your relationship with an artist and longevity — because current art is not always going to speak to you two generations from now.”

Yet McCoy insists upon the significance of current art and artists, not just the work of well-known and revered African American artists, to advance culture. He explains that collectable work depends on the mix of an artist’s creativity, subject matter and something special.

“Your eye can see it. Your spirit feels it,” McCoy says. “If we are going to promote the culture, we are going to have to promote it as it is created. I want people to be inspired, continue to challenge, take techniques and turn them. We’ve got a lot of discussions that need to happen.”

One of those discussions is aspiring to excellence, and the significance of Hill’s decision to make his private collection public is that the traveling exhibition aids in that conversation, McCoy says.

“Something All Our Own,” with guest curator Dr. Alvia Wardlaw, an internationally known expert on African American art and history, is designed to initiate a multifaceted discussion and engage people on many levels. 

The accompanying catalogue is available nationally and includes commentary from: historian Dr. John Hope Franklin, Dr. Elizabeth Alexander from Yale, Dr. Beverly Guy-Sheftall, a professor of women’s studies and English at Spelman College, Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski and the Hill family.

There is also a 20-minute video that features Wardlaw and Elizabeth Catlett and showcases the collection with comments from the Hill family about their personal connections to the works.

At Morgan State, Corey Hargis, a student from the South Baltimore Career Center viewing the exhibit with classmates, says that the video enhances his understanding of the exhibition better than the actual pieces themselves. “The video gave me better insight into what they were saying about making connections,” says 14-year-old Hargis, adding that he is impressed that a professional basketball player has undertaken this artistic project.

Ashley Taylor, Hargis’ classmate, says she appreciates the realistic elements in the art work. “I can relate to some of the pictures,” she says. “There are everyday things I can connect with.” Morgan’s Briscoe explains that the collection is more than just a visual documentation of history. “Grant Hill is collecting moments in time,” Briscoe says.

Hill is also assisting four young visual artists with the Something All Our Own Scholarship, a $10,000 competitive program of the Grant Hill Scholarship Foundation, which presented its first awards in September. 

This is not Hill’s first foray into assisting people to pursue their educational goals. In 1999 Hill and his family established a $84,700 scholarship fund at Dillard University in New Orleans in memory of his grandfather, Malcolm McDonald. In 2000, Hill and his wife gifted his alma mater, Duke University, with $1 million to establish an endowed athletic scholarship fund. For these, and other efforts, Hill is considered “one of the good guys” in the NBA.

Ted Ellis, a nationally acclaimed African American artist based in Friendswood, Texas, says he commends Grant Hill for this artistic endeavor. “I never thought it would come from the athletic world,” Ellis says about the exhibition. “Hill is a visionary and it is unprecedented, the way he has taken it to our communities. This is the first time an athlete who has a comprehensive collection uses it with a purpose. It’s an outstanding exhibit. With the tutelage of his parents, he has cracked open the door enough to pay attention to African American art.”   

During an interview in December 2003, Hill shared his own perspective on the project.

“I just want to try to open up the world of art, the world of being for artists and collectors,” he told Orlando City Beat. “I think the genre of African American art is under- appreciated, and I wanted to try and bring to the light some of the great artists who haven’t had the recognition they deserve.”

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