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Premiere African-American art collection gets new home at University of Delaware

Paul Jones, in his Atlanta home with just some of his extensive lifetime collection of paintings, sculpture and photography by African American artists.

Photo: Jack Buxbaum

The work Mr. Jones is holding is a 1949 photograph by Roy DeCarava, "Graduation." The print is signed and dedicated to Mr. Jones, "a sincere collector."

Edward Steichen, then MOMA's Curator of Photography, was invited to attend deCarava's first one-person photography show in 1950. Deeply impressed, he immediately bought three prints for the Museum of Modern Art and encouraged DeCarava to apply for a Guggenheim fellowship. The grant, awarded in 1952, was the first ever for an African American Artist.

NEWARK, DE.-- One of the oldest, largest and most complete holdings of African-American art in the world–the 1,000 piece Paul R. Jones Collection–has a new home at the University of Delaware, President David P. Roselle announced Feb. 14.

The collection, now showcased in Jones’ Atlanta home and in exhibitions across the country, includes works by such noted artists as Charles White, Herman "Kofi" Bailey, David Driskell, Elizabeth Catlett, Earl Hooks, Leo Twiggs, Stanley White, Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, P.H. Polk and Selma Burke, who created the image of Franklin Delano Roosevelt that appears on the dime.

"The University of Delaware is truly privileged to enjoy the friendship and support of Paul Jones, whose collection is magnificent," Roselle said, at a special ceremony announcing the gift, held at the Bob Carpenter Sports/Convocation Center on the Newark, Del., campus.

"We are so very pleased and honored that, in the University's outstanding programs in art, art history, art conservation, black American studies and museum studies, as well as its leading-edge technologies, Paul Jones has seen an appropriate home for his collection," Roselle said. "Mr. Jones believes art should be made widely available for the purposes of education and enjoyment, and we share and are committed to implementing his vision.

"We particularly look forward to using it to foster relationships with a wider public, to include our colleagues and students at historically black institutions, including Spelman and Morehouse colleges in Atlanta."

"I am excited to have my collection at the University of Delaware," Jones said, citing the institution's resources to professionally conserve and exhibit the vast array of paintings, drawings, photographs, lithographs and sculpture.

"I have wanted to find a way to keep the collection together so that it will have the most possible impact on artists, scholars and students," Jones said. "For the last five years, I have been looking for the ideal home where the collection would be wanted and woven into the fabric of an institution, where it would be used for teaching and exhibitions.

"I believe the University of Delaware is that place," Jones said.

"I applaud the University of Delaware for embracing this because it is a very sensitively compiled collection," Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, chief curator of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, said. "Paul Jones is a passionate collector with a very good eye. He had sought out very good examples of excellent artists who have played prominent roles in American art.

"He is very interested in educational outreach, and the University of Delaware is a very good teaching institution," she added.

Cataloging and appraisal has begun in preparation for the collection’s move to the Newark campus over the course of the next several years. Amalia Amaki, an artist and art historian from Atlanta, has been hired to work with University Gallery staff on this effort and to teach at the University. A major exhibition highlighting the collection will be mounted in the future at the University Gallery at Old College on the Newark campus. This show is expected to travel.

This oil wash/pencil on paper of John Henry was completed in 1975 by artist Charles White (1918-1979). It is one of the many showpieces of the Paul R. Jones Collection of African-American Art.
"This collection will become a truly wonderful resource for students and faculty here and from other institutions as well, enriching not only the study of art, art history and art conservation but American culture as well." Provost Mel Schiavelli said. "The many academic programs related to the Paul R. Jones Collection will promote the study of African-American insights and influences across a broad spectrum of culture in this country, reflecting the University’s commitment to providing its students with exposure to the rich and diverse culture of our world.

Thomas M. DiLorenzo, dean of the College of Arts and Science, said UD is committed to putting into action Jones’ vision "to enrich the lives of UD students and staff, Delaware school children and the general public, among many." He noted that the collection will be the centerpiece of the University's new Center for the Study of American Material Culture, which encompasses the world of objects and images that people make and use. "The goal of the center is to bring scholars and students from many different disciplines together to spark a dynamic collaboration. The Paul R. Jones Collection will provide an excellent opportunity to do just that."

Belena S. Chapp, director of museums at UD, said, "We are excited by the countless possibilities for study, exhibition development and educational programming afforded by the addition of this wonderful treasure."

The birth of a collection

Paul R. Jones of Atlanta, a pioneer in the acquisition of African-American art, started collecting in the 1960s while working for the federal government in Atlanta.

"As I began to evidence an interest in art, I bought three reproductions of old masters," he said. "I got unstained frames, painted them and framed the prints. Those were the first things I ever hung up."

Quickly, however, his interest turned to original works primarily by African-American artists.

"Very early on, I had to determine a focus, and I sought to fill the gap created because museums were acquiring very little art by African Americans," Jones said. "The major art galleries were not including artists of color, with the exception of a blockbuster show every four or five years. I decided to focus on those artists, to expose them to the art world and the world of collecting and also to impact their futures. I’ve loaned my art frequently, so others have had their appetites whetted to collect. It has given the artists exposure to collectors and galleries so those galleries might become more inclusive.

