A Conversation with Diasporal Rhythms
Founded in 2003, Diasporal Rhythms seeks to build a passionate group of collectors engaged in actively collecting visual art created by contemporary artists of the African Diaspora and to expand the appreciation of those artists’ work. The organization hosts both public and private (members only) events. Upcoming events include The Collector’s Home Tour, Sunday, October 17, 2010, 1-5pm (open to the public; go to the Diasporal Rhythms website to reserve a spot) and a book release event to honor Diane Grams’s forthcoming book, Producing Local Color: Art Networks in Ethnic Chicago. On July 25, I spoke with six board members at the home of co-founder and president Patric McCoy. The interview was recorded, transcribed by Kate Aguirre, and edited slightly for length. I began by asking board members to introduce themselves and briefly discuss their roles in the organization.—RZ.
Patric McCoy: I’m one of the original four co-founders of Diasporal Rhythms, currently functioning as president of the board and the organization. I, with Dan Parker, initiated the project of bringing collectors together after the four of us had been on a panel at the South Side Community Art Center. We formally introduced ourselves and saw that we all had the same passion for collecting the contemporary artists in our community.
D. E. Simmons: I’m the secretary of the board. We had a common defining moment when we realized we were collectors: that made me want to learn more and to learn who the local artists are. I’ve met a lot of them; they’ve become friends, I’ve added them to my collection. And it’s a wonderful opportunity to grow.
Daniel Parker: I’m one of the co-founders with Patric. We had talked about our passion for the art of Africans and artists of African descent, and we thought how powerful it was and more powerful it would be if we could gather people together who also shared this passion, and thus we founded Diasporal Rhythms.
Carol Briggs: I’m also one of the founding members of Diasporal Rhythms, and I think we realized we had one thing for sure in common, our love and passion for collecting art. And primarily collecting art of current and contemporary artists who were residing around us, surrounding us. They were our friends, they were people who were in our circles, and we recognized that there was a need to promote current contemporary artists, especially people we loved, and we collectively all agreed that because of our love for their work, we wanted to do our part to promote their talent.
Joan Dameron Crisler: I’m the fourth member of the founding group. Quite honestly I came to this role accidentally. I’m a former principal of an elementary school. I never considered myself an art collector—I was more of a gatherer, a person who was trying to use the arts, history, and culture to create a climate for my children in my school building. And then when I was invited to sit on the panel with Patric and Dan and Carol, it all began to gel—the whole idea of being an art collector. And from that point I became even more motivated and probably more eccentric [laughter] and passionate about collecting as an institution and trying to model that practice and demonstrate that when you create that kind of a cultural context for our young people that it has a lasting positive impact on them not only in the immediate but also in the future.
Lisa Gaines McDonald: I’m the newest member of the board. This is going on my third year since I became a member—I went kicking and screaming. One of our past members who has made his transition, Pirfirco Williams—I would pal around with him, and he kept saying “well, Lisa, come here, come there.” Then he sent me an invitation to go on our Atlanta field trip. Before that, I had done one of the house tours, which we do annually, and I have a husband who tells me “Well, you’ve got enough art!” But then, when I came to Patric’s house and Dan’s house, I said, “Huh!” [Laughter] “Look, I’ve got the room for a whole lot more!” It’s an organization that feeds me socially, intellectually, and it piques my curiosity to learn more about artists. And as membership chair, one of our goals is to grow our membership while retaining our existing members. We provide benefits that are unique and are open to collectors who collect original art from artists of the African Diaspora. So just formalizing a little bit of the policy has been my role. Not to be restrictive, but at least to have some order.
RZ: Could one of you talk a bit more about where the organization is now?
PM: Let me first give a little more background. If I remember correctly, in about 1998, artists were telling Dan “you need to meet Patric McCoy” and artists were telling me “you need to meet Dan Parker.” And so, we started talking, and out of that initial conversation, we thought about doing something with collectors. We talked about it, but then it dropped. And it was only in 2002 when we were invited to the South Side Community Art Center collectors’ forum. And we were invited individually, so we didn’t know that we were going to meet up on that day—we didn’t even know if anybody was going to show up, ’cause at that time, the South Side Community Art Center was at a low ebb of activity and community involvement. I showed up, Dan showed up, and Carol, and Joan, and we’re sitting on the panel—I think some other people were invited, but they didn’t show up—and a lot of the artists that we collected were in the audience. We took turns talking about our passion and our focus on collecting from the contemporary artists. I was very impressed. When both Joan and Carol were talking about the effect that the art has on children, socializing them… I had a “wow” moment—I had expressed my own feelings about the importance of it, and Dan had already started his book. So he was also talking about the importance of our history, and culture and the Diaspora. So, it was just amazing.
DP: And I think, my kids, I invited some of the kids in my class, they were going to take notes. [Laughter]
PM: So it, it was really an electric environment. But we left there—it was a lot of fun, and everything, but we left, and there was no follow-up agenda. Later that year, or in the early part of 2003, the Art Institute had its show, A Century of Collecting: African American Art in the Art Institute of Chicago. And I went to a panel in conjunction with the show, and Pirfirco was there, and I was shocked, on that panel, because they had artists that were now in the permanent collection of the Art Institute, Dawoud Bey, John Dowell, Kerry James Marshall, Nelson Stevens, and they were blasting the Art Institute. And my brain said, “What is going on here? How are these artists complaining and criticizing the Art Institute, which has them in its permanent collection—what is going on here?” I was totally confused. And I left there, and later that night, there was a show at the South Shore Cultural Center, and I went there. Dalton Brown was there, and as soon as I walked in, he said, I want you to meet Diane Grams, and Nathaniel McLin came up. When I saw Nathaniel—Nathaniel had been at the panel earlier that day—I said, what was going on? What was happening? Why were they so critical and wouldn’t that be jeopardizing their career? Talking about an institution that has their work? And he said “No problem. Art institutions don’t pay attention to what artists have to say—they only pay attention to what collectors say.” [Laughter]
DP: He ran to me, and gave me that story.
