Arts & Culture » Feature

The art of collecting

The Chicagoans in Diasporal Rhythms aren't just collecting work by artists of African descent. They're also preserving a culture.



1. Buying

Carol Briggs came to art collecting more or less by chance. It was the early 80s. She was a school nurse, working with pregnant and parenting teens, and her young son played in a baseball league in Hyde Park. They lived in Chatham. Briggs wasn't allowed into his practices, but neither were they long enough that she could simply drop him off and go home, so she spent the time wandering around the neighborhood. She had two favorite spots, both on 53rd Street: a jeweler and an art gallery.

The gallery, which specialized in African-American artists, was owned by a man named Joe Clark. Briggs became friendly with him, and eventually familiar with some of the names on display: Annie Lee, Melvin King. Clark encouraged her interest and, of course, also urged her to think about buying, but Briggs remained modest in her enthusiasm.

"I just like coming in here, I like the way the art looks, but I really can't afford it," she remembers telling Clark. He assured her she could, but she doubled down: "I'm like, 'No, I work for the Chicago school system. I'm a single mom. I cannot afford art." But one day she found a print that she really liked and put it on layaway—that'd been Clark's offer. Then she found an original that she really liked, a painting by Annie Lee. She asked if she could put that on layaway, too, but the woman working the counter that day told her it'd already attracted interest from other collectors who could pay up front. Briggs convinced her to take a deposit on it.

Clark called her later that evening and rejected the deal, or tried to. "And I said, 'Well, Mr. Clark, but do you remember me? I'm Carol. I'm that lady that comes in every week. You convinced me that I could do this, and that's the first original piece that I just really feel like would just, you know, get me started. Mr. Clark, don't you remember me?' And I went on and on, I started singing a song, and I don't have to tell you the story. We stayed on the phone for a moment, and I was convincing him of all the reasons that he had convinced me I could do this, and that he should give me an opportunity to put that piece in layaway, and pay for it, and let it be the first original piece in my collection. And the rest is history."

"The rest" refers to 30 years and nearly every inch of wall space in Briggs's Chatham home. In 2003 she became one of four cofounders of Diasporal Rhythms, a group of south-side Chicagoans who collect the work of contemporary artists of the African diaspora, most also from the south side. They're marking a decade this month with a show at the Logan Center, as well as tours of the homes of some constituent collectors—membership is now up to about 60. Briggs's home isn't on the tour, which focuses on South Shore, but it has been on regular south-side art tours since the group's inception.

Briggs made further entree into the art world when she met Dayo Laoye, an artist she ended up dating for seven years. His paintings now line the staircase of her home—"Dayo's wall," she calls it. It was Laoye, a longtime fixture of the south-side art scene, who brought together the four originators of Diasporal Rhythms, organizing them into an art collectors' panel at South Side Community Art Center in 2002. Briggs had gone on to work at Dixon Elementary School under Joan Dameron Crisler, who, as principal, oversaw the development of an astonishing art collection mounted on the school's walls, made famous in the 2012 documentary The Curators of Dixon School (which screens at the Logan Center on October 27). On the panel, Briggs and Crisler joined two others, Patric McCoy and Daniel Parker, who were better known as individual collectors in the south-side art community.

Crisler credits McCoy's "grand vision" as the driving force behind Diasporal Rhythms. McCoy is a retired chemist, an avid cyclist, and the owner of what he estimates to be somewhere around 1,300 pieces of art in his Kenwood home. The layout of the apartment is unremarkable; the real geography of it is in the way the art is arranged. Each area has a theme. In the living room there's a corner for music and a corner for cycling. One side of the hallway emphasizes "men," the other side "women," and the guest bathroom is devoted to Chicago's motto, "City in a garden." The back bathroom is for McCoy's mother. "And all the mothers in the world," he says, "because every mother in the world tells you to go wash your face and hands." A room off the hallway is dedicated, by halves, to "the problems and solutions of black men."

