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African American art quilts find a museum home in California
Rosie Lee Tompkins: Untitled, 1996; quilted by Irene Bankhead, 1996. Cotton, cotton flannel, cotton feed sack, linen, rayon, flocked satin, velvet, cotton-synthetic blend, cotton-acrylic jersey, acrylic double-weave, cotton-polyester, polyester doubleknit, acrylic and cotton tapestry, silk batik, polyester velour, rayon or acrylic embroidery on cotton, wool, needlepoint, shisha-mirror embroidery; 88 x 146 in. Photo: Sharon Risedorph.

by Peter Libbey

BERKELEY, CA (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Almost 3,000 quilts by African American artists — including more than 500 by Rosie Lee Tompkins, a quilt maker whose formally inventive work has helped elevate the standing of the discipline in the art world — are heading to the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive as a bequest by Eli Leon. Leon, who died last year, was a voracious collector and champion of African American quilting.

“It’s hard to overestimate the importance and power of this gift,” Lawrence Rinder, the museum’s director and chief curator, said. “The scale of it and the depth of it is mind-blowing.” The bequest, which includes the pieces by Tompkins and works by more than 400 artists from across the country, will account for about 15% of the art collection at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, which is affiliated with the University of California.

Leon’s collection will help introduce the public to African American quilt makers other than the women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, whose work was showcased in a celebrated exhibition that Rinder helped bring to the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2002. (In his review for The Times, Michael Kimmelman called the show’s 60 quilts “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.”) “Gee’s Bend, which a lot of people know about now, happily, that’s one small town in one state in the South,” Rinder said. “Eli’s collection is a broad overview of hundreds of other towns and the work that was made in them.”

Two exhibitions of quilts from the bequest have already been planned. The first, a retrospective of Tompkins’ work, will open Feb. 19, 2020. The second will follow in early 2022 and focus on the others artists represented in the collection, like Willia Ette Graham and Arbie Williams.

The breadth of Leon’s collection and its emphasis on Tompkins’ quilts are closely linked. It was a chance encounter with Tompkins at a flea market in the Oakland, California, area in 1985 that convinced Leon, a psychotherapist, to dedicate his life to collecting quilts by African American artists.

Tompkins, whose real name was Effie Mae Howard, didn’t make herself easy to find. She had begun quilting seriously in her 40s and when her work started to attract attention, she used a pseudonym, fought hard to maintain her privacy and rarely parted with her pieces. Leon was one of the few to whom she revealed her true identity and sold her work regularly. Tompkins died in 2006 at age 70.

Once he had persuaded her to share her work, Leon was immediately taken by Tompkins’ daring designs and use of unconventional materials like velvet and fake fur. His passion for her quilts led him to buy as many as he could and also inspired him to seek out work by other African American quilt makers in the Bay Area.

To trace the lineage of the practitioners whose art he had fallen for so deeply, Leon traveled to Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas, where Tompkins and some of the other artists had roots, to conduct research on the tradition of African American quilt making and collect pieces. His home back in Oakland eventually became so crowded with quilts that he built a two-story addition to accommodate them. In 1987, he organized a first exhibition of quilts from his collection at the San Francisco Craft and Folk Art Museum.

Despite Leon’s recognition of the quilts as substantial pieces of art, it has taken some time for the collection he assembled to be seen that way by others. “I believe that sexism and racism, not to mention classism, have each played a role in shaping the history of art as we know it,” Rinder said when asked why this body of work hasn’t received more attention. The quilts in Leon’s collection, which were predominantly made by African American women, have been particularly affected by these prejudices, he said.

Jenny Hurth, the executor of Leon’s estate, said that he chose to leave his collection to the Berkeley museum because Rinder was among the first people in the art world to recognize the value of the quilts he had acquired. “He knew that if he left them in Larry’s hands, his idea that these were works of fine art would be carried forth in some way,” Hurth said. Rinder organized the first solo exhibition of Tompkins’ work at Berkeley in 1997 and included her work in the 2000 Whitney Biennial.

Leon’s original plan, Hurth said, was to place his collection in multiple museums, including Berkeley, but he died before plans for this dispersal could be made.

Rinder will resign from his position at the Berkeley museum in March, but Catherine Koshland, the president of the museum’s board and the University of California, Berkeley’s vice chancellor for undergraduate education, said that his departure would not affect the care of the bequest. “Eli Leon’s collection is a transformative gift,” she said by email. “And we’ve made a sustained commitment to sharing it with scholars and the public for many years to come.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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