PM: “Oh! We’re the ones that have the voice.”
RZ: Could you say a little bit about Nathaniel and Diane?
PM: Nathaniel McLin was essentially the only African American art critic in the area. And Diane Grams was doing her Ph.D. work in sociology on art networks. I met her that day. She asked to come by and has since interviewed all of us, and incorporated this network in her thesis, and now in a book that’s going to be published, in October, Producing Local Color. So, it was very interesting that Nathaniel gave us the idea that our artists are unrecognized, and the entity that actually has the voice to get this out about who is important is the collectors. So, I ran back to Dan, and got in touch with Carol and Joan, and said: “let’s form an organization of collectors so that we can have a voice, identifying who is good, validating what we think is good.” And that’s how Diasporal Rhythms was formed in 2003.
RZ: How did the name come about?
PM: I was reading Richard Powell’s book, Black Art, A Cultural History, and he has a whole chapter on the AFRICOBRA movement, the Afro-Arts movement. He described a Jeff Donaldson painting; he said, “this is another Black diasporal rhythm.” And the idea just resonated with me, because we were in a process at the time of trying to find a name, we had all these African names and all kinds of things going on. And the thought just resonated with me that an art piece can be a rhythm, just like music, and rap and dance—art can be part of the rhythms that are floating through the Diaspora, and I said, “Oh. That’s what we collect! We collect diasporal rhythms.” And so I brought it to the group, and we agreed on the name.
LGM: I think he needs to add the subtitle because my son always teases me: “is that a dance group?”
PM: Oh yes. We’re a passionate group of collectors engaged in the collecting of works by living artists of the African Diaspora. Actually—contemporary artists of the African Diaspora.
DES: We went through a whole session—that’s supposed to rattle off the tongue! [Laughter]
DP: At the time I wrote my book [African Art: The Diaspora and Beyond], I was told “Diaspora? Only Jews use that term.” The African Diaspora is defined as any place outside of Africa where people of African descent reside. And so, the United States is the African Diaspora. Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Bahamas, anywhere. Even in Scandinavia—they even have an organization called “African Diasporas” in Scandinavia. So it’s anywhere people of African descent reside. Patric has said, we labored over that description he just gave of contemporary artists, because we are free to collect whatever we want, but that puts the organization’s focus on living contemporary artists of African descent. So when you look around at Patric’s collection, you will see that’s mostly what he collects. However, he collects European artists, white artists, artists in Canada, China, Latino artists, artists from all over. We gave that definition to give our organization a focus.
LGM: Another thing that we’ve done, thinking of membership, is to make it accessible. We have two categories, well, three really, Institutional, which is to evolve, but we have the Collector, which only requires seven works by seven different artists, and then we have the Emerging Collector category, which up to seven, and then we assume that in three years if you’re around us, you’re going to have seven different artists.
RZ: But there’s no minimum cost [of the artwork].
LGM: I don’t care what it is—I mean, who are we to define? You know, because I bought a sculpture today for two-fifty, and it was gorgeous, by an African artist out of Indiana, so, you know, you never quite know what you’re going to see.
DP: And, we started with the concept of an institution because of the Dixon Elementary School. Dixon was really the impetus for Institutional members.
JDC: When we began creating a collection at the school, it arose out of the reality that as a school principal, I spent half of my life in that building. I started thinking that I wanted an environment in my “second home” that was similar to the one I had in my first home. And then, the reality set in that what made me feel good, what made me feel proud, would have the same impact on the children. Dixon has one of the most phenomenal art teachers, anywhere, in any educational system, public or private. Her name is Annette Malika Jackson [claps and cheers]. She has been there now for about 20 years. She does a fantastic job of helping the young people discover their artistic gifts. So we began, actually, by collecting her work, formally collecting her work, and we began to hang it, we began with creating an art gallery in our school bank, and we had a whole series of Annette’s paintings, and then what we do with our children’s work is, is we display it as well, we have it matted and framed, and so we started this whole thing around Masters as Mentors, so young people had the feeling of hanging their artwork next to a professional artist, who was their art teacher, who was really not known by them [previously] as a professional artist: she was just their teacher.
So then as we became acquainted with contemporary African and African-American artists in our own community, and we began to collect their work. One, in particular, Dayo, whose studio is right down here in Hyde Park. We began to collect some artists, from the perspective that art speaks to people. It speaks to them emotionally—it tells a story. When you’re dealing with children, you’re looking for multiple ways to communicate with them. And so the art became one of those means of communication. If you ever tour the school’s collection, you will see that it is very deliberate in the way that it is displayed. There are pieces that deal with the very troubling aspects of our history, as slaves in this country, but it tells a story. There’s one montage where there are several photographs of African-Americans, and they start out with slave children, there’s one of a shoe-shine boy, and they emerge into Frederick Douglass, abolitionists, and the whole point was to show my children that, “you don’t have any excuses. If people can come emerge from slavery to this type of greatness, then what excuses do you have, for not applying yourself, and doing things that will help you reach your optimal potential?” We have one display where we have an actual photograph of a Negro school, little more than a shack, and it was right above a lithograph of The Lamp, by Romare Bearden, which commemorated the Brown v. Board of Education decision. And that was designed to show from here, to here, now, even though we still have a long way to go, we have come a long way. So it was a subliminal message about valuing education and fighting for what was right regarding providing equity.
