Photo: Washington Post Photo By Sarah L. Voisin
WASHINGTON – When Patricia Walters started building her art collection in the mid-1980s, she nabbed whatever caught her attention – from a verdant watercolor landscape by Lois Mailou Jones to the Harlem Renaissance-era work of Jacob Lawrence.
As she scoured galleries and frequented auction houses, her collection of African American art grew. She discovered contemporary artists, such as Kehinde Wiley, the Nigerian American who painted President Barack Obama’s vibrant portrait that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.
“I truly collected from a position of what struck me,” Walters said. “But the ones that grab me the most are the ones that we call The Masters. Those are artists that flowed out of the 19th century. Many of them were self-taught, of course, and didn’t make any money.”
She built her art collection as her husband, Ronald Walters, built his career as a leading scholar of politics and race. While Ronald lectured at universities and traveled the world, Patricia accumulated an art collection valued at more than $2.5 million. Now – nearly a decade after her husband’s death from cancer – she’s preparing to donate 152 pieces to Howard University, her husband’s academic home for 25 years.
Ronald Walters – who in 1958 organized one of the country’s first sit-ins at a drugstore lunch counter in Wichita – wrote six books and a syndicated newspaper column, and he advised both of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns. But teaching at Howard – where he chaired the political science department – was the “great love” of his academic career, his wife said.
“I was well aware of that as his mate for 47 years,” she said.
Patricia and Ronald Walters met in 1961 at a conference for Christian student associations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He was preparing to enroll at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and she was a student at Philander Smith College, a historically black school in Little Rock, Arkansas.
“He was sharp as a tack,” she said. “We spent the night talking. It was just a coming together of minds.”
Two years later, they were married.
The couple moved – first to the District of Columbia, then to Syracuse, New York, where he taught at Syracuse University. They moved, again, to Massachusetts so he could lecture at Brandeis University and then settled in Silver Spring, a Maryland suburb of D.C. He taught at Howard between 1971 and 1996 and then ended his career teaching at the nearby flagship campus of the University of Maryland in College Park.
They worked as a team, she said. He taught, and she spent three decades as a social worker at the Housing Opportunities Commission of Montgomery County.
“I leaned on my husband quite a bit,” she said. “Ronnie’s work was academic, but I’d say 50% of his work was outside the academic world. It was activism, it was advocacy, it was his work in various organizations.”
Patricia Walters wants that message to live through her donation, she said. She called her husband “a Renaissance man” – equal parts scholar and activist – who sang with the historic black a cappella group the Fisk Jubilee Singers as a student.
“I’m hoping that they would see the brilliance of the work and connect that with the brilliance of my husband,” Walters said about the people who will view the collection, slated to open in Howard’s art gallery this fall. “These are men of color and women of color, and against all odds they were able to produce art.”
The collection depicts the diversity of black art: A bronze bust sculpted by 20th century graphic artist Elizabeth Catlett, a watercolor painting by cubist Romare Bearden and an earthy oil paint landscape by Robert Duncanson, a self-taught painter who became one of the foremost artists of the late 19th century.
Kerry James Marshall and Norman Lewis, who captured the lives of African Americans in their work, are also represented in the collection.
Kathryn Coney-Ali, interim director of the Howard University Gallery of Art, called the gift “a wonderful, magnificent addition” to the collection that exists on Howard’s campus. The school’s gallery can fit about half of Walters’s donation, so the pieces will rotate and be shown in different exhibitions. There are plans to produce a catalogue that will display the full collection.
Walters’s gift is the second-largest art donation in the school’s roughly 150-year history, Coney-Ali said. The school received about 450 pieces from the estate of Alain Locke – a former Howard professor widely regarded as the “dean” of the Harlem Renaissance – after he died in 1954.
When Walters started collecting, African American art was not the commodity it is now.
June Kelly, director of the June Kelly Gallery in New York, said the art world’s newfound enthusiasm for African American art could be explained by several factors, including the divisive political climate – something black artists have been exploring for decades.
“African American artists have always been on the cutting edge, but slowly their works have been able to speak to other collectors in the art world,” Kelly said. “Now, people are looking at the art and seeing how important it is. These people have fueled the American psyche, they have added to it.”
At the same time, African American art and history is more accessible, because of institutions such as the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Coney-Ali said.
Along with news of Walters’s donation, the university announced plans to establish the Ronald W. Walters Endowed Chair for Race and Black Politics. The chair will be housed in the school’s public policy center, which is named for Walters.
The new position is “intended to spur interdisciplinary collaborations across the university on critical issues of race and black politics, especially those issues that affect Americans of the African diaspora,” the university said in a statement.
“Dr. Walters was a giant among scholars here at Howard University, nationally and internationally,” Howard President Wayne Frederick said. “This endowed chair is designed to be a reflection of his unique history as an activist, a political strategist and a trailblazing academic professor.”
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