"Art enriches life, enlarges life, expands life."
So said Vivian Hewitt, the remarkable woman who with her late husband, John Hewitt, assembled one of the nation's most significant collections of African-American art. The Hewitt Collection of African American Art is on display from Oct. 17 through Jan. 11 at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, presented by Bank of America. You can find inspiration in the art, and in the Hewitts' story, by visiting the exhibit, a short walk from either the Montgomery or Powell Street BART stations.
Mrs. Hewitt, 88, led a preview tour of the exhibit on Friday, reminding visitors that personal stories lie behind every piece in the collection -- because it was built over a lifetime by a couple with a passion for art and for artists. She and her husband were married in 1949 after a whirlwind three-month courtship, and used wedding gift money to buy prints on their honeymoon in New York City. "We were a team in collecting art from the very beginning," she said.
As a young couple of modest means, she a librarian and he a writer, they didn't have a lot to spend but made art a priority, giving each other favorite pieces for birthday and Christmas presents. At one point, Mrs. Hewitt took out a loan from her church's credit union to buy a piece of art as a gift for her husband.
John Hewitt's sister, Adele Glasgow, ran a gallery in Harlem and, having worked as a secretary for Langston Hughes, had many connections in the African-American art community."She introduced us to many artists," Mrs. Hewitt recalled. In addition, Mrs. Hewitt's cousin, J. Eugene Grigsby, was studying art education at New York University and introduced them to his circle of artist friends. "At the time, black artists were not mainstreamed," she said.
The Hewitts were early and eager supporters of those artists, buying works directly and opening their home to host exhibits. Walking through the collection you can appreciate the works as did many visitors to their home, where they proudly displayed them over the years.
The exhibit features 54 works assembled over a half-century, from 1949 to 1998, and offers not only important twentieth-century art but also a survey of African-American culture and society.
It includes works by Romare Bearden, regarded as one of the greatest American artists of his generation, and Henry Ossawa Tanner, one of the first African-American artists to achieve acclaim in both America and Europe. Contemporary artists are also represented, among them Jonathan Green, a 1980s graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
A series of gallery talks on Wednesdays at noon will provide further insight into the exhibit. They're free for MoAD members and $12 for general admission, which includes a free pass for a later visit to the museum. Gallery talks will include:
- Oct. 22: Cultural Identity: The African American Experience and African Heritage
- Oct. 29: Politics, Artists and Context
- Nov. 5: The Impact of the New Negro Movement/Harlem Renaissance in the African Diaspora
Nov. 12: A Common Visual Language: African American Modernists and Mexican Muralists
Nov. 19: Artists Travel: Leaving the Familiar for Europe, Africa and the Other America
Nov. 26: Classical African Sculpture and Cubism
Dec. 3: The Voice of Jazz as Artistic Muse
Jan. 7: African American Art Not Mainstream? Don't Hold Your Breath Waiting!
The Museum of the African Diaspora is located at 685 Mission Street at Third Street in San Francisco. Museum hours are 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday (closed Monday & Tuesday) and Noon – 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $10 for adults and $5 for students and seniors. For more information, details on gallery talks and a map of the area, visit www.moadsf.org or call (415) 358-7200.
Photo credit: Homepage thumbnail is detail from Ann Tanksley, Canal Builders II, 1989, Oil on linen