"I started out with several pieces, a few of which I thought were excellent examples of fine art," Jones said. "That few became several and then a few hundred pieces, and I was always looking to add to the collection. As the result of lending out works, I got good feedback. It meant that somewhere along the way my eye was developing. I sought to find strong, mid-career and emerging artists with the maturity and talent to advance. Eventually, I focused on art that really appealed to me."

Part of the reason Jones had to check his interest was that, since the beginning, the collection has been stored primarily in his home. Today, it covers nearly every space on the walls and spills over into closets and drawers.

As one of the few collectors of African-American art in the 1960s, Jones became personally involved in the lives of many of the artists. There were times, he said, when his purchase provided the artist a meal or another month's rent—he didn’t know whether he was a social worker or art collector.

"Pretty soon, artists began to beat a path to my door," Jones said. "Sometimes, I’d be buying from a well-known, mature artist and sometimes from a budding, new artist. In those days–as part social worker and part art collector–I bought from many struggling artists who were about to be evicted or didn’t know where their next meal was coming from.

"Artists still beat a path to my door, and occasionally some almost wanted to give a work of art to me in order to be represented in the collection," Jones said. "Others come by because they want to get to know the collector. I regret that I cannot always respond by purchasing a work of art. I’m still collecting, but I now try to limit it so I’m broadening the base of artists in the collection and the styles represented."

A lasting impact

Jones said the art collection has had a profound influence on his life, both in his outlook and in the way he lives.

"The art has set the conditions on where I live and how I live. I’ve had to juggle the funds that came to me. I was not born rich and my jobs didn’t make me rich," Jones said. "I’ve made most of my sacrifices with cars, for example. Instead of new cars, I’ve always bought used ones and used the funds to buy more art.

"I enjoy living with the art," he added. "I can see it when I wake up; I can commune with it each evening. The sensitivity that has gone into creating the work and the interaction with the artists has made me a much more sensitive, caring, loving person with a strong appreciation for art in all forms.

"I’ve been pleased to see a number of works appreciate, and I look forward to even more appreciation that will come as a byproduct of scholars and students studying, writing about and speaking about the collection at the University of Delaware. The result of their scholarship also will be that these artists will take their rightful place in the art world: museums, galleries and auction houses of the world," Jones said.

"I’ve seen changes that can be made when a person of color gains acceptance. Now, instead of just having someone speak during Black History Month, museums and galleries have increasing numbers of blacks on boards and on committees for acquisitions. We’ve achieved a great deal, but we can achieve a great deal more."

Jones said he is interested in seeing his collection used as a means to weave African-American art into the totality of American art so the works can receive their just due. "Look at my Charles White work 'John Henry' versus a Van Gogh," he said. "If my Charles White is worth $1 million and a Van Gogh is worth $80 million, is it really 80 times better?"

The Delaware connection

The University of Delaware became aware of the Paul R. Jones Collection when William I. Homer, now H. Rodney Sharp Professor Emeritus of Art History at UD, traveled to Atlanta for a lecture after agreeing to serve on a committee for a doctoral student at Emory University. During the trip, he visited Jones at his home and immediately called colleagues who were planning an African-American art symposium on the campus. They wanted an exhibition of art appropriate for the theme. Homer knew he had found it.

Ties between Jones and the University were strengthened when works from the Jones Collection were included in an exhibition on campus in 1993. Five years later, the University Gallery mounted a special show of photographs by noted photographer P.H. Polk from the Paul R. Jones Collection.

"We were very taken by the foresight he had to begin collecting," Margaret Andersen, professor of sociology who was then interim dean of the College of Arts and Science, said. "What an extraordinary gift he has given us in this collection. The value of it is the legacy it leaves us about the creativity of people who lived under various forms of racism and oppression. What it says about the creativity of the human spirit among the African-American artists is deeply moving. It is exceptionally important in an educational setting."

Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, chief curator of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, said that appreciation for African-American art is on the upswing. "First and foremost, African-American artists have played a tremendously significant role in the evolution of American visual culture," she said. "An appreciation of that role has been growing since the 1920s, although it was not until the 1980s that there was a concerted groundswell among collectors, dealers and museums to look consistently at the contributions African-American artists have made."

"The trend within museums, the collecting community and the academic community is to regularly fold African-American artists into discussions of who has contributed to the visual record of this country," Hartigan said, adding, "It is important to understand the work was created as a specific and deliberate reflection of the culture it came from, but also to look at the work as part of the larger culture."

"It has long been Paul Jones’ practice to generously share and celebrate these works with the broader public through loans and gifts to various museums," Belena S. Chapp, director of museums at UD, said. "Now, we are working together to ensure that future generations will comprehend and appreciate the distinguished contributions of these important African-American artists. In doing so, we will also continue the effort to properly incorporate within the scholarly canon and among the artistic community, a greater understanding of the pivotal role such artists have played.

"Through his dedication to the art of African Americans and his unselfish devotion to ‘teaching by doing,’ Paul Jones has taught several generations to value and learn from these works," she said.

"At the University of Delaware, we are honored by the trust he has placed on us to carry forth this mission."

Contact: Beth Thomas (302) 831-8749
Neil Thomas, (302) 831-6408,

Feb. 14, 2001