We had a freedom bell that still hangs right outside the office door: you ring the freedom bell, that’s how we let people know—we are free. So, all kinds of messages like that. Then the way we had our school organized, we had the little babies on the first floor, and then second through fifth grade on the second floor, and then middle school on the third floor, and for the little ones, many of the paintings represented children, family, families eating around the dinner table, those kinds of softer messages. When we get up to the middle school, the messages got a lot stronger: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Elijah Muhammad, messages about who you are, what you possess in terms of your gifts, and what your obligations are, as an African-American student, to do your absolute best, and to give back, because a lot of people suffered, died, and paved the way for you. And what are you going to do, what are you going to offer to society and to your community, once you leave this place and move on somewhere else?
The art, I think, is very emotional. It elicits a response; it would elicit questions from the children. And my teachers were wonderful because they used to compete. Annette and I, we’d love just to go out and buy art, and we’d come into school on the weekend and hang it so that when the teachers and the students came in on a Monday, there would be all this artwork. And the teachers would get to the point where they would compete: “did you get a new piece on your floor, did you get a new piece?” [Laughter] And so, the other big point is that the children growing in that kind of an environment—people were astounded at how respectful they were of the artwork. I used to get a million questions—“why do you do this? And aren’t you afraid that they’re going to damage it, defile it in some way?” And I said, “Absolutely not!” Because the point was, I’m showing them respect by putting valuable artwork in their midst because I believe that they will come to love it and respect it and honor it, and they won’t bother it. And we never had any problems. I never locked anything down, and I would have from three-year-olds to fifteen-year-olds, navigating those halls, and we didn’t push things back on the wall, they had to literally navigate freestanding sculptures—Marva Jolly, all kinds of things. And they would.
DES: The other side of that is having an art collection and raising children in the midst of that. And I’m at the point where they’re all grown so I can share what they shared with me, having that home experience that they didn’t get at school, is that they have a better sense of themselves. You’ve all seen how my kids are, they appreciate the art that they’ve seen in all of our homes, so that when they went to college—because when you go to college you experience new things, they went into other individuals’ homes, they would always come home and I’d say “well, how was your visit?” and they’d say “I can’t understand how people can live without art on the walls.” It’s deeply rooted.
JDC: Our students, when they would graduate, and go to a high school, they would really be so disappointed because they would go into an environment that was sterile. And they would ask people, “where’s the artwork?” One of the most affirming things that happened to me, I worked with a program that trained principals, and during the summer we would have an institute out at Northwestern University, and one day I was walking through the Allen Center, and they had Elizabeth Catlett, Samella Lewis, and when I walked past them I said, “We have one of those.” We have a Samella Lewis, we have an Elizabeth Catlett, and Romare Bearden. It just affirmed for me, if it’s good enough for Northwestern University, it’s good enough for my kids.
PM: And I want to say another thing on that: I learned from the Dixon collection as a collector, because when I first moved here, I had work in the house, but I hadn’t put work up in the hallways [of my building], and after seeing that children can navigate and respect artwork in the public space, I started putting work in the hallways. I got that from them. And what you were talking about on the third floor is that to present, thematically, actually some troubling issues—it’s not just happy talk, you really want to have art speak about important things, and sometimes you’ve got to talk about the dark side. And so I got both of those things from going to Dixon Elementary School, and I really appreciated it, because I feel like, if kindergarten kids can respect art, adults can participate in this building.
JDC: You have to challenge them to do just that. And you have to teach them. We were teaching the children, and we were teaching adults too, because my teachers really learned and grew and developed an appreciation and respect for art, and many of them have now become collectors as well.
PM: And that’s a good point I want to direct to both Carol and Dan, is the traditions—that Diasporal Rhythms is actually in a tradition, and Margaret Burroughs is central to that. And the DuSable High School, and you, Dan Parker were taught by her, right? And we met at the South Side Community Arts Center, an organization that she put together. We’re all a part of a long tradition, and we have to speak about that and pass that on to our kids.
DP: But, sometimes, seems like, the disparate entities are really one universal thing, and when that universe comes together, Patric, once again…you know, you wonder, where’s the big bang? Well, you get the big bang in art, you get the big bang just listening to Joan speak. You get the big bang when people come into Patric’s home and see this canopy of art, and Joan’s home, and mine too. And art brings a richness to one’s life, and we want to share—while we’re sharing that art, we’re sharing that richness.
LGM: But also, it’s a refuge. I’ve always lived in the suburbs, and they are less than 2% African-American, and so the art was used to create my environment, because I’ve lived in Minnesota, I’ve lived up in the northern suburbs, so for me, I like to think I’m in the Caribbean. [Laughter] As a result, the art I put up is what I want personally, whether it’s the nice family or the warm temperature. But my sons, now, collect art, you know, they’ll go with me to the One of a Kind show, and while I may not like what they collect, and it may not be of the Diaspora [laughter], at least they have an appreciation for it. But one of the things that you were talking about, one of our goals is to honor and recognize artists. And one of the things we’ve done—I’m going to turn it over to D.E.—we just got through with our Collectors’ Invitational. This is also the second time that we’ve supported Not Just Another Pretty Face, where we sponsor artists of the Diaspora, and they get a catalog, and they get recognition. That’s in conjunction with the Hyde Park Art Center. But also, D.E. was one of the chairs of the Collectors’ Invitational, which is every other year, and I think you can look at what’s happened with it, and the plans that he can talk to, about how we have evolved as an institution just there.
DES: Well, thank you. [Laughter] The Collectors’ Invitational is the culmination of our group. The focus was to help identify and promote these artists whom we knew intimately, but also respected the work that they were doing, and saw it as cutting edge, something to be shared and acknowledged by everybody that we come in contact with—that if you’re going to collect, you should know about these people. That’s the void, I think, that we fill: educating all of us about who’s out there, who’s doing what. So, every other year we come together and vote, out of our collections, which we think meets that benchmark. We want to share that. And you can’t vote for the person if you don’t have their work in your collection, so one of the key things is, we put our money where our mouth is, so artists know that we support them in a real way.
