Walters acquires more black art

Eddie, Sylvia Brown donate $500,000 so museum can add new perspectives

May 18, 2002|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

William Walters and his son, Henry, spent much of their lives in the late 19th and early 20th century buying works of art, sometimes by the ship load. They purchased illuminated manuscripts, suits of armor and medieval and Renaissance paintings.

What the Baltimore-born industrialists overlooked were works by African-American artists.

Now with the purchase of a marble bust of a 19th-century abolitionist and an impressionist landscape of Boston, the Walters Art Museum - built around the collection bequeathed to the city by Henry Walters in 1931 - will include art by two African-American artists.

The works - a white marble bust by New York-born sculptor Edmonia Lewis, and a landscape by Rhode Island painter Edward Mitchell Bannister - will go on display June 16, when the museum re-opens its newly renovated 19th-century galleries.

The historic acquisition, announced this week, was made possible by a $500,000 grant from Baltimore philanthropists Eddie and Sylvia Brown, who last year donated $6 million to the Maryland Institute College of Art and $1 million to the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

"The whole idea is to enhance the collections of both major museums with works by African-American artists so that they can be enjoyed by the entire community, but particularly we think it will increase the attendance by black visitors," said Eddie Brown, founder and president of Brown Capital Management, one of the nation's leading black-owned investment firms.

The Browns' donation to the Walters, made in the form of a challenge grant, will allow the museum to purchase up to 15 works by black artists over the next five years, said Walters director Gary Vikan. "Eddie and Sylvia Brown embody the philanthropic spirit of Henry Walters." Vikan said. "The Browns' generous donation is not simply a gift to the Walters ... [but] a gift to the entire city of Baltimore."

The new acquisitions reflect the efforts of the museum, established at a time when the city was predominantly white, to evolve with the city, whose population now is predominatly black. In recent years the institution has made concerted efforts to broaden its audience and attract more black visitors. In 1996, the museum purchased 17 important examples of Ethiopian religious art, including a 16-foot parchment fan made 500 years ago by a monk and an ancient Gospel containing in its illustrations rare clues to the architecture of Jerusalem at about A.D. 500. It also has expanded its education and outreach programs, adding events such as a lecture tomorrow about a 17th-century painting which recent research has revealed to be the earliest known portrait in European art of a girl of African descent.

"The Brown challenge is important for the Walters in that it enables us to add new perspectives to the collection," said Jackie Copeland, the museum's director of education and public programs. "More importantly, it brings to the public works by African-American artists whose work has often been overlooked or omitted in the annals of art history."

The Browns long have been active supporters of the arts. Eddie Brown has been a member of the Walters' board of trustees since 1997. Sylvia Brown serves on the Walters' African-American Steering Committee, an advisory panel that helps the museum plan programs to reach black audiences, and on the board of trustees of the Baltimore Museum of Art. During the Walters' recent capital campaign, they donated $250,000 toward the renovation of its Ethiopian art galleries, which the museum named in their honor.

Both said they hoped their gift would encourage the Walters and the BMA to acquire more works by African-American artists. "It's part of our cultural heritage," said Sylvia Brown. "It helps round out the individual as something important for people besides the movies and sports, so it widens their horizons."

The couple began collecting art about 10 years ago, spurred by the interest of their daughter, painter Tonya Ingersol, who graduated this spring with a Master's of Fine Arts degree from MICA. Since then they have amassed a collection of black art that includes works by Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett, Betty Saar, Carrie Mae Weems and Alma Thomas.

The works by Lewis and Bannister acquired by the Walters fill a niche in the museum's 19th-century collections, which are strong in sculpture but relatively weak in late-19th century painting.

Lewis was the daughter of a Haitian father and an African-American mother who also traced her ancestry to the Native American Chippewa tribe. She was born in 1845 near Albany, N.Y., and attended Oberlin College in Ohio. Later, she went to Rome, where she adopted the prevailing neoclassical style of the period and completed the commission for her 1868 bust of educator and abolitionist Dioclesian Lewis (1823-1886). No relation to the artist, Dioclesian Lewis attended Harvard, and is remembered for his support of liberal causes, including the abolitionist and women's temperance movements.

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