JULY/AUGUST 2002

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by Teri Tynes

ATLANTA'S PAUL JONES
Prominent Advocate of African American Art Reflects on
His Gift to the University of Delaware

by Cathy Byrd

Last year, art aficionado Paul Jones made national news when he donated most of his 1,000 piece collection to the University of Delaware. Atlanta's loss (local institutions didn't have the space or funds to take on the entire collection) was a major coup for Delaware. Rick Beard, a curator at the History Center remembers, "The collection didn't seem to fit anywhere here in Atlanta. Paul's intent is to mainstream this material, to get it into the canon of American art. What he's saying is that these people were important artists and they deserve to be looked at in the same context as other American artists. That argues for an institution like University of Delaware that has a history of teaching and publishing with a focus on American art."

Paul Jones in his Atlanta home with a small part of his extensive collection of paintings, sculpture and photography by African American artists. Mr. Jones holds Graduation, a 1949 photograph by Roy DeCarava signed and dedicated to Mr. Jones, "a sincere collector" (photo by Jack Buxbaum).

Jones intends for his collection to be visible, not stored at UD. "Our agreement was not for the collection to be moved to the university in one fell swoop," explains Jones. Museum space is being prepared for an opening in 2003 and plans have begun for a touring Retrospective of the collection in 2004. Meanwhile, this spring, one hundred photographs from the Jones collection were on view at the University Gallery. "Original Acts: Photographs of African-American Performers in the Paul R. Jones Collection" featured the work of twelve African-American photographers who have focused on African-Americans performing blues, jazz, theater and dance.
 
While the University readies a permanent exhibition space, the collection is still largely showcased in Jones's Atlanta home. That means visitors encounter prints by Romare Bearden in the bathroom, a Chris Verene photograph in the guestroom, drawings by sculptor Beverly Buchanan and Venice Biennial artist Robert Colescott along the stairway and countless other images throughout the house. Works by other noted artists such as Charles White, Herman "Kofi" Bailey, David Driskell, Elizabeth Catlett, Earl Hooks, Leo Twiggs, Stanley White, Jacob Lawrence, P.H. Polk and Selma Burke (she created the image of Franklin Delano Roosevelt that appears on the dime) are also on view in the Jones household.

The collector has been an art lover since he was a child. Born in Bessemer, Alabama (home of African-American photographer P.H. Polk), Jones first encountered fine art in the Bronx and in Washington D.C. "It wasn't the impact of having art at home," he explains, but more the effect of his visits to galleries and museums where he became curious about "how people stood in front of art and spoke in hushed tones."

Later, in his professional life, Jones traveled frequently across the U.S. He noticed that he rarely saw African-American works in either museums or galleries. "I was interested in this gap in museum collections of contemporary art," he recalls. "I thought there must be artists of color good enough to be shown there and
in galleries."

Jones would go to meet artists in their studios where he purchased their work directly. That's still his preferred way of collecting art. At first, Jones was drawn exclusively to figurative art. "I could understand it," he says. In the mid-80s, he began acquiring non-objective work.

About the same time, he reconsidered his view of photography, a medium he initially had considered exclusively documentary. The collector owns photographs from the 1960s protests in Selma, Alabama that were used as exhibits in civil rights court cases. Then, fifteen years ago, on the advice of Dr. Amalia Amaki, now curator of the collection at UD, he started to see different reasons for acquiring photography.

Charles White, John Henry, oil wash and pencil on paper, 1975, 36 by 30 inches.

"He already owned some P.H. Polks," recounts Amaki. "He liked them because he thought of them as documentary. We had a lively discussion about that. In the course of the discussion, we went to visit Polk. That visit convinced him to get more photographs." Jones considers Polk one of the most significant chroniclers of life in the South. He soon discovered that one of Polk's contemporaries, James Van Der Zee, had captured the spirit of Harlem in photographs, and began to collect his work as well. His acquisition of photos by Roy DeCarava and Aaron Siskind soon followed.

Amaki sees Jones as an exemplary collector: "One of the things I think that distinguishes him, among collectors I know throughout the country, is that he did not start with an idea that he would pursue the most famous African-American artists. Most of the collectors I know buy the catalogues and the textbooks. They start looking for the artists whom they find there. From the very beginning, though he did acquire work of well known artists, he never lost interest in emerging and mid-career artists."

Tom Southall, curator of photography for the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, expressed interest in certain of Jones's P.H. Polk photographs, many of which were included in "Through These Eyes: the Photographs of P.H. Polk", a traveling exhibition organized by the University of Delaware in 1998. "I think Paul has done some wonderful collecting," remarks Southall. "His collecting of African-American and young emerging photographers has been imaginative and diligent."

Through his bequest to the Delaware university, Jones secured a commitment from the school to develop a collaborative relationship with Spelman College in Atlanta. Their first initiative was to bring the P.H. Polk show to Spelman College last year. The arrangements promise to be a model for collaborations with other historically black colleges.

Kitty Farnham, who is a trustee at both the Atlanta History Center and the High Museum, met Jones when he was involved on those boards. "Paul was very interested in the academic side," she recalls. "He didn't want it isolated as an African-American collection; he wanted it part of American art studies program. He did some good research and found a good home for it."

As to the large body of artwork that heads north within the year, the University of Delaware and UD president David Roselle are more than pleased. The bequest will become the centerpiece of the University's new Center for the Study of American Material Culture. At the time of the bequest, Thomas M. DiLorenzo, then dean of the College of Arts and Science, explained that "the goal of the center is to bring scholars and students from many different disciplines together to spark a dynamic collaboration. The Paul R. Jones Collection will provide an excellent opportunity to do just that."

Shelia Turner, raisinā the dead, n.d., gelatin print, 17 7/8 by 12 3/4 inches.

Jones says, "Response to my gift has been overwhelmingly positive. I see a new day in art history, conservation, art, museum studies and Black-American studies. Finally, a rightful place, long overdue, for art by artists of color." Beyond that satisfaction, notes the collector, "My collecting has stimulated other African-American collectors. It's extremely rewarding for the pursuit of a personal passion to have such a widespread effect."

All photos are from the Paul R. Jones Collection, courtesy University of Delaware.

"Original Acts" will be on display in Atlanta at Georgia State University's School of Art and Design Galleries from June 17 to
July 27, 2002.

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