We invite the artists to come to us so we can honor them for the work that they’ve done, and to let them know that this time, we’re selecting you to promote you. Because we bought your work, but we want to promote you to others, so here’s a year-long, two-year-long list of events and activities, that you’re going to be able to participate in: think of them as platforms, to expose your work and the caliber of artist that you are. And then also giving them an opportunity to stretch a bit, these next two years, with this platform to be visible, and at the end of the two-year cycle, we will have our first annual gala, wherein they’re commissioned to do two works for the silent auction, but they have to create new works. And so there’s a silent auction, but more importantly, it’s a culmination of how we went from nominating you, to having this major celebration and an educational event as well, where they give a talk.
Most recently, the board had a board retreat where we got the chance to really refocus and fine-tune what we’re going to be as an institution. With all that in mind, we had the opportunity to put that work to the test in this year’s Collectors’ Invitational. We held the vote, we got the names, and made sure there was a level of quality that people would want to participate in. And we hit all of those benchmarks—you get better with time, you know. What we had when we were originally starting versus what’s available to us now—it’s dramatic. One of our members, one of the committee, Shyvette was able to put together a slideshow presentation as I’ve never seen before; it was filmed quality. You know how you see on PBS, those side panels, and the names come, you know, like a PBS special. She did that. I said, “Wow! Look at Diasporal Rhythms! They’re all that and a bag of chips!” [Laughter] We’ve raised the level of what we do. What we did was pretty good, but we also realize that we have a responsibility to always bring our A-game to what we do. Our people deserve that, we deserve to give that, and when you operate at that level, people come to it. And then, what we do was very much appreciated, and I think we had a fantastic evening.
LGM: What I think is, we have a public mission to educate the public so we will have those lectures and workshops in public places, also, when we do our collector’s home tour, each of the artists will be featured in one of the homes, so it’s ongoing exposure, for both the public, the members, and the artists.
PM: The collector’s home tour is during Chicago Artists Month of October, we open our homes and have a route where people can come and see our collections, and we are going to highlight those contemporary artists in our collections, and we will have them there, to talk about their works. But we’re also going to do some other things, too.
DP: Well, before we go into those other things, I just want to kind of bring the focus, Patric hit on it, and Joan. Most of the time, even up until now, in 2010, these are underrepresented art and underrepresented artists. [Recently] one of the foremost art critics of the city wrote a whole article about Bronzeville, this area. This area sponsors bus tours on the third Friday of the month, and they go to Gallery Guichard, and the South Side Community Art Center, Little Black Pearl, and more. He went and gave a message—the message really wasn’t to us, because we already know about the art [laughter], you don’t have to tell us! The message was to his constituency: “Wow, have you seen that art? And you better go and look at it now, and you better get it now, before it reaches the heights of the white market and price,” and so, that’s so much talk, but we really must emphasize that we feel so much proud of this art because it’s a part of us.
RZ: I wondered if I could follow up a little bit on exactly that comment, because I think that Patric mentioned the connections to the South Side Community Art Center, and Margaret Burroughs, and I’m also wondering about white institutions, or non-African-American oriented institutions, in terms of what kinds of successes you’ve had in putting the artists you’re interested in on that map.
DP: One of the artists—we can’t really take credit, but he will participate in the Chinese world’s fair in Shanghai. So this is the kind of thing that we hope for all of the artists, because as we look around the city, as we look around that state, the country, we see that our artists are right on par with the other artists. And you know, as a matter of fact, just as Picasso, Paul Klee, and Giacometti went to Africa to derive inspiration, many white artists now are painting black images and black subject matter, and are copying the art of our artists, because white artists, many of them, have run out of creativity, and so here’s a whole well, rich in resources, that they can tap into, that we have already tapped into. I hope in time there’s not a need for Diasporal Rhythms because the art is underrepresented, and the artists are underrepresented, but rather Diasporal Rhythms exists to continue that which is profound.
CB: And I think that is so crucial to our beginning, and our inception, that we’re not looking to be validated by other institutions, I’m going to be politically correct here [laughter] again, we validate. We as a group of collectors validate artists within our community, and I don’t think we can underestimate the power of what our institutional tours and our home tours have done for our community. I think that you really need to know and it needs to be said clearly. Because my home has been opened, and I personally know even as we speak, to this day, people are constantly coming to me, after having visited my home, two, three, four, five years ago, saying, “Wow, you’re that person, I was in your house, and I remember you had this and I remember you had that.” And then what we do know, in terms of promoting success among some individual artists, within Patric’s collection, and Dan’s collection, and Joan’s institutional collection is that people will see artists in our homes, and they will say, “Oh my god, I love that Dayo” or “I love that Dalton Brown,” or “I love that Dale Washington,” and then they will want to meet those artists and begin to establish relationships, and I think that’s the other thing that we try to reflect in our organization: we have established relationships with artists, we make it our business to get to know them.
Most of us do our collecting primarily artist to the collector. We don’t go out and shop, necessarily—not that we don’t support galleries, but we have relationships. We go to studio shows a lot, we go to art festivals and art fairs, and we collect a lot of art. And so when people come, and they visit our homes, when people come, and they visit Dixon School, and they see a particular piece of art by an artist, they may not have known that artist, but then when they become familiar, and they see the work in different places and they say “you know, I think I’m really liking that,” or they begin to recognize an artist’s work, and they say “wow, that’s a so and so, that’s a so and so” and then, they go out and say “you know, you think you can call that artist, you think they’ll allow me to come into their studio?” So I know, factually, that we as a group of collectors have helped to promote the careers of certain artists, regarding supporting them in the sale of their work and the promotion of their talent, and just from exposing and opening up our homes and institutions to the public. It has made a remarkable difference regarding our immediate community, which is really what we want to impact, we want to impact our own children, our own community. We really are not looking for outside validation, as a matter of fact, we want to be the keepers of our own, and we want to begin to say, you know, this is what we know should be worth a million dollars 10 years from now. And she has one, and he has one [laughter, cross-talk], and I’ve got one too!
