David Driskell Delivers Inspirational Talk

David Driskell presenting talk in HU Museum African gallery. Photo: Greg AdamsIt was a sermon, if ever there was one — a gospel of art. The "spiritual," soul enriching qualities of creating, viewing and collecting visual art was a recurring theme of the talk presented by David Driskell at the Hampton University Museum on April 5, 2014.  The occasion was the Curator’s Tea held in connection with the museum’s exhibition of works from the collection of Dianne Whitfield-Locke and Carnell Locke.  The Lockes got the art spirit and were so moved by it that they amassed more than 1,000 pieces in 10 years. The Building on Tradition exhibition of selected worksDavid Driskell and Dianne Whitfield-Locke at Curator's Tea. Photo: Greg Adams from their collection is on view through May 10, 2014.

“Don’t wait until you’re ready,” Driskell, told the guests. “By the time you’re ready, you might not be able to afford them (works of art you like), they might be out of sight.   When your spirit says do it, do it!

The esteemed artist, art historian and collector said he began collecting when he was a young, married, undergraduate student at Howard University and “could barely buy milk for the children."

His professors James A. Porter, Lois Mailou Jones (who taught him theories of color) and Lila Asher told him, “If you want to be a part of us, buy art.”  

Artists generally like to collect art, Driskell said, but they are not generally the collectors who become “the tastemakers” — the collectors who, with leading gallerists, museum curators and critics, determine the trajectory of an artist’s career and mold the canon.

Robert Duncanson, Hunting in the Woods, 1846, oil on canvas, 12.75 x 18.5. Collection of Dianne Whitfield-Locke and Carnell Locke“You want to buy not just what speaks to your soul but what also speaks to others," he explained.   “The consensus of collecting involves many things that results in taste making, including the intellect of the collector.  Read, read, read!  Get advice.”

As an example of the cultivaton of his own art tastes, Driskell recalled another Howard art professor, Morris Lewis.  The young Driskell didn’t like Lewis’s abstract style. “I want to be a social commentator through my art,” he nobly but naively thought. But James Porter insisted, “You’re going to study with Lewis.”

“I learned a lot from Lewis” says Driskell who developed a style of figurative abstraction for a broad range of expression including vigorous social comment and quiet reflection upon the natural world.

Driskell continued his talk in the Whitfield-Locke exhibition gallery. Photo: Greg AdamsDriskell first visited Hampton Institute (now University) in 1961 when he was 30 years old.  Then president Jerome Holland invited him to chair the art department but Driskell “felt he was a little young to direct a large department.”  

In the 1970s, when he chaired the Fisk University art department, Driskell mentored novice collectors William and Norma Harvey.  Harvey was a Fisk administrator whose initial exposure to art at Talladega College was stoked at Fisk by the renowned artist Aaron Douglas who preceded Driskell as art department chair. Harvey is now an accomplished collector and the president of Hampton University.

In 1977, Driskell became advisor to the Bill and Camille Cosby collection and some of his art parables and collecting stories stem from this experience.  At the tea, he recalled one of his early conversations with Cosby:

Bill said, “You’re the expert.  I’m the buyer, the entertainer who brings the resources. Sometimes you will bring things and I will say ‘no.’ ”

“Why?,” Driskell asked.

“Because it’s my money,” Cosby replied.

Driskell had the last word: “But if there’s something you should buy — an opportunity to acquire an important piece passes by, don’t come back to me complaining.” 

Henry O. Tanner, The Thankful Poor, 1894. Collection of Camille and Bill CosbyDriskell also recalled going to Sotheby’s on December 10, 1981 to bid on one of the most coveted works of American art, Henry O. Tanner’s The Thankful Poor.  He was bidding for Camille Cosby who told him she wanted it “for Bill’s Christmas present.”  There was strong competition for the painting because it is one of only two known Tanner paintings depicting African American life and both do so in sensitive, touching ways.  The other painting,The Banjo Lesson, is in the Hampton University Museum collection.

Driskell’s strategy was to plant cohorts — "young scholar” Steven Jones and Harold Hart — in the crowd to begin the bidding and divert attention from him.  He told them, “If it goes past $50,000, I’ll take it,” and he told the Sotheby’s director that he would “simply flip my scarf” to signal his bid.  The scarf, he noted, was a gift from James Herring, a former chairman of Howard’s art department and co-founder of the legendary Barnett Aden Gallery.

The bidding for The Thankful Poor shot past the $30,000-$40,000 auction estimate to Driskell's top bid of $250,000 which, at that time, was highest price fetched by a work by an African American artist. With the buyer’s premium and agent’s fee, the purchase cost of The Thankful Poor was $280,500.

Driskell edited the large book on the Cosby collectionCalling Driskell to discuss his extraordinary Christmas gift, Cosby asked, “Where is the companion piece to it?”  

“You mean The Banjo Lesson?,” Driskell asked.  “It’s at Hampton (University) and not for sale.”  

“Well, how much is Hampton?,” Cosby shot back.

Resuming the sermon, Driskell said art is a “spiritual  endeavor.”

“Artists give us the spiritual vision of what’s beyond what you see in the physical world,” he explained.  “The mind is a spiritual substance, it connects us to the maker of all things.  The connection comes through the dexterity of the hand and intellect.”

