Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Great Collector: Notes on Harriet Kelley

Art collector Harriet Kelley with Joycelyn Moody, founder and co-organizer of UTSA's African American Studies Symposium

Near the end of my presentation on Malcolm X at the Annual African American Studies Symposium, I retold a familiar story, one that's good to tell over and over again, which goes as follows: 

In 1987, Harmon and Harriet Kelley attended an art exhibition, "Hidden Heritage: Afro-American Art, 1800-1950" at the San Antonio Museum of Art. Although the Kelley's had graduated college during the 1960s, seeing that exhibit was instrumental in their beginning an extended, out-of-school course of study in African American visual art.   

In 1995, Mrs. Kelley informed a report for The New York Times that seeing the exhibit and realizing how few of the artists that she and her husband were unfamiliar with made them feel "like we had missed out on a whole part of our culture." But they made up for it.  

Over the course of the last 27 years, the Kelley's continually acquired pieces here and there. They now have one of the largest and most impressive private collections of art in the country.  They have loaned pieces of their collections to museums across the country, making it possible for many to thousands to view the work of black visual artists, including Jacob Lawrence, Aaron Douglass, Grafton Tyler Brown, and Laura Wheeler Waring. 

 The Kelley's story coincides with Malcolm's narrative, because like him, the Kelley's desire to pursue such serious underground or out-of-school study was inspired by a moment when they felt troubled that they did not know enough about African American heritage. That feeling prompted them to read, study, seek ut experts in the field, collect, and then to share.

The Harmon & Harriet Kelley Collection of African American Art: Works on Paper

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