“THESE PAINTINGS HAVE BEEN MY SANITY. They have done for me what they did for the artists: They have connected me to my roots,” said 51-year-old Harmon Kelley as he roamed through his three-story Georgian mansion in northwest San Antonio. For the umpteenth time, he found himself captured by the vivid images in his extensive collection of paintings by black American artists. Last year the 150 works owned by the San Antonio obstetrician and his 49-year-old wife, Harriet, became the first private collection of African American art ever exhibited by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. This year their collection, which includes landscapes and nineteenth-century portraits of wealthy whites by free blacks and works by artists of the Harlem Renaissance, has traveled to four other American cities: El Paso, Atlanta, Chattanooga, and Youngstown, Ohio.
Like comedian Bill Cosby, the best-known collector of black art, the Kelleys have filled a void in the art world: the power of the individual black collector to increase the value and influence of black art. Several times a day the Kelleys receive calls from museum curators, other collectors, or emissaries from foreign countries inquiring about borrowing or buying from their collection. Paintings they purchased in the eighties for a few thousand dollars are now worth more than ten times that amount. All together, it is a multimillion-dollar collection.
“Here is one called Strength,” Harmon said, pointing to a painting of a black man breaking free of his chains. It was painted in 1926 by Aaron Douglas, known as the father of the Harlem Renaissance. Harmon bought it in 1987 and placed it in his bedroom. “I put it here because there were many nights I knelt down beside it and asked God for strength,” he said.
However, it was his experience with blacks, not whites, that drove Harmon to his knees. In 1984 one of his patients, the daughter of a prominent black businessman, died of a freakish complication in childbirth. Soon after, the family sued Harmon for $2.5 million, accusing him of malpractice. He was ultimately exonerated and never paid a penny in damages, but the lawsuit took an emotional toll on him and his wife; they felt that San Antonio’s small community of black professionals sided with the businessman. During the height of the lawsuit, for example, the Kelleys would go to the city’s prominent black Episcopal church and people they had known for years would not even speak to them. This is an old story in a city as insular and cliquish as San Antonio. Forced to choose between the businessman, who had family roots in San Antonio, and Kelley, an up-and-coming outsider who was born and reared in a tiny town southeast of Temple, the city’s upper-echelon blacks chose one of their own. “I knew what it feels like to be shunned by white people,” said Harmon. “But being shut out by black people, well, it was just terrible, the worst thing in the world.”
In December 1986, as the lawsuit dragged on, the Kelleys attended an exhibition of works by black artists titled “Hidden Heritage” at the San Antonio Museum of Art. On the opening night of the exhibit, SAMA was filled with a crowd of black professionals, all people they had known for years. Few acknowledged their presence. “We really were social pariahs,” said Harriet. That night proved to be a turning point in the Kelleys’ lives. “As I looked at the paintings of all these black artists, I felt a tremendous pride in what they had accomplished, but I also felt sad and ashamed that I’d never heard of many of them,” Harmon said. Harriet’s reaction was even stronger: “I was angry that they had been left out of the art textbooks and kept out of the good museums. I was angry that I was ignorant of this rich, deep vein of black culture.”
After the opening, the Kelleys resolved to start buying works by black artists as a way of educating themselves and their two young daughters, Margaret and Jennifer, about their heritage. Neither had any background in art at all. Harriet grew up in Prairie View, where her father chaired the science department at historically black Prairie View A&M University. Her parents encouraged her to study science, history, and math—subjects that could lead to a stable job. “Art was not a part of our lives,” said Harriet. “It was considered a luxury.” Harmon grew up in Cameron, where his father worked for Alcoa Aluminum. His mother stayed home and reared five children. The only art on his parents’ wall was the plaster-of-paris moldings and childlike drawings done by his younger brother Danny.
The Kelleys started slowly, buying art books, getting catalogs of exhibitions, and researching the history of African American art. Eventually they hired an art dealer in Washington, D.C., to recommend original works for them to purchase and to introduce them to the work of black artists who had long toiled in anonymity. “This was our first buy,” Harmon said as he pointed above a fireplace to a 1910 painting by Henry O. Tanner called The Visitor, which depicts a man resembling Jesus Christ walking in a marketplace in Tangiers. Tanner was a protégé of famous American painter Thomas Eakins. The Tanner painting illustrates how the emergence of collectors such as the Kelleys has increased the value of black art. When they bought the painting, Tanner’s work was so obscure that the San Antonio physician paid just $12,000 for The Visitor and two etchings. “Today,” said Harmon, “the value of Tanner’s best work approaches that of some of Eakins’ paintings, which sell for more than five hundred thousand dollars—if you can find them.”
For the Kelleys, helping black artists achieve equal status is only part of the satisfaction they get from building their collection. They also enjoy the thrill of the hunt. In 1987, when Harmon was in New York, he sought out a Midtown gallery where he bought yet another Tanner, The Market Place. Another time he met Eldzier Cortor, an eighty-year-old New York artist, for breakfast at the Plaza Hotel; the Kelleys own Cortor’s 1943 painting Night Letter, in which a melancholy black woman in a red dress contemplatively sits at a kitchen table.
The greatest benefit, however, has been living with the paintings. “When I walk through my house and see a painting like Dispossessed [which shows a black couple who lost everything during the Depression], I remember knowing people like that in Cameron,” said Harmon. “I remember how much black people have survived.”