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In 1952, David C. Driskell was still a struggling art student at Howard University, but he managed to put together $25 to buy a print by D.C.-based artist James Wells. “It was a linoleum-cut still life,” recalls the 71-year-old art collector, now distinguished university professor of art emeritus at the University of Maryland, College Park.
At the time, acquiring the work of African-American artists was something of a political statement, Driskell remembers. “At Howard, there were a series of artistsJames Wells, James Porter, Loïs Joneswho were artists and also educators,” he explains. “They preached the notion that you shouldn’t just stand there and look at the art when you’re able to buy it. And if you want somebody else to buy your art, you should buy others’.”
Those ideas have guided Driskell’s collecting career ever since. In the 50 years that have passed since his Wells purchase, the educator, artist, and art historian has amassed some 800 paintings, prints, sculptures, and photographsmore than 500 of which are by African-American artistsdating from as early as the 19th century and as late as the ’90s. Forty-eight of those pieces, including works by such influential figures as Jacob Lawrence, Sam Gilliam, and Charles White, are on display in “Selections From the David C. Driskell Collection,” on view to March 22 at the Art Gallery at the unversity’s College Park campus.
Driskell, namesake of the school’s new David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the African Diaspora, organized the show with the hope “that people will see that there’s a great tradition that has been made by artists of African descent in this nation.”
“I also hope we can dispel the myth that African-Americans do not collect art, that they don’t care about their culture,” he says. “This exhibition confirms the fact that we do collect, and we collect quality works.” Driskell also hopes the exhibition inspires young people to become collectors. “If it can be done on a teacher’s salary,” he laughs, “then certainly it can be done.”
Driskell’s expertise in his field has brought him some well-known clients. For nearly 26 years, he has curated Bill Cosby’s personal collection, reportedly the world’s most extensive privately held trove of African-American art. In 1996, he was tapped by President Bill Clinton to recommend a work for the permanent collection at the White House. Working with Sylvia Williams, former curator of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Driskell suggested Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City, an 1885 landscape painting by Pittsburgh-born artist Henry Tanner.
The purchase was made, and the painting was installed in the Green Roomwhere Driskell was pleased to find it still hanging four years later, when he returned to the White House to receive the 2000 National Humanities Medal for his contributions to the preservation of African-American art. “At least [it’s] a start,” he says. “You don’t know how far it will expand beyond that.” Matthew Summers
“Selections From the David C. Driskell Collection,” is on
view to Saturday, March 22, at the Art Gallery at the
University of Maryland, College Park. For more information, call (301) 405-2763.