Before we begin, accept this qualifier. If the facts are important to you, see Senior Curator E. Jane Connell. The following recounts my memory of an exceptional evening at the Muskegon Museum of Art, October 17th, 2013. Your Captain is neither art historian nor journalist although he is a touch typist.
Arthur Primas has collected an amazing collection of African American art, over three hundred works, seventy-five of which have toured the country since 2009 under the title, "Promises of Freedom, the Arthur Primas Collection". The collection spans African American art from the very beginning of the African experience in America to the present day. The Flint Institute of Arts hosted the collection in Spring of 2011, and I passed a memorable afternoon touring the works. The FIA was so proud to be exhibiting the collection, the Institute took out billboards on I-75, visible from the south bound lanes near Grand Blanc. Indeed, the Muskegon Museum of Art placed advertisements on the sides of all the county buses, and added panels to the advertisements visible inside our MATS buses.
And last night, as E. Jane Connell revealed the saga of African American art collecting at the Muskegon Museum of Art, a tradition one hundred years old and counting, a man was sitting by himself in the fifth row, middle seat, attending to the celebration. It might have been he who had said earlier that day, and I paraphrase, "The Muskegon Museum of Art is a little museum with a powerful soul". Judy Hayner had woven that praise into her introduction of Senior Curator Connell. Director Hayner left it for Connell to announce the big reveal. Arthur Primas had shown up unannounced to share the jazz and lecture evening. The great collector "had to come", seeing the excellent marketing materials and had to "see what we were doing for himself". Again, I paraphrase and this time upon eavesdropping.
In another irony, again left for Connell to reveal, Dr. Anita M. LaMie Herald sat almost closest to Primas, athough in a different wing of seats. People in Muskegon still talk about a powerful couple, both leading medical doctors, who were persuaded to come to Muskegon to initiate the emergency medical department at Hackley Hospital. Drs Osbie and Anita Herald resided in a beautiful home near the hospital, attended church at the nearby First Congregational Church, and set the MMA on course for becoming a shrine to the African American genius for art, starting with acquisitions in the late Twentieth Century and endowments placed for future acquisitions with the Community Foundation for Muskegon County. In other words, thanks to the Heralds, the collecting of African American art shall be built into the community, for good, forever. Connell found the picture of the day when "Glory", a sculpture by Elizabeth Catlett, had important visitors. Dr. Anita Herald, Elizabeth Catlett and model, Renaissance Woman Glory Van Scott, posed for a picture with the wonderful bronze now on exhibit in the marble hall with Jacob Lawrence's Genesis Series.
When something is genuine, it gets talked about quietly. Hence, the Muskegon Museum of Art acquired four works of art from the family of Felrath Hines, virtually a donation, when Charles McGee, a remarkable painter living in Detroit, put in a good word for the MMA. The museum acquired several paintings by Kadir Nelson from the "We Are The Ship" series documenting the Negro Leagues in baseball. However, one of them, showing perhaps the air conditioned bus of the Newark Eagles and ballplayers singing in comfort, arrived as a gift from Nelson. So why is the art collecting genuine at the MMA? The MMA has DNA for African American Art. Before the cornerstone was laid for the Hackley Art Gallery in 1911, out of the earliest dollars of the Hackley Picture Fund, money spent out of principal, the institution bought Henry Ossawa Tanner's "The Holy Family" from a dealer in Chicago. The directors went looking for the best advice of a leading gallery and invested accordingly. Like the statue of Justice, the directors were blind to all but artistic excellence.
The excellence in collecting continues with the leadership of E. Jane Connell. Recently acquired from a source in Rhode Island, a portrait of a Privateer named Boyle of the United States Navy, so to speak, has her looking into the historical documentation surrounding Joshua Johnston, a Baltimore painter who was liberated in, was it October 6, 1746? Connell might as well be auditioning for a session on History Dectectives. Using images of pages from a Book of Chattel from the east coast, she has established that Johnston gained his freedom from slavery, the son of a black mother and a white father, a slave owner whose last name he took as his own. Funding for this expensive research that has to be conducted through professional researchers, phone calls, and emailed images has yet to be topped off.
Arthur Primas had a question for Senior Curator Connell. Connell had placed on screen an advertisement in which Johnston had solicited clients for his portrait painting studio, giving directions to its door, signed in print, Joshua Johnston. He wanted to know if her research had encountered different spellings of the painters name, especially dropping the letter T. Connell answered affirmately.
Time stopped for a few moments. Were we mesmerized or merely waiting politely for a second question from Primas? The auditorium has never been that quiet before.
E. Jane Connell pointed out the National Endowment for the Humanities expected a short survey. Senior Curator Connell, please staple this to a form, please.
Image shows the following: Charles White, American, 1918-1979
Gospel Singers. Tempera on board 1951.
Arthur Primas Art Collection. Courtesy of Landau Traveling Exhibitions