Driskell also urged the guests to help establish a prominent place for African American art in the Western canon.  “Tanner and Catlett" should not be a part of a “hypenated” sub genre, he said. “Go to museums, join museums. You can’t demand change if you don’t have a voice.  Participate and buy.  Don’t forget that you have an obligation to support your culture so it can be passed down to your children’s children.” 

Speaking without notes in cadences of reverence, exhortation and conviction, Driskell sounded like the country preacher’s son that he is — a country preacher's son with erudition.  He is much beloved because of a grace that combines deep humility and spirituality with elevated conoisseurship.

David Driskell (r) with HU Museum curator of collections Vanessa Thaxton-Ward, Dianne Whitfield and Carnell Locke and HU Museum associate curator Crystal Johnson. Photo: Greg AdamsOn other occasions, Driskell has referred to his support of African American art as a “calling” and a “priestly mission.”  And has said, "There was a time when I felt the need to all but moralize.... I think part of that was from my background in the fundamentalist Black Christian Church, and part came from my own hope that art, too, could be convincing enough to not only be message-oriented but also have so potent a message that it would influence and consequently enhance the quality of life in a certain way.” (Interview for 1994 Contemporary Black Biography).

Continuing in a metaphysical vein, Driskell told the Curator’s Tea guests that the gifted artists “see above and beyond the times in which they live." 

Henry O. Tanner, Study for Going to the Tomb/Three Marys, c. 1900s, graphite, 12 x 9. Collection of Dianne Whitfield-Locke and Carnell LockeOf Dianne Whitfield-Locke and Carnell Locke, Driskell said, “ I cannot say enough in praise for them” and described Dianne as “relentless” in her pursuit of art.  “They have amassed one of the most important collections of art in the Washington DC area.  Tanner, Duncanson (two artists in the collection) — you are talking greatness and that’s what this collection is about.”    

Driskell’s gospel of art continued, the guests felt it in their souls, and the “church” wanted to roll on past the designated time for the talk.  But taking a cue from museum curator Vanessa Thaxton-Ward, Driskell concluded his liturgy and led the guests to the gallery where the Locke collection is exhibited. There, he and Dianne Whitfield-Locke pointed out highlights from the collection and Driskell offered personal stories or historical insights about each piece. 

Ruth Waddy, 1968, linocut, a/p, 14 x 11. Collection of Dianne Whitfield-Locke and Carnell LockeDianne Whitfield-Locke, like David Driskell, is an evangelist of art who promotes its appreciation through traveling her collection, her patronage and philanthropy, and her service on the boards of arts organizations.  And like Driskell and William R. Harvey, she was first exposed to art at an HBCU.  A 1970 graduate of Hampton, she earned a DDS at Howard and married fellow dent student, Carnell. Their art-filled Maryland home is a haven from their busy, dental practices in Washington and Maryland.

A special issue of the print IRAAA on the Whitfield-Locke collection was published in Fall 2013 when the Building on Tradition exhibition of their opened at the Hampton University Museum.  

 “What is so special about the Whitfield-Locke collection?,” David Driskell asked in the introductory essay to the issue.  “One important aspect is that Diane Whitfield-Locke has been able to acquire African American art from the mid-19th century into the 21st century when many of the finest example of the art have been hard to come by.  Like a private detective who is determined to solve the case, she is not afraid to engage the most competent professionals in the field… as she asks them to tell her how to improve upon her collecting skills and where to add strength to an already impressive assemblage of approximately 1,000 works.”

Dox Thrash, Portrait of a Woman, c. 1940-'50s, oil on board. Collection of Dianne Whitfield-Locke and Carnell LockeThe artists in the Whitfield-Locke collection span from the pioneering African American painters Robert Duncanson (1821-1872) and Edward Bannister (1928-1901) through Harlem Renaissance-era figures such as Augusta Savage and Aaron Douglas, successive generations of masters such as Woodruff, Bearden, Lawrence and Catlett to Eric Mack (b. 1976) and other young and mid-career artists working today.

James Phillips, Oloku, 2007, acrylic on canvas, 26 x 16.The organization of the exhibition was a feat of multi-tasking by three extraordinary women:  Dianne Whitfield-Locke was handling the myriad details of documenting and prepping art works to travel while attending to the multiple dental offices that she has or manages.  Co-exhibition curator Shirley Woodson-Reid was directing the NCA Gallery in Detroit while communicating with Whitfield-Locke and HU Museum curator of collections, Vanessa Thaxton-Ward. And Thaxton-Ward was completing a dissertation for the Ph.D in American studies and successfully defending it during the period that she was coordinating the efforts of Woodson and Whitfield-Locke and co-organizing the show.

Like David Driskell, Dianne Whitfield-Locke and Carnell Locke are much admired because of their ardent art advocacy and grace. A large group of the Lockes' friends and colleagues from the Washington DC and mid-Atlantic region were among the guests at the opening of the Whitfield-Locke collection exhibition at the Hampton University Museum on October 12, 2013. They included collector Patricia Walters, partner of the late political scientist Ron Walters, who donated a John Biggers painting from her collection to the Hampton University Museum. In their enthusiastic celebration of the opening and the art, the Lockes, the guests and the HU Museum staff reflected the origins of the word, enthusiasm: Latin enthsiasmus; Greek, éntheos which means "having a god within." David Driskell would concur. The spiritual connection in art, as he explained at the tea, "comes through the dexterity of the hand and intellect."

Amen and amen.