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
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
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
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.