McCoy calls the bedroom "sensuality, spaces, and places," and it's where he keeps the only piece in his collection older than he is. It's a painting by his father. "He was a frustrated painter," McCoy says. "He came out of school in the midst of the Depression, in Detroit. Graduated from one of the best schools in the city of Detroit, and he got a scholarship to the Pittsburgh institute of art. And then a month after they sent him an acceptance letter, they sent him another letter, saying, we can't let you in because you're black."

Patric McCoy, whose 1,300-piece art collection lines every wall of his Kenwood home - ALISON GREEN
  • Alison Green
  • Patric McCoy, whose 1,300-piece art collection lines every wall of his Kenwood home

2. Collecting

McCoy inherited his father's passion for art if not his interest in creating it. The first piece he owned was a lithograph he bought from a college roommate, and he says he's spent his life picking up pieces that attracted him. For a long time, though, he was resolute about not being a "collector." "I wasn't alone in this thinking," he says, "that an art collector was somebody that's sitting way up in the highest stratosphere of the society, usually very, very rich, and very private, and, I believed, very academic in their knowledge of art. I was adamant at that. I had hundreds of things in my house and I'd say, 'Oh, no, I'm not an art collector.'"

But he finally came to embrace it, thinking of collecting as nothing more than an elaborate sort of fandom. This is the subject on which McCoy grows the most animated: "If a person has a music collection, you never, ever say, 'Well, did you go to school to study that? Did you get a degree in it?'" Yet he says there's a perception that art collecting is more rarefied, which hampers people's appreciation of it—and consequently restricts the audiences artists might otherwise have access to. A democratizing impulse undergirds Diasporal Rhythms' mission, and so the requirement for joining at the most modest level is the ownership of original pieces by at least seven artists of African descent. "And that number is totally arbitrary," McCoy says, with a loud laugh. "But we wanted to have something. What we find is that when we say that, you can see people start to count in their heads. 'Oh, I've got seven—I'm an art collector!'"

All of Diasporal Rhythms' founders had a similar reticence, and for similar reasons. Cofounder Daniel Parker, a retired dean of students at Olive-Harvey College, says, "Certainly, there are people in our organization who really didn't consider themselves collectors because that was for those people who are rich and not for us: middle-class, black. When black people collect art, it's more than just collecting art—it's preserving the culture, because all artists paint a reflection of the time they are living in. So you are collecting part of the culture as well as the beauty of the art."

Parker, who in high school was a student of the south-side art legend Margaret Burroughs, says it occurred to him that he was a "collector" only when he was planning on moving, from an old three-story mansion on Drexel near 45th he shared with his sister into a smaller space nearby, where he lives today. He had so many pieces that he realized he should try to document them, and once he realized this he also realized he should write a book (African Art: The Diaspora and Beyond). Before Diasporal Rhythms, he and McCoy were acquainted, but Parker says that recognition for their circle of artists and collectors didn't extend far beyond the south side: "We knew about us, but no one else knew about us."

Parker was around in 1967 when the Organization of Black American Culture sponsored the painting of the Wall of Respect, a famous mural on the side of a grocery at 43rd and Langley that celebrated African-American culture and liberation. McCoy was also influenced by that era's politics—he graduated from college in 1969—and especially by the black arts collective AfriCOBRA, some of whose members worked on the Wall of Respect; a print of Barbara Jones-Hogu's iconic 1971 silkscreen Unite, featuring a crowd of black people with arms raised into fists, hangs in his living room. "The imagery of the period was of black people—in fact it was where we became black," McCoy says. "In the 60s we went from being 'Negroes' to being 'black,' with a sense of empowerment and collectivity. I was imbued with that: that as a people, we needed to be promoting ourselves and the things that we like."

Entangled with the political mission is a preservative one: to archive the history of black art as it's happening, while recognizing the artists who are creating it while they're still around. With great art collections comes great responsibility, McCoy says: "You're part of the responsibility to preserve, to promote it, to get it out there, to recognize that which is done that's very good, to validate that, to push forward those images that are important for you—whoever that you is. So it"—"collector"—"is an important title to take on. We just wanted to pull it out of the clouds."

