darry atwell talk


AFTER DARRYL ATWELL PURCHASED “Number 51,” by Leonardo Drew at an auction, he wrote the artist a note. “I knew somehow he would vibe with me,” says Atwell. “Let’s be honest about it, there are very few young African American persons who collect his work.”

Drew wrote him back immediately and sent him a book. After visiting his Brooklyn, N.Y., studio and watching the artist “put together these incredible wall sculptures,” Atwell says they developed a rapport and he feels almost like Drew is his brother. They vibed.

leonardo drew existedOver the past decade, Atwell, an anesthesiologist at Prince Georges Hospital Center in Cheverly, Md., has been collecting African American art and developing relationships with artists, which he says is an important part of the experience for him. He spoke about his approach to collecting and the artists he has acquired during “Collecting Black: An Anachronism,” a talk at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., with Jeffreen M. Hayes, a scholar and curator.

The discussion (see video below) is propelled by a well thought out presentation during which Atwell cites the influence of black imagery—both positive and negative—in American culture; that collectors of African American art are being remiss if they don’t make an effort to view all kinds of art, not just art by black artists, in order to educate themselves and develop a discerning eye; and that work by African American artists should have a wider appeal.

“I want the universal quality of art work produced by blacks to be in concert with all other works. I think it is really important to dispel this notion that if art work is done by blacks or has black things in it then somehow now it gets pushed to the side or is now a certain subset.”
— Darryl Atwell

How He Got Started
Atwell’s interest in art developed while he was living in Cleveland. With little to do socially, he started going to the museum because it had jazz on Saturday nights. As he walked through the galleries he was struck by the beauty of the art. He purchased his first works from Malcolm Brown Gallery, a (now-defunct) black-owned gallery and began studying the history of African American art by reading books such as “Collecting African American Art: Works on Paper and Canvas” by Halima Taha,

collecting african american artHe initially favored 20th century artists, acquiring Robert Blackburn, Elizabeth Catlett, Charles Alston (his first “serious” purchase) and Norman Lewis. As much as he admires the masters, acquiring their work proved cost-prohibitive. When he moved to the Washington area, he transitioned to collecting contemporary works. A Howard University alum, he also made supporting locally grown artists, such as Ellington Robinson and Zoe Charlton, a priority.

Who He Collects
Works by contemporary artists including Drew, Demetrius Oliver, Jefferson Pinder, Leslie Hewitt, Chakaia Booker, Kehinde Wiley, Jennie C. Jones and Kara Walker are in his collection. He is particularly proud to note that he acquired works by critically celebrated artists before many of them began to receive national recognition and appear on the cover of mainstream art magazines, including Xaviera Simmons (Art Pulse, Spring 2012), Wangechi Mutu (Art in America, June 2007), Rashid Johnson (Modern Painters, April 2012), Radcliffe Bailey (Sculpture, June 2012) and Theaster Gates (Art in America, December 2011).

“By purchasing and supporting them, you start making the art market or having a control of the art market or at least influencing it.”
— Darryl Atwell

“I would love to own Aaron Douglas, but it’s probably going to be very tough to get a very good Aaron Douglas piece, so the switch occurred to me to now to collect contemporary work and to help make them tomorrow’s masters,” says Atwell. “By purchasing and supporting them, you start making the art market or having a control of the art market or at least influencing it.” CT


“Collecting Black: An Anachronism,” is a part of the National Gallery of Art’s The Collecting of African American Art series. The conversation between Darryl Atwell and Jeffreen M. Hayes, who currently serves as director of Theaster Gates’ Rebuild Foundation, occurred on Nov. 18, 2012 and the video was just recently released.



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