THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by Evan Carter
Patric McCoy is the founder of Diasporal Rhythms (DR), an art collector group that encourages individuals to become collectors. This nonprofit organization promotes art produced by artists from the African Diaspora. Consisting of fifty collectors, DR holds seminars, workshops, tours, and other events that aid the mission to support the legacy of African-American artists.
This mission is no easy task—African-American artists have largely been left out of the canon of art history. It is only in recent decades that the contributions of artists of color are gaining the level of exposure and critical inquiry that has been afforded to predominantly white and male figures.
Thanks to Kara Walker, Kerry James Marshall and Kehinde Wiley (among many others), artists of color are writing new chapters in the history of Western civilization. But for many people, the work of these artists and the art world itself feels distant and inaccessible. That’s the gap Diasporal Rhythms is working to close.
Patric McCoy, Dan Parker, Joan Crisler, and Carol Briggs were invited in 2003 to speak at a panel on collecting art at the South Side Community Art Center. Diasporal Rhythms’ mission is not informed solely by the need for exposure and market viability. It is primarily meant to revitalize the intrinsic value of being an individual collecting art today.
I got to sit down with Mr. McCoy recently to hear his story and how he came to be a leader in this effort. McCoy was born and raised on Chicago’s South Side on 63rd Street. He fondly states that the sound of the L was probably the first sound he ever heard in his life.
Growing up in the Washington Park neighborhood close to Woodlawn, McCoy described a community that was thriving despite the turmoil of racial inequity that marked the mid-twentieth century. His parents were intellectuals and his father a practicing artist.
McCoy remembers his father, Thomas, having a show at a local gallery. He remembers being in awe at seeing his dad’s paintings, through the storefront windows, up on those walls. Despite his father’s dedication to his craft, he was denied opportunities to achieve the career he wanted. As a young adult, he was accepted into a prestigious college of art and design on the East coast, but his admission was revoked upon the institution discovering his African-American heritage.
Amidst the economic decline of the neighborhood, McCoy witnessed the effects that came with it: “It was a cultural regression. This place is absolutely boring compared to what it was. It’s horrible. We didn’t realize how great we had it. Because it was the norm. And you are living in this mindset of segregation and racism, so you are being told that you got the bad end of the stick.
“In actuality, we didn’t. We actually were living in a really, really exciting place. Because it was very dense, people were very communicative with each other, they were connected to each other very strongly. But we thought we were in ‘the ghetto’.”
Compared to today, this “ghetto” was “heaven on earth” says McCoy. The schools were excellent, and all kinds of culture and entertainment had once filled the neighborhood shops. Many of the jazz and blues clubs were driven out and erased by gentrifying economic forces like the University of Chicago. Ironically, this is the institution that McCoy attended for his undergraduate studies and where some of his views on art, culture, and society began to take shape.
“U of C was...strange. It was good and it was bad. I believed that I got a very good education. It made me think about things in a completely different way than when I went in. But, at the same time, it was bad and is still bad in that the institution in its desire to be is very destructive. And the longer I stayed there, the more I saw it. And it gets disturbing that something that is giving you something that is so good is so bad. And that creates a tension inside of you. I still have that.”
The Black Power movement was emerging during this time and making changes in American culture. A whole set of images were generated around this movement and McCoy’s close family connection to art allowed him to make a connection. He had been attending art shows and events as a social activity but it was when his roommate, who was an art major, brought home a lithograph that caught his eye. He purchased it from his friend and his initial collection began.
McCoy has since filled his home with art objects he acquired over the years but didn’t think of himself as a collector until much later in life, after his collection had grown substantially. Instead, he wanted to make his environment much like the one in which he grew up, which was filled art and furniture made by his father.
“I was acquiring art for a very long time. To the point that other people were noticing it and saying that I was an art collector. I would reject the term because I believe, and that the majority of people in this country in the West believe, that an art collector has to be rich and that...is a person who acquires art but is not sharing it. (They believe) that an art collector is inherently somebody that knows, a lot about art; is academic, encyclopedic. An art collector is somebody that is doing this with an understanding of the investment potential of this thing.”
Patric McCoy’s living room. Photo by Evan Carter.
McCoy believes commonly-held notions about what it means to be an art collector are the cause of a widespread cultural decline similar to the one he witnessed growing up. He sees two sides to the coin of the recent acquisition of Kerry James Marshall’s Past Times by Sean Combs a.k.a., Puff Daddy. McCoy lauds the fact that a work by a black artist can be sold to a black collector for this sum of money but laments the fact that it reinforces the idea that art is exclusive to the wealthy.
“We should not do things to discourage people from looking at visual imagery as a cultural phenomenon that they can be a part of,” McCoy says. This is why he formed Diasporal Rhythms. He sees the elite world of art collecting as a false form of cultural production that is focused more on power and status.
A sampling of McCoy’s collection. Photo by Evan Carter.
There was a tipping point that let McCoy know collectors had power. In 2003, the Art Institute of Chicago held an exhibition titled “Century of Collecting: African American Art in the Art Institute of Chicago.” The title was misleading; they had some works from the early 20th century and more recent work, but there was a gap in the mid-twentieth century.
There was a tipping point that let McCoy know collectors had power. In 2003, the Art Institute of Chicago held an exhibition titled "A Century of Collecting: African American Art at AIC." This was misleading since they had some works from the early 20th century and more recent work but there was a gap. At a panel discussion for the exhibition, seven artists were on stage to discuss their own work making its way into the collection.
Onstage, these artists were very critical of the Art Institute and McCoy found that shocking. Wouldn’t that hurt their careers? Later in the day, he was at an opening where he met art critic Nathaniel McClaren, who was also at the event. He asked him why the artists would be so hard on the institution. McClaren told McCoy that “art institutions don’t pay any attention to artists. They pay attention to art collectors.” In other words, McCoy learned, “If you want to get your word out, you have to speak as a collector.”
