Championing African-American art At the University of Maryland, teacher and artist David Driskell is sharing the collection of a lifetime.

November 22, 1998|By JOHN DORSEY | JOHN DORSEY,SUN ART CRITIC

David Driskell is an artist, a descendant of artists and has been a teacher of artists for more than 45 years, including the last 21 at the art department of the University of Maryland, College Park.

He is a curator who has organized more than 35 exhibits of African-American art, from one-person shows to the major survey "Two Centuries of Black American Art." He is a consultant who has helped to build the collection of, among others, actor Bill Cosby. He is a writer of everything from the catalog of "Two Centuries ..." to an exploration of postmodernism called "African American Visual Aesthetics" to his current project, a book on the Cosby collection.

And he is a collector. Over almost half a century, on a teacher's salary, he has amassed more than 200 works of African-American art, as well as works from Africa, Asia and Europe.

Now, exactly 100 works from Driskell's African-American collection are on exhibit at the University of Maryland Art Gallery in College Park. The show, "Narratives of African American Art and Identity: The David C. Driskell Collection," is accompanied by a fully illustrated scholarly catalog, and will travel to four other locations in the next two years, including the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the Newark (N.J.) Museum.

It's a fitting tribute to a man who has labored with almost superhuman energy to put before the American public the fruit of African-American artists. While he has seen some progress made in awareness and acceptance of their art, he thinks there's still a way to go.

"If you measure the pace against what we saw, say, 50 years ago - I would have been a teen-ager then, but I can still remember being in college and the recognition ... just wasn't there for African-American artists," Driskell said in a recent interview at the gallery where his collection hangs. "I can remember Lois [Mailou] Jones telling us, even in the city of

Washington, she would get a friend who was a white woman to take her works to the Corcoran [Gallery] because she was fearful if they saw her bringing them, they wouldn't get in."

He can also remember teaching at Alabama's Talladega College in the 1950s, when African-Americans could go to the Birmingham Museum only once a week.

"So if you look at those kinds of things, you say we've really come a long way, but when you look realistically at what is there, you will see that it's only piecemeal.

"I have people who say to me, 'Oh, are you still doing those black shows?' And my response is yes, and until such time that we can pick up an art-history book and look at work that is based on quality, not on race, not on gender, then I think I will have to continue doing those kinds of shows. And I think it will be imperative that I continue to collect works by African-American artists so that people will know that this is a major segment of American art."

Among the works he has managed to collect are 19th-century masters, such as Edward Mitchell Bannister and Robert Scott Duncanson; products of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Augusta Savage and James VanDerZee; 20th-century icons, including Lois Jones, Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett and Jacob Lawrence; and abstractionists, such as Sam Gilliam and Alma Thomas.

Driskell, who was born in Georgia in 1931 and grew up in North Carolina, first met the people who would encourage him to collect while at Washington's Howard University as a student and then a teacher, in the 1950s. Artist and art historian James A. Porter became Driskell's mentor at Howard. Artist James V. Herring founded the Howard art gallery and co-owned Washington's Barnett-Aden Gallery; Driskell gained experience as a curator at both.

As a young collector in the 1950s, he realized from the beginning that buying art would mean sacrifice, but with commensurate rewards.

"I had exchanged works with students, but artists such as Porter, Herring and Jones emphasized the importance of seeing other artists' work and said that I should buy works. I wanted to buy a Lois Jones work, and at that time, she was selling some of her paintings for $300, which was a lot of money for me in the 1950s. But a classmate and good friend of mine from Baltimore, Earl Hooks, who has a work in this show, bought one of Lois' pieces, and that encouraged me.

"I was driving a taxicab at the time to supplement my earnings, and I decided I was going to put aside a little money for collecting. One of the first works I bought was a print by James Wells, who was one of my teachers. And in 1952, I bought Lois Jones' book of paintings that she had done over the years, and that was the beginning of my African-American archive."

Since then, he has acquired art in several ways. He bought smaller works when larger ones were

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