A Better Way of Policing

A Police Chief's Art Advocacy Benefits The Community

John Welch

In response to shootings of police and by police, we revisit police chief and art collector William C. Robinson.  This article was originally posted here in Fall 2015.  The circumstances of the recent shootings and those described in this article are different, however Robinson's philosophy of policing is applicable to all circumstances.   

Scene of shooting incident, East Orange, NJ, May 2, 2015 (RLS Media)East Orange, New Jersey is becoming an increasingly safe place to live and work because of a police chief whose sensitive and deeply caring leadership is reinforced daily through his love of art and commitment to sharing it.

Police Chief William C. Robinson at press conference (WABC)As chief of police, William C. Robinson has achieved the distinction for his city of realizing the highest crime reduction (79%) in the country, in the shortest amount of time. 

Police stress is well-documented. Robinson daily decompresses from his high-pressure job by entering the transporting realm of visual art. “When I walk in [my] front door, I am faced with beautiful, thought provoking works of art that banish the worries and difficulties of public safety,” he says.

Collecting and viewing art, of course, is not a panacea for the complex welter of problems relating to public safety and crime but it does provide a clue. Most people in traditional societies created things with their hands. The making and doing connected mind, body and spirit, providing an outlet for tension and a sense of mastery and balance to their lives. 

East Orange students at Lafayette College exhibition of Robinson collectionGail and William C. RobinsonCollecting and viewing is not the same as doing traditional handicrafts but it does keep a contemporary life style engaged with forms of creativity. Selecting frames, mounting and arranging art to its best effect is a large-scale creation that combines some of the talents of museum installation designers and preparators. The creation of a visually stimulating living space is design brought to a personal level and relishing the result is an another form of art appreciation.

Edward Bannister Cows by the Stream, 1881, oil on canvas, 10x14” Robinson Family CollectionRobinson's efforts to bring art into the lives of the people in his community also has a salutary effect. Robinson and his wife, Gail, host a fundraiser at least once a year in their home to both raise money for community causes and to inform people about art. He also has founded a collector's club and guided groups through the National Black Fine Arts Show that was held in New York City for several years. And this year, the Robinsons established an art scholarship.

Henry O. Tanner, The Sands of New Jersey, 1896, oil on panel,  5x6 Robinson Family CollectionOn a more direct level, the impressive record of crime reduction in East Orange is attributable to a philosophy of policing that Robinson imparts to his officers and the use of state-of-the-art policing practices.  “We are protectors, not warriors,” he tells his officers. “Art teaches me the interaction between the police and their community should be less enforcement…and focus more as guardians as we are with the arts,” he says. 

Augusta Savage, Portrait of a Baby, 1942, terracotta, 10x 8 1/2x8” Robinson Family CollectionHis police department also was the first in the state to install spotlights to deter crime. If police notice a crime about to take place on monitors at headquarters, they can remotely bathe the perpetrator(s) in red light from surveillance equipment from as far as a block away. This preventive measure is one of the factors in the town’s declining crime rate.

It’s 2:09 a.m. in November 2015 and Robinson winds down from his long work day by texting an associate to inquire about a bust of Martin L. King (part of a bronze sculpture series begun in the 1960s) by now 101-year old sculptor Inge Hardison. He wants to add this piece to his sculpture collection which includes works by Augusta Savage, Selma Burke and Elizabeth Catlett.

Thelma Johnson Streat, Seated Woman, 1950, oil on masonite, 30x30” Robinson Family CollectionOn this night as on many, art is Robinson's nightcap of choice.  “My memory of the streets subsides as I look at each artwork and a great calmness overcomes me," he reflects. "These are the times when I realize how good my life is, and I thank God for my family, our health, and our good fortune. And, the artist who created these cultural treasures past, present and future.” 

Contributing writer Jerry Langley reported on his visit to Robinson's home for an article in a 2012 issue of the print IRAAA.  At that time, Robinson’s collection consisted of some 250 oils, watercolors, mixed media works and sculptures.  Approximately 90% of the collection were by African American artists; the remainder by largely Latino, European and Ethiopian artists.

Norman Lewis, Untitled, Nude, 1969, oil on paper 41 x 29Since 2012 the Robinson Collection has grown to approximately 325 works. Acquisitions in recent years include historical, modern and contemporary African American artists Henry O. Tanner, Edward Bannister, Robert Duncanson, Charles White, Palmer Hayden, David C. Driskell, Curlee R. Holton, Earl Wilkie, Allison Saar and Kevin Cole.

