RON ADAMS (American, 1934–2020), “Blackburn,” 2000 (lithograph). | Lawrence Lithography Workshop, Kansas City, Mo. Partial gift of Robert and Jean Steele; Partial purchase with funds from the John V. Levas Trust, 2023. (2023-06-01)
ONE MASTER PRINTER paying homage to another, “Robert Blackburn” (2003) by Ron Adams pictures Blackburn pulling a figurative print from a lithographic stone. Envisioned by artist Jacob Lawrence, “Douglass” (1999) depicts the vaunted abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass seated, quill pen in hand, with several books on the table before him and on the shelf behind him.”Big Black” (2010) from Faith Ringgold‘s Black Light series features a bold face image inspired by African sculpture that experiments with tonal variations in a grid form.
Limited-edition prints by celebrated African American artists, the works are part of a significant acquisition announced by the Honolulu Museum of Art (HoMA). The Hawaii museum added 55 works on paper from the collection of Robert and Jean Steele, through a gift/purchase agreement. The couple has been collecting for more than five decades with an emphasis on prints by African American artists produced with Black-run print shops.
Twenty-six artists are represented, including Adams, Lawrence, and Ringgold, along with Emma Amos, Benny Andrews, Romare Bearden, David C. Driskell, Barkley L. Hendricks, Sam Gilliam, and Joyce J. Scott, among others.
“We are honored that Robert and Jean chose the Honolulu Museum of Art to care for their important collection. These incredible works will enhance HoMA’s ability to educate its community about the enormous contributions of African American artists, the medium of printmaking and the artistic styles and themes of the late-20th and early-21st centuries,” said Halona Norton-Westbrook, HoMA Director and CEO.
“Bringing these works into the collection also aligns with HoMA’s diversity and inclusion goals and advances the Museum’s ability to share relevant stories through art from our time.”
“These incredible works will enhance HoMA’s ability to educate its community about the enormous contributions of African American artists, the medium of printmaking and the artistic styles and themes of the late-20th and early-21st centuries.”
— HoMA Director and CEO Halona Norton-Westbrook
FAITH RINGGOLD (American, b. 1930), “Big Black,” 2010 (screenprint). | Partial gift of Robert and Jean Steele; Partial purchase with funds from the John V. Levas Trust, 2023 (2023-06-39). © 2023 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy ACA Galleries, New York
ROBERT STEELE SERVED AS executive director of David C. Driskell Center for the Study of Visual Arts & Culture of African Americans & the African Diaspora at the University of Maryland, College Park, from 2002 to 2012. In previous years, he was a professor and dean in the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences at the University of Maryland.
He first gained an interest in art when he was a young college student. Steele attended Morehouse College and often passed time in the art gallery at Atlanta University’s library. Edmund Barry Gaither, his Morehouse roommate who later became the founding director of The Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists in Boston, helped him learn about art and the artists he was seeing.
Steele was a graduate student in New York when he purchased his first art work at Harlem Art Gallery. He bought “Three African Women in Profile,” a pastel on cardboard work by Tony Northern. He would soon start collecting with intention.
“I met artist and printmaker Bob Blackburn, who encouraged me to seek out Lou Stovall, who had printed for Jacob Lawrence, Sam Gilliam, and David Driskell, among other notable artists, and Allan Edmunds at the Brandywine Workshop in Philadelphia. We searched out opportunities to meet and support both established and emerging artists and academics and began collecting their work, and those of their mentors and students,” Steele said.
In 1968, Stovall established his silkscreen studio Workshop Inc., in Washington, D.C., and Edmunds founded Brandywine in 1972. Steele has also acquired works produced by Raven Fine Art Editions in Easton, Pa., where Curlee Raven Holton serves as founding director and master printer.
Purchases were also made from printmaking workshops with longstanding relationships with African American artists, including the Experimental Printmaking Workshop, which is also in Easton, Pa., at Lafayette College; Rutgers Center for Innovative Print and Paper in New Brunswick, N.J.; and Lawrence Lithography Workshop in Kansas City, Mo., where Adams produced his “Robert Blackburn” print.
Over the decades, the Steeles built a collection of hundreds of works on paper. Steele earned a Ph.D., in clinical community psychology from Yale University and he has been generous to his alma mater. Between 2004 and 2020, they gave 100 works to Yale University Art Gallery. The Steeles have also made gifts to the Driskell Center (where he worked), Morehouse College (where he earned his undergraduate degree), Alabama’s Mobile Museum of Art (in the city where he was born), and the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va. (Jean’s alma mater). A former corporate executive, she previously served on the board of the Muscarelle Museum of Art at William & Mary.