RZ: So, the reason I asked that question was to follow up on Patric’s comment about the panel discussion he went to at the Art Institute and had that epiphany that museums listen to collectors, they don’t listen to artists. So I still wonder: does it matter what the Art Institute collects?
PM: Well, there were two epiphanies that day, because Nathaniel also said, besides that people listen to collectors, he said when you have an organization of collectors, that is inherently a museum. It just automatically becomes a museum. He said when collectors organize, a museum has been created at that moment. He had done something similar with his radio show, which he called The Art Museum of Chicago—it was a virtual art museum made up of all the artists he interviewed. He pointed to the Art Institute, it was formed by collectors of Impressionist Art. So he says, “you’ve already started on your mission,” because we had come together with a concept that we wanted to have a museum. We wanted to be at the forefront of either building a museum or being involved in the creation of a museum. So, we’re operating, in a sense, right now, [on the assumption] that a museum has been formed. We just don’t have bricks and mortar yet. It’s there. These important pieces are going to end up somewhere, it’s not going to go and disappear. There’s a legacy that we’re going to be a part of, through the creation of this organization.
RZ: So, can, can you say a little bit more about that, regarding the question of bricks and mortar? Will there be…?
PM: Well, I think what came out of the retreat is that we first have to grow the organization, we have to get strong, we have to have a clearly defined brand, clearly defined programs, and so forth. There’s a tendency in America that people will want to donate quickly to have their name on a brick or on a plaque or something like that, but they don’t stand up for or continue to support the programs. So we’re saying, let’s develop that first, let’s get us clearly identified as having viable programs so that the operation of this entity that we create is going to be viable in the future. But that was a change in mindset. Because we did start with the concept of a building.
DP: Yes, well, one thing we had thought about is to form a virtual museum, and we may even do that before a museum develops in bricks and mortar. We have the virtual museum right here, right now; it’s a matter of organizing it.
LGM: And some of the things that we’ve done…well, a good example of growth, because I’m membership chair, so my goal is to grow the membership while engaging the existing members. We are up to 30 members, and most are renewing their membership. A good example of growth and engagement is that we took a trip to Milwaukee last summer, and there were about eight of us. We took a day trip two weeks ago to Peoria, to visit Preston Jackson and an emerging artist, Rashad Reed, in their studios, and there were 21 of us. So, when you look at that, that’s growth. You’ve got Darwin Brown, who’s one of our members, and he has done some seminars on estate planning, looking at how you protect and dispense your collection. Regarding the virtual museum, our website is being maintained by Peter Gray, and there is a private section where members can share their collections and insights. Our meetings are voluntary, but they’re in each other’s homes, so that’s a way where you can see up to probably, six to eight collections in a year, that may not be on the home tour. So you’ve got all those things in place that I think will keep people interested. As an example of how I use both Mr. Parker’s brains and Pirfirco’s, I was at Gallery Guichard—and I was looking at a picture, and they helped me in so many ways to evaluate the art, and I think I called Dan one time from Puerto Rico asking him about two artists, and he said “and you’re there calling me?” And I said “Yeah.” I learn from the members, as well as more formal programs.
PM: We’ve started to tap our members for their connections, and we brought in some new people, and G.L. Smothers, who was an honoree in 2008, joined as a collector because what we’re finding is that a lot of the artists collect work. Our organization is about collectors. We’re not bringing artists into our organization just because they’re artists; they have to collect. So, G.L. joined our organization, and immediately said, “I think I can hook you up so we can go to the Chicago Conservation Center and see about conservation and preservation.” So, that’s been scheduled. He also brought in another person, to work with us, to try to set up a whole calendar of educational activities that dovetail with what Darwin Brown has done, on wealth management, how to take your art collection and turn it into wealth, and how to manage it, and so forth. And to deal with all those issues. James Parker, who’s in our education committee, is very knowledgeable of institutions around Chicago, and he was going to set up events for us to go and see private, the collections of African-American works on paper at the Art Institute that are generally not displayed. So, we’re tapping the expertise of our members.
Collectors have a lot of connections, and one of the problems with the formation of Diasporal Rhythms is that African-American collectors have functioned very, very privately, and didn’t reach out to one another. And that’s part of our brand, that we are not presenting ourselves as private, but we want to move into the public arena as collectors and show that that is an important concept, that since we have a voice, we should be speaking in the public arena. And we connect. And what D.E. was saying is that from our connections with artists, we’ve been able to accomplish some great things. I have a relationship with Jonathan Green, an internationally famous artist, and as a result of just asking him, he agreed to put on an event with us at the International House, where Ronne Hartfield interviewed him, and we were essentially ahead of the game, because a year or so later the Art Institute was following us and doing the same thing with Jonathan Green. But we did it first. We had a private reception for Emory Douglas, artist and Minister of Culture of the Black Panther Party when he came to Chicago in December 2009 for the Panthers anniversary. We also had a reception for Ron Adams, master printmaker of the African Diaspora.
DP: Jonathan Green was at the house before interviewing him, and we have done things, for example, Pirfirco made arrangements for us to see the very wonderful collection at Johnson Publishing Company, [publisher of] Ebony.
PM: From the relationship with Linda [Johnson Rice].
LGM: And another thing, we hosted a reception for St. Louis art collectors, and when we went to Atlanta we met with Atlanta art collectors of the Diaspora.
PM: And they don’t usually open their homes, we got to see some things that most people don’t see.
LGM: And one of our members, Darwin Brown, facilitated that. But one of the things, long-term I think in the back of our president’s head is a national group of collectors of the art of the African Diaspora.