The collection is now quite comprehensive, including, in addition to the above-named artists, 19th century painter Charles Ethan Porter; 20th century masters William E. Scott, Allan Crite, Claude Clark, Eldzier Cortor, Malvin Gray Johnson, Charles Sebree, Thelma Johnson Streat, Romare Bearden, Charles Alston, Norman Lewis, Herbert Gentry and others; and contemporary artists such as Sam Gilliam, Frank Bowling, Louis Delsarte and Philemona Williamson.

Curlee R. Holton Jazz Jam 2003 acrylic/watercolor on paper 30 x 22Robinson's Tanner is a notable acquisition because it is one of a few paintings that the artist did of the Jersey shore. Tanner’s Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City (c. 1885, oil on canvas) was the first painting by an African-American artist to be a part of the White House permanent collection. David Driskell recommended the painting for acquisition by the White House during the Clinton administration. 

Ulysses Marshall, oil on canvas 18x24 Robinson Family CollectionRobinson’s Tanner — The Sands of New Jersey — was painted about 11 years later in Paris. This time the artist portrayed the scene in an impressionistic style.

Preston Sampson Still Standing ca. 2011 acrylic on canvas 28 x 34, Robinson Family Collection

The Augusta Savage sculpture is a find because Savage did not produce a large body of work and her work seldom comes onto the market.

The 1950 Thelma Johnson Streat painting is an interesting Robinson acquisition because Streat (1911 – 1959) is a fascinating figure whose reputation is slowly but surely becoming established. 

Robinson's 1968 David Driskell oil was done when Driskell often worked in oil. In subsequent decades Driskell generally worked in other media.

In Robinson's Norman Lewis painting, the ovals in the nude feminine form recall those of the artist's Seachange series.

Entrance to In the Line of Duty exhibition, Lafayette Galleries, Easton, PAIn the Line of Duty, Collecting African American Art, The William C. Robinson Family Collection (October 16 – December 12, 2015) at the Lafayette College Art Galleries in Easton, PA showcases 30 paintings and seven sculptures from the collection. 

Among those attending the October 15, 2015 exhibition preview were young people from East Orange — Cicely Tyson School of Performing Arts and the STEM Academy and Campus High School students, and Safe Haven Police Athletic League participants.

The Robinsons have established a Lafayette College arts scholarship in the name of Robinson’s mother, Mella Jean Robinson, who passed away in March 2015. The exhibition preview also served as a fundraiser for the scholarship. 

Hallway in Robinson home. The large works in the center are Humbert Howard’s Fisherman, 1951 oil and Claude Clark’s Three Soliders, 1947 oil (Jerry Langley)Accustomed to seeing the artwork in his home setting, Robinson had an enhanced perception of it in the gallery setting. “The focus was more about the art,” he explains. “The air and space around each piece gave it a new aesthetic.”

Perhaps most memorable for the collector and his family was witnessing the guests interacting with the art and learning about the artists’ stories, influences and inspirations.  One high school student told Robinson his favorite piece was the Slave Boy by May Howard Jackson (1877–1931). “When I inquired what he liked about it his response was ‘because his story looks like mine’,” says Robinson.  “That profound moment will live with me forever.”

 William C. Robinson and his sons Christian D. Robinson and William C. Robinson 111After about 23 years of collecting, William and Gail Robinson still eagerly envision new works on their walls. They moved into a larger home 15 years ago to accommodate their collection and are planning new acquisitions from a list of more than 100 artists.  The list includes William Artis, Marion Perkins, Hale Woodruff, Lois M. Jones, Aaron Douglas, Robert Colescott, Richmond Barthe, Ernest Crichlow, Radcliffe Bailey, Melvin Edwards, Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, Kehinde Wiley, Diego Rivera and Angel Botello. 

The Robinsons often travel in this country, and sometimes abroad, to view, learn about, and collect art.  On October 29, 2015 William Robinson attended a collector’s talk at the University of Maryland’s David C. Driskell Center and had an opportunity to reunite with one of his favorite contemporary artists, Preston Sampson, who lives in nearby Maryland. Robinson visited the artist’s studio the next day, fell in love with two works, and took them home.