At the recommendation of master printer Robert Blackburn, Steele reached out to Lou Stovall at The Workshop in Washington, D.C., and Allan Edmunds of Brandywine Workshop in Philadelphia, Pa. He also acquired works produced by Curlee Raven Holton’s Raven Fine Art Editions.
JACOB LAWRENCE (American, 1917-2000), “Forward Together,” 1997 (screenprint). | Partial gift of Robert and Jean Steele; Partial purchase with funds from the John V. Levas Trust, 2023 (2023-06-06). © 2023 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
AT THE HONOLULU MUSEUM OF ART, the majority of the works from the Steele Collection will be on view in a forthcoming exhibition, “Forward Together: African American Prints from the Jean and Robert Steele Collection.” The show’s title is derived from the name of a Lawrence print, included in the acquisition, that depicts Harriet Tubman leading a group of enslaved souls on the journey to freedom.
The exhibition opens Jan. 18, 2024, and will be presented in two waves, each showcasing 25 works. Three works were previously exhibited in “Cross-Pollination: Flowers Across the Collection” earlier this year.
In 2016, the Steeles moved to Honolulu, where their daughter lives and Jean’s family home is located. A presentation of “30 Americans” at HoMA made an indelible impression on the collectors in 2020. Drawn from the Rubell Family Collection, the landmark exhibition features works by 30 of the most prominent Black contemporary artists working today, including Nina Chanel Abney, Mark Bradford, Nick Cave, Rashid Johnson, Kerry James Marshall, Wangechi Mutu, Henry Taylor, Gary Simmons, Lorna Simpson, Mickalene Thomas, Kara Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, and Kehinde Wiley, as well as Hendricks, whose work is included in the acquisitions.
The exhibition has been traveling since its 2008 debut at the Rubell Museum in Miami, Fla. Seeing the show in Honolulu inspired the Steeles to collaborate with HoMA to help broaden its collection.
The acquisitions more than double its holdings of works by African American artists, from 33 to 88, according to the museum. For context, there are more than 55,000 objects in HoMA’s collection. 550 works would represent 1 percent. The Black population in Hawaii is minute, only 2.2 percent in 2022, according to U.S. Census estimates. HoMA’s collection is far from being representative of its community. The case is the same for nearly all U.S. art museums. At HoMA, the Steele acquisitions are a step in the right direction.
“Over the years, we have devoted ourselves to Black artists’ rich and overlooked contributions to the field of American art,” said Steele. “It is our great hope that these works, selected by HoMA, will be well cared for and shared with our adopted Honolulu community while expanding the Museum’s collection of African American art to include a greater representation of African American artists.” CT
EMMA AMOS (American, 1937-2020), “Twined Flowers,” 2009 (etching). | Partial gift of Robert and Jean Steele; Partial purchase with funds from the John V. Levas Trust, 2023 (2023-06-03). © 2023 Emma Amos / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), N.Y.
DAVID C. DRISKELL, “Chieftain’s Chair,” 2011 (seriograph). | © Estate of David C. Driskell. Experimental Printmaking Institute (EPI), Lafayette College, Easton, PA. Partial gift of Robert and Jean Steele; partial purchase with funds from the John V. Levas Trust, 2023 (2023-06-15)
JOYCE SCOTT (American, b. 1948), “Angry Black Man,” 2000 (monotype). | Partial gift of Robert and Jean Steele; Partial purchase with funds from the John V. Levas Trust, 2023 (2023-06-51). © The Artist, Courtesy Goya Contemporary Gallery | The Artist Legacy Project, Baltimore
FAITH RINGGOLD (American, b. 1930), “Wynton’s Tune,” 2004 (screenprint). | Partial gift of Robert and Jean Steele; Partial purchase with funds from the John V. Levas Trust, 2023 (2023-06-04). © 2023 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy ACA Galleries, New York
JOSEPH HALSTON (American, b. 1944), “Blue Tunes Study,” 2006 (mixed media on board). | Partial gift of Robert and Jean Steele; Partial purchase with funds from the John V. Levas Trust, 2023 (2023-06-02)
Published on the occasion of the New Museum exhibition of the same name, “Faith Ringgold: American People” examines the entire career of Faith Ringgold. “Faith Ringgold: Politics/Power” and “Faith Ringgold,” were also recently published. “Emma Amos: Color Odyssey” documents the artist’s recent career-spanning exhibition. The exhibition catalog “David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History” is the first publication to survey the artist’s six-decade career. “Joyce J. Scott: Messages” and “Joyce J. Scott: Harriet Tubman and Other Truths” explore the work of the Baltimore bead artist who also expresses herself in other mediums, including printmaking. “Three Decades of American Printmaking: The Brandywine Workshop Collection” was published in 2004. From Jacob Lawrence, consider the recently published exhibition catalog “Black Orpheus: Jacob Lawrence and the Mbari Club” and the children’s book “Harriet and the Promised Land.”
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