PM: Yes, and we had that reception for the Salon 10 artists from San Francisco, Oakland, and they were blown away. They were African-American artists in the Bay Area that had never been in the homes of African-American art collectors. They were being collected by whites in that area. When they came here, and to Dan’s house, and met us, they were absolutely blown away. So the message of Diasporal Rhythms is spreading across the country.
RZ: Can I actually go back to something you said earlier about an artist who is a collector also, who’s become a member, and I wonder, does that change things in the organization? To have artists who are members?
PM: Not at all. What we’re seeing is that all collectors have the same kind of thought patterns and issues. It doesn’t matter that that collector could also be a creative person. Shyvette is an art collector and a creative person, Dalton Brown, Felicia Preston, Juarez Hawkins, G.L. Smothers, in fact, I really think almost every artist should be because they have the eye to collect….like the eye of artist/collector Paul Benjamin. They have the eye and the access, they are right around other artists, they should be able to see before everybody else sees, “this is a really good piece, I need to get that.” [Laughter]
LGM: But “change the dynamics” how? What did you have in mind when you said: “change the dynamics”? We’re a pretty strong group.
RZ: I just wondered—artists do want to sell their work, to collectors!
LGM: I’m not buying anything I don’t want!
DES: I think it’s important to note, that they come to us as collectors first—that’s the common denominator. Yes, they’re artists, but they’re joining because they too collect, and they’re passionate about, not just what they do, but what they see other people do. So, I think the dynamic is that they grow as collectors, which is the focal point of what we do.
LGM: Sometimes I think they learn from us, because for example when we were down in Peoria, with Rashad Reed, we were all in his studio listening to him explain his practice, and where he was going, compared to where he had been—where he had been was a far better place, I think, in our minds, than where he was going, and you know, we’re not…
RZ: You’re not shy!
LGM: We just say what we think, and I think you can see what resonates with collectors, and so we give as much as we take, so I think it’s a dual process, because you know, I think some of the artists try to get into our heads, to see, what do you like, what do you collect, “oh, I’ve got the perfect thing for you,” and I’m thinking to myself, this is not what the perfect thing for me is. [Laughter] But they’ll look, and I’ll say—if you ask me I’ll tell you “this is why I bought that.” All things I buy have an emotional connection. It takes me back to someplace regarding memory. I like to fantasize, so a lot of my stuff gets me into fantasyland.
PM: Dan, you said earlier that we don’t restrict what any member collector in our organization collects. You can collect whatever you want, as a collector you are free but we come together on this one concept of promoting the contemporary arts of the African Diaspora. I know of some other collector groups across the country, and they say you have to have this, and you have to have one of these, and you have to have one of those, to be in our organization. We don’t do that.
CB: I think that the essence of what we also teach in our ability to educate the public, is that we buy what we love.
Everyone: Yes, yes.
CB: We buy what we love, and we encourage other people. What I like is not necessarily what your eye would like, so as we work to educate people on the art of purchasing art, it really should be about what you love, what you’re connected to, what’s emotional for you, where can you get a story from a piece. When I look around my home, when I look at my bedroom—as a matter of fact I was just redoing one of my bedroom walls last night at 3am—and when I look around I’m thinking, okay, for this particular wall I want a new perspective, and so what does that perspective reflect for me, it could be what I’m feeling at that moment, but I just want to rearrange that wall, ’cause I want to look at something new. I might even want to take something out of my living room and put it in my bedroom so that I can spend more time with it, so artists learn about us that they can’t force us to buy anything unless we have a personal connection to a piece. Doesn’t mean that they don’t try. [Laughter] I’m sure that Dan and Patric can truly tell you, and Joan as Principal of Dixon. I work with Joan, so I know everybody wants to be in Dixon school, everybody wants their work, it’s no doubt. Even to this day, there’s not an artist that currently is on the scene right now in Chicago that would not, once they come into Dixon, want a piece of their work somewhere in one hallway, in one corridor, in one corner of Dixon school. They know that as an institution, we are validating current contemporary artists, especially that reflect Chicago. So naturally, they want to be there. But will they necessarily get there because they choose to, or will they get there because the person who’s making the purchase sees a connection for a piece to go in that school that may tell a piece of our history, our culture, or a story we want our children to know? And it is important that even as they hang work in there today, will our children get a visual of what we want them to see from this piece. Because that may make this piece more important than another piece. But we definitely encourage people to buy art that you love because you have to live with it.
DP: Yes, because I and Patric and Carol, obviously we don’t buy art merely for investment. That’s lower on the hierarchy of things, and as Patric alluded to, many organizations’ priority is the name artist, mainly, the artists who have made transitions. So, the Charles Whites and Jacob Lawrence’s, and those are wonderful, wonderful artists—our artists today walk upon their shoulders, but that doesn’t mean that they are the artists that will move you now. And what moves us, is the artists themselves. When you talk to them, and they show some of their trials and tribulations manifested in their art, and then you become a part of their story and a part of their journey. And so, and then you fuse that with your own flights of fantasy [laughter], so you really have something going. With artists that are no longer with us, you just don’t have that richness.
PM: That is so true…. Spin-offs. We’ve always supported Cultural Connections, which is an art show at the Dixon elementary school, and we really wanted to do something with DuSable High [laughter].
CB: We tried, we tried, but the district had a different plan for that institution. We preserved some art, though, along with the journey.
PM: Right now, we have mainly adopted the King College Prep high school, as a school that we want to work with, and we had a salon in April, in conjunction with the Hyde Park Art Center’s fundraiser called Not Just Another Pretty Face. We did it two years ago, and 13 of our collectors commissioned work to assist the Hyde Park Art Center in raising money. The show was structured around the idea that the patron decides on who is on the show. And so following our mission that we want to promote contemporary artists of the African Diaspora we commissioned artists that we loved. And essentially put them into this show, artists that would normally not be able to get into the Hyde Park Art Center exhibitions So they’re going to do the show again this year, and we indicated that we would host another salon, to introduce artists and collectors and see who would want to participate in 2010. But also, we invited the King College Prep Advanced Placement art students to come to our salon, and it was a hit, people really gravitated to the students’ work.
