A Larger Canvas

By Norman Boucher / March / April 1998
December 28th, 2007
When Margaret Kelley '94 graduates from the Brown medical school in May, she will have gone a long way toward determining her future. But equally important, in the view of her parents, Harmon and Harriet Kelley, is for Margaret to know her past.

The depth of the Kelleys' conviction became apparent a little more than ten years ago, when they decided to furnish their newly built home in San Antonio with works by African-American artists. Since then, the Kelleys have collected more than 120 paintings, drawings, and sculpture, dating from 1806 to 1992. According to University of Maryland art historian David Driskell, their collection has become "one of the five most important collections of African-American art in private hands." From April 18 through Commencement weekend, an exhibit from the Harmon and Harriet Kelley Collection of African-American Art will be on display at Brown's David Winton Bell Gallery.

  In addition to its value as a gathering of works by neglected artists, the Kelley collection represents an important milestone in U.S. history: the rise of a professional class of African Americans able to purchase and exhibit valuable works by black artists often neglected solely because of their race. The circumstances surrounding the Bell Gallery exhibit illustrate this trend. According to Jo-Ann Conklin, the gallery's director, the Kelley collection first came to Brown's attention thanks to University Vice President and General Counsel Beverly Ledbetter, an African American and a childhood friend of Harriet Kelley.



Agrarian traditions are an important thread in African-American art, as seen in this 1968 linocut, Sharecropper, by Elizabeth Catler.


Conklin learned of the collection from Ledbetter shortly after she'd received the results of a visitor survey she'd commissioned; it revealed that 84 percent of Bell Gallery visitors are white. With Ledbetter's help, Conklin organized a meeting of African-American professionals from Providence to explore how the Kelley collection might be used to add to the diversity of participants in Brown's cultural life.

The group was so enthusiastic about the idea that it formed the Edward Mitchell Bannister Society, after the nineteenth-century African-American artist who produced many of his best paintings while living in Providence. The society's goal has been to find 100 individuals - primarily African Americans - willing to give $100 each to turn the Kelley exhibit into the centerpiece of an African-American cultural festival. The money has also funded an outreach campaign that includes advertising in a variety of local and national black publications. In addition, the Rhode Island School of Design is mounting a simultaneous exhibit of African-American art from its permanent collection.

Conklin has been struck by the enthusiasm of local black professionals for the project. "It's easy for people to say, `This is a great idea,'" she notes. "It's another thing to have people do something about it." Ultimately, she believes, such exhibits will help fill out and revise the history of American art. "After looking at some of these artists," Conklin adds, "we will have to reassess how we define what is good art."

For Margaret Kelley, the lesson has been more personal. "As a black child," she says, "you go into museums and you don't see black art. You don't see reflections of yourself." Now, thanks in part to her parents, that is starting to change.

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March / April 1998