Through Diasporal Rhythms, McCoy has created a platform to educate and motivate public discourse and cultural production that empowers individuals and dispels the premise that art is for a select few. He knows he can’t change what he refers to as the “top down art institution that has existed for a millennium” but that he “can do something with the audience.”
That something is to show people that they do not have to “buy into the myth that hurts us culturally.” Instead, they can generate the culture themselves and begin to re-write the narrative of art collecting.
Evan Carter is a contributing editor of the New Art Examiner. He earned his MFA degree in 2017 from the University of Chicago and wrote about Documenta 14 in a prior issue of the Examiner.
The Art Institute of Chicago hosted a celebratory reception in the Modern Wing on June 8th, given by the museum’s Leadership Advisory Committee at the opening of an exhibition of works by the mid-century African-American artist Charles White. Close to 700 persons attended and were in the mood to party as well as view art. The Examiner moved through the crowd and spoke with several African-American collectors about their history of collecting and the artists they favored. Here is a selection:
Morris Gearring—“I am collecting mid-century artists. I have the largest collection of a Chicago artist, Margo [Hoff], a collection of over 100 pieces that started in 1947. Margo is a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and she’s a great joy to collect.”
What about the newer artists, like Kerry James Marshall? “He’s a prince. I love Kerry’s work, I love Theaster [Gates], and I had my portrait done by Dawoud Bey. And may many more black artists sell at the rate that Kerry sold at last week in New York.”
Diane Dinkins-Carr—“I collect all artists, the ‘Old Black Masters.’ I collect emerging artists. My parents were collectors so I know a lot of the old black masters like Charles White, Elizabeth Catlett, Archibald Motley. So I support a wide variety of emerging artists like Martha Wade and Kevin Williams.
“When my parents were collectors, it wasn’t considered a big thing. The word ‘collectors’ just started in the late 1990s and early 2000s. We always had art on our walls. My husband and I consider ourselves lovers of art more than collectors.
“I’ve seen collecting by black collectors grow, and I’ve seen it slow down. Now, we have the young people, the new millennials here tonight. It’s a good way for them to experience fine art like Charles White. It’s all about education.”
Robert Smith—“I would say I’ve considered myself a collector for the last 18-20 years. I gravitate more to the South Side era, to earlier artists of the black experience.”
Like who?—“There were artists like Craig Robinson and Charles Thomas. And the art was often exhibited in churches because that was there a black crowd could be found.”
Any new artists?—“Not really. They’re going into new directions that I’m not too familiar with. They’re going into extravagant art. I’m from the old school where if it’s a portrait, I’d like it to look like a portrait.”
Gina Gay (Aspires to be a collector)—“I would say this event has opened my eyes to art in a way that I didn’t have access to previously. I think young professionals who didn’t grow up in a creative space might be slightly intimidated by the art world, but this event has helped open my eyes.”
Charles White Reception at the Art Institute of Chicago. Photo by Tom Mullaney.
Langdon Neal—“Well, my family, particularly my mother (Isobel Neal), opened her art gallery which featured African-American artists exclusively in 1991. That began this wonderful adventure into the wonderful world of art collecting. We always bought one work from every show.
“We watched the young artists, who didn’t have a lot of fame or recognition but were tremendously talented, and we invested in them. So, now, 30 years later, we can see their work appreciated and increased in value.”
What about now?—“We don’t focus on any particular style. I always like to recognize those who came before us because we all stand on the shoulders of someone. So, we have to appreciate artists like Kerry James Marshall and those that came before him, like Romare Bearden, Charles White and artists of the ‘30s and ‘40s who set the stage. But now, the young artists can look back [and] see where they can make a living from their art which very few artists could back in those days.”
“The South Side Community Art Center deserves attention because it started at a time when African-American art wasn’t in vogue yet they were committed to neighborhood South Side artists and giving them an opportunity. They deserve their praise. Now that it’s popular, that we see Kerry James Marshall and what his art sells for, he stands on the shoulders of those who came before.”
Sidney Dillard (a woman in her 30s and a collector for about 15 years)—“At least for me, and I think a lot of other African-American collectors, we buy what we like, as opposed to what’s the hot new thing” that the art world likes.”
She seems to favor more current artists than older artists from older generations.—“You’re right about that. I’m attracted to artists who are doing newer things, like a number of artists out of Atlanta who are doing fabulous things, like Chukasokoye, bridging African with African-American art. I’m attracted to things that really capture your eye.”
What about Chicago’s art scene?—“I think our art scene is good. I wouldn’t say it’s the most vibrant art scene. New York and Atlanta have a more vibrancy. It’s not so much what’s in galleries but more about what’s in festivals and fairs where you can get a chance to see what you wouldn’t otherwise get to see.”
Calvert Hall—“[I] started buying art about 30 years [ago]. I had an art dealer who had gone to the same college as my wife (Ohio State), and he introduced me to a number of artists who were Abstract Expressionists, and I got involved in that whole thing. People like Ed Clark and Richard Mayhew. And over the years, I became acquainted with a lot of other people. I was a member of the art committee at the Union League Club [of Chicago] for years and at the time they bought a Kerry James Marshall and inducted him as a Distinguished Artist.”
“I’d buy all of the people I’ve mentioned, but the big persons, if I had unlimited funds, would be Kerry and Jean-Michel Basquiat, Ed Clark and Herbert Gentry to Al Loving and all those guys. I’m a couple of million dollars short.”
Patric McCoy with some of his collection. Photo by Evan Carter
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