DES: We invited them to come to the salon, and also show their work, which was set up then at a lower level gallery, and the response was fantastic to what they were doing.
PM: They have a wonderful program over at King College Prep, and, you’re right, it was a fantastic response, the students were just walking on Cloud 9, that collectors were interested in their work! And so, again, we’re promoting the next generation of artists.
LGM: And we had about 30 artists, and one of the benefits for the artists is they got to see each other’s work that they rarely get to see. We didn’t have as many collectors as we wanted, but those that were there got exposed to—each of the artists brought a slide show or a portfolio and showed their work.
DES: And the students got exposed to that as well, so education is really woven into almost everything that we do.
PM: But I think there was also a good response, out of the show, in the sense that artists that showed up actually got commissions that they wouldn’t have gotten if had they not come to that salon.
LGM: And those that did, got commissions, whether it was at the Hyde Park Art Fair, or for [laughter] personal commissions. I’ve got my little hit-list of who I want to buy work from in the future.
RZ: Joan, would you say something about Cultural Connections?
JDC: Cultural Connections actually started about 14 years ago. Carol and I worked together. Carol was always very entrepreneurial…
CB: I’m still trying to figure that out.
JDC: And a teacher, who has since passed on, incredible teacher, she was a social science teacher, Sandra Haynes. Sandy. And when I came to Dixon, she was teaching social science, and over time I got a feeling that our students needed to get a better sense of who they were. That if they understood their history and their culture, it would enhance their self-esteem, and it would improve the school climate. So I tapped Sandy to be our Black Cultural Enrichment teacher, where she would actually teach African-American history and culture, school-wide, from kindergarten through eighth grade. Sandy also was very entrepreneurial.
JDC: And Sandy, we, goodness, we had the very first school corporation. It was actually incorporated by the students back in 1991. It was called the Eagles International Trade Corporation, and Sandy would work with the students, and they would purchase fabric and artifacts and art and set it up in the school store. And she would take the kids to what at that time was Black Expo, and neighborhood venues, where they would set up a booth and sell items available in our school store. The young people were just phenomenal. They won several entrepreneurial awards, for their efforts and accomplishments as youth entrepreneurs. Sandy got the idea “we could do [our own] Black Expo” And so she and Carol…
CB: And Malika.
JDC: Annette Malika Jackson, our art teacher, got together, and created the very first Cultural Connections. At the time I think we might have had ten vendors, at the most, and these were pretty many people that we had relationships with—Dayo came as an artist, and a couple of clothiers and jewelers—and we had the first one, and now we’re up to the 14th. We have to beat people off, fighting, some of them are willing to mortgage their homes, sell their mothers [laughter] to get in the show. And as it has evolved, over the years, with Annette’s vision, we have developed one whole area, the gymnasium, which is the artists’ pavilion. We may have one vendor in there who doesn’t sell art (and we have really had to keep Annette calm, ’cause she’s a real purist, she needs that to be the artists’ pavilion). But we have a tremendous number of contemporary African-American artists who come to Cultural Connections, at our little elementary school, every year and do quite well. The response to the artists is fantastic. And we have probably somewhere around 75 vendors, who come from all over the country. And initially, when we used to talk about you know, we’re going to have this African marketplace and bazaar in an elementary school, people would say, you know—“a school?” And as they would come, and see what we were doing, and then as vendors would hear the response to what we were doing, and the quality of the vendors that we have—people were coming to us, saying “Can I do your show?” and now there is a waiting list of people who want to get in the show. But part of the background of that was, again, to show the students that if you have a talent, if you have something that is marketable, present yourself, people will respond, they will buy. And so on several occasions, we have actually had students who have booths, who are selling a product or a service, and they set up right along with everybody else.
It’s held annually on the second weekend in March at the Dixon elementary school, and it’s just a tremendous opportunity for community engagement because it brings the community in. It is free, there’s no charge for getting in, and it shows children, like I said, a first-hand view of entrepreneurship. The first day of it, actually, is a school day, during school time. So the children are seeing the vendors, are seeing the artists, they get to shop, they get to ask questions. Students are actually hired to be workers, they are valets, they work providing lunch, they do anything that would be required of someone who works a major show at McCormick Place. That’s what these young people do. And they hire on, and they get paid, in addition to which they make tips, for great service too, to the vendors.
CB: Salary plus tips.
JDC: So they’re seeing that they’re also developing a work ethic. Which shows that if you put energy in and you provide a service, you can get compensated, fairly, for that service. So, it’s been a labor of love all these years. People wonder how you do it. People come in all the time and say, “Can we get your vendor list?” “Noo….”
CB: “Can it last for a week?” No. “Can you do it for a month?” No.
JDC: You know, we break the school down. Actually, starting on Wednesday, to get ready, and then we do it Friday and Saturday, and we’ve got to be ready for school on Monday. So, there’s no way that we could do it on Sunday. But the response is just that phenomenal.
DP: And the kids are very professional. Now, mind you, these are elementary school kids, and some are little things like that, and they’re just professional. It’s a sight to behold.
JDC: And there’s an expectation, because, they have to apply for these jobs, and they have to have recommendations, from their teachers. So it’s not a personality contest, you have to present your credentials and be hired, literally hired, to work those two days.