Diasporal Rhythms honors five contemporary artists with a biannual show; the new exhibit at the Logan Center collects work by all honorees so far. Briggs says, "You read all the stories about the people who have struggled and starved because of the lack of exposure, and then at the time of their death somebody gets a hold of their collection and then all of a sudden there's value. That's not right." The organization also sponsors tours of collectors' homes; it provides publicity for the artists it chooses to honor; and McCoy says it's "adopted" a Kenwood school, King College Prep—artists give workshops to students there, and students visit their studios in turn.

Once he started documenting his collection, Daniel Parker decided to write a book: African Art: The Diaspora and Beyond. - ALISON GREEN
  • Alison Green
  • Once he started documenting his collection, Daniel Parker decided to write a book: African Art: The Diaspora and Beyond.

3. Valuing

Dixon's students, meanwhile, have constant access to art. Crisler developed the collection with the art teacher, Annette Malika Jackson, after becoming principal of the predominantly black school, which is in Chatham, in 1986. She had a young son then, and worked "to create the kind of school that I wanted my child to come to." She formed cultural clubs and science clubs, organized field trips, set up a regular student-run African marketplace in the school gym, redefined one social science teacher's role as "black cultural enrichment teacher," and began acquiring art. First it was pieces by Jackson, who's also a professional artist; then she began to hang pieces by Jackson's students; and eventually the work of more and more professional artists from the south side made its way onto Dixon's walls.

She looked for pieces that would tell her students' stories to them—so the art in Dixon school concerns the civil rights movement, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., the African continent, Buffalo Soldiers. McCoy says that he was stunned when he first learned about the collection. He had attended Dixon one year, in 1959. "It was a good school, but visually it was like a prison," he says. Crisler noticed that the art, much of it within arm's length, had a calming effect on students. She and Jackson fund-raised to buy the art, but without much regard to its actual value: "Once you get into a monetary balance, for me, it would have changed my whole focus of, why am I attracted to certain pieces of art, or why am I searching for certain pieces of art?"

McCoy thinks that part of Diasporal Rhythms' role as a collective of collectors is to begin to establish value—cultural but also financial—for the work of south-side artists. Collectors link artists and galleries and museums. But McCoy says they also serve to create the first moment of recognition of a given artwork—they are the first audience. "It's like if a tree falls in the forest," he says. "Nobody else sees it, and then you die, and it's buried or it's destroyed—it didn't exist. It's that other person that comes, looks over your shoulder, and says, 'Oh, that's great. Let me have that. I'll give you something for it.'"

Nonetheless, it's often not clear what the hard value of a given piece in these collections is. When I asked McCoy if his art was insured, he told me that it first would need to be appraised—and not many appraisers are familiar enough with this particular cohort of artists to do that easily. The cost of appraising and insuring a given piece could exceed the piece's actual value.

Briggs says she can only think of one or two people qualified to appraise the artists she has in her collection. "My insurance company said to me once, 'Take it down to New York Life at 5 South Wabash.' And I'm thinking, 'There's probably no African-American person who works at New York Life at 5 South Wabash.'" Diasporal Rhythms holds seminars for members on topics like art insurance.

Parker may have something to add to the discussion. In 2008 he lost parts of his collection to an electrical fire, and other parts to the ensuing smoke and water damage. He remembers finding pieces of waterlogged prints and paintings in the hallway when he was let back in by the firemen. "These pieces were just drowned in the hall," he says. "In my sadness, I picked them up, and I just didn't have the heart to throw them out. It came to me: 'Well, why not frame what's left of them?'" So he did, meticulously, in handsome white frames—one piece of a Margaret Burroughs, another of a Hebru Brantley. One jagged piece shows simply the foot of a black man. It leaves you to wonder what's been left out.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that it was the Organization of Black American Culture, not AfriCOBRA, that sponsored the painting of the Wall of Respect.

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