Our kids, who work under one of the most demanding and talented art teachers anywhere, as an educator, produce work that at the end of the school year, we have matted, and framed, and they actually have an art fair, where we have a silent auction of student’s work. As a matter of fact, that’s one of the ways that I started collecting, I started collecting my students’ artwork. And I could probably come in here, and you probably could too, lay out an array of student artwork, and you wouldn’t be able to tell that it was done by a 4th grader, a 5th grader, an 8th grader, the work is just that phenomenal. And we have actually gotten into bidding wars, no literally, over the student artwork, and pumped those prices up, where a kid might have done a piece of work that ended up selling for a hundred dollars or more. Because it was just that phenomenal, and people said, “I’ve got to have it in my collection.” These are art collectors saying “I’ve got to have this piece of student artwork in my collection.” So they’re learning, not only to utilize their talents—and mostly these kids are not kids who say, “I aspire, my vocation is to be an artist,” it’s just that their teacher has helped them to discover a gift that they have, and she has worked with them and demanded from them that they develop that gift and that they create something. And it’s just phenomenal.
PM: I want to say something totally different about the origin of this organization, its something very special to me, and that when we formed the organization, it was 50% women and 50% men. And yet when I started to look at the field of art collecting, it was really a male-dominated sort of thing. And it is important that we have maintained that balance within the organization. We’ve always incorporated a balance of the genders as collectors. And so, we’re unique, and we recognize that this is so, it’s such an important cultural phenomenon, that all parts of the culture have to be equally represented, you’ve got to have that voice from both sides.
JDC: Can I make one other quick comment? Everybody has referenced relationships, and that has also been one of the key things as we have evolved, over the years, at the school. We have had artists who come to the school and actually work with the students. Some of our prominent public art, for example, a mosaic that’s outside of our greenhouse, Carolyn Elaine worked with students, over a couple of years, to create that, actually worked with students to create that. Faheem Majeed did a metal sculpture, Peter Gray came and did a summer workshop with students. Again Carolyn Elaine did two absolutely gorgeous murals in the school, and it ended up being art and social studies, because of them, kids ended up being pen pals with children from a village in Africa, we had a Maasai warrior who came and did an assembly with the students. Dayo has come and actually worked in classrooms with students, he did a workshop with preschool students one day. So its relationships all around where the artists value what we’ve tried to create over the years in the school, and they buy into it. Dayo has an anecdote that he tells, he was doing the African Arts Festival one year, and a student came through with his parents or grandparents or somebody, and he ran up to Dayo’s booth and says “oh that’s Dayo, ” and he was talking about the artwork, and these parents or grandparents said “oh, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” So Dayo comes out of his booth and greets the young person, and finds out the youngster goes to Dixon elementary school, and Dayo affirms to his parents and grandparents: yes, I am Dayo, this is my work. Because the young people become familiar with an artist’s style, and so they’re recognizing it, they say: “that’s a Dayo, that’s a Stacey Brown,” they can talk about it very comfortably, and they inform from a position of knowledge and experience, because they live with it.
PM: Which is part of our mission, is to get…
LGM: …some adults are doing that! [Laughter]
PM: To train the next generation of collectors.
RZ: Well, any closing thoughts?
LGM: I think maybe a good way to do it, is just everybody says “What I wish for Diasporal Rhythms?” and just go around, and let that be the close. I wish for people not to be afraid to embrace that they are collectors and be proud that they are helping to preserve culture. If you’ve got more than seven original pieces by seven different artists of the Diaspora we consider you a “collector.” We are reluctant to identify ourselves as collectors because we have been ingrained to think of traditional mainstream collectors with these huge collections, and to believe that you have to have certain marquee name artists, as opposed to what you like. It is vital for us to help foster relationships with the artists you collect because you are bringing their spirit into your home.
PM: What I’d like is that Diasporal Rhythms infect other parts of the county. I’d like to see us take our way of interacting, collectors to collectors, artists to collectors, and so forth, that we translate this over to other parts of the country. I’ve been talking about this for the long term, that we’d have chapters that will take our message and replicate it in other parts of the country.
DES: I’m looking forward to us realizing our goals, to really be the institution that we’re driving to be, and I think if we can do that we will have significantly contributed to the Chicago community.
DP: I wish for Diasporal Rhythms to continue on its path, but also that it will be in harmony with the future in order to continue to take on people, who have the passion and love for our art and our history, as we do, and they will continue that passing on—on into time. I really wish that for Diasporal Rhythms.
CB: I wish for Diasporal Rhythms that we continue to expose our community to our history, our culture, through the visual arts, our joy and our love for the arts. Today I mentioned to my son that Joan was going to pick me up to go to an art meeting, and he’s like, “oh, yeah, Ma, go, you need to get back connected to your art group.” [Laughter] Because he also understands that there are just a love and a joy for those of us who are infected with art and love it. It’s such a passion, and if we can continue to share it with other people…I said to a couple of my artist friends that one of my personal goals as well as for our group is I’m on this journey to elicit new collectors every day. I’m going to a new collector. I just want to meet that new person who’s not familiar with art, and I want to bring them into my home, and I want to expose them to how I live and why I live the way I live, so that they can see the joy that I get from being in my home, and when I share that with them, they can hardly leave my home, or Dan’s home or Patric’s home, or Joan’s, or D.E.’s or Lisa’s, and not say “Wow…you know, yeah, I’m gonna go buy me a piece of art!” No matter where they start at, but just to know that that beginning will bring them to an eternity that’s forever because it’s something that you just never lose once you get it. It’s truly a passion and love, so I wish that we continue to bring new people in all the time, to share in the joy that we have, the love for the arts.
JDC: I would say that I hope that Diasporal Rhythms maintains its character, and continues not only to verbalize but live that whole message that you don’t have to be rich or an elitist to be an art collector. Just an appreciator. That art can become like a seventh sense, or a second skin, that it becomes a part of who you are. You know, it speaks to you, it feeds you, it really does nourish you. And that’s part of the message that this group—as you can see, the personality of the group, there’s no elitism, there’s nobody stuffy [laughter], it’s just people who have a passion for others’ creativity. And so if that can continue to be the message, and that can continue to be the standard by which this organization promotes itself and represents itself, I think it will go a long way towards achieving its mission.