Patric McCoy has recently retired from a 28 year career as an environmental scientist in the Air and Radiation Division of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Regional Office in Chicago. He has a BA in Chemistry from the University of Chicago and an MA in Environmental Science from Governors State University.
Mr. McCoy has been collecting contemporary African American art for 41 years and has a collection of over 1000 pieces of fine art, 90% done by Chicago artists. In 2003 he co-founded Diasporal Rhythms a not-for-profit 501(c)3 arts organization comprised of informed and passionate art collectors from Chicago’s African American communities. The organization promotes the collection of art works by living artists of African descent.
Collecting Contemporary Visual Images in the African Diaspora as Fine Art
Patric McCoy, President, Diasporal Rhythms
“Our music produces many images
painters would seemingly go
berserk with images
God has thru us
revealed all these, images”
Laurence Jones, Images
I am an African American that collects contemporary African diasporal visual art images as fine art. I, and others in Chicago, maintain that it is important for the peoples of African descent in the Americas, the Caribbean, Europe and Africa to be in the forefront of acquiring and validating the creative images produced by the artists in their communities. And, through those collecting and promoting activities, be the first voices in naming those high quality productions as fine art. This position does not preclude anyone from liking or acquiring anything that they choose. Art appreciation is for everyone, but the art as a culturally defining concept belongs to a people, in a place, at a specific point in time. The more involved a people are in promoting their artists in creating images - in all of their manifold subject matters, concepts, and techniques - the clearer the direction will be of where those people are going and a clearer description will arise of who they are. Visual images are important; important on the grand scale of culture and history and simultaneously important on the very personal level of contemplation, inner peace and sanity.
I love our visual images just as many of us love and collect one or more types of our diasporal musics. Consequently, I collect visual images with that same intensity. Primary for consideration of inclusion in my collection are those visual images created by diasporal artists of things seen, experienced, expressed, imagined or abstracted out of some aspect of our cultural life. Also high for consideration are images of concepts explored and stories retold. Those images could be produced through any one of a variety of visual art techniques. I also collect images, created by others, about us doing the myriad things we do. I feel it is important to have images of how others see you. The deciding criteria on what I collect have been 1.) my spiritual connection with the image upon seeing it, 2.) the technical and/or innovative quality of the presentation of the image, and 3.) whether the piece is contemporary to me.
Over the past 30 years I have collected over 400 paintings, drawings, sculptures, collages, assemblages, etc. and have displayed them in a five room space. Each of those pieces of art has spoken a message of its importance personally and has also revealed its importance to our culture here and now. I believe ‘importance’ is accomplished through the creating artist’s mastery of our visual vocabulary. However, the images in my collection are not all about “happy talk”. Cultural importance addresses both that which should be honored, contemplated, promoted and enjoyed but also those concepts and behaviors that should be thrown away and avoided. Once I am engaged in such a conversation with a visual image, I can reach a point where “I have to have it!” Consequently, when asked, I counsel those debating the purchase of an art work, that they should, above all other considerations, acquire work they like; get the work they can live with as a companion, instructor, inspiration or confidant; and have the work that speaks to them now and has the ability, much later on, to say “but did you see the other messages that I contain?”
I collect artwork from which I discern a quality concept in its production. Quality is hard to conclusively describe before hand, but most agree, you know quality when you see it embodied within a compelling visual image.
There are many standards (academic, economic, technical, etc.) that have been established in Western society for evaluating art and its quality. I do not reject them nor do I slavishly apply all of those standards in making a purchase. As an example, I accept that very good African diasporal artists can either be formally trained or self-taught and can be unknown or un-shown. I believe the more important “artist” question in evaluating an artwork for purchase is “did the artist, through the utilization of the materials and techniques available, impart quality and or cultural innovation in the presentation of the visual message?” In regards to the act of collecting, that question puts an obligation on more of the diasporal community to passionately seek out the creative images in the same manner as we seek out the new and the quality music. Our passion and critical ear for our own music has made all of its forms globally recognized and appreciated. We can do the same for our visual images with our collective critical eye.
In all aspects of society and inquiry, our diasporal culture has actually been shown to be very rich in promoting inventiveness and innovation, in making do with less or with something else, and in syncopating and abstracting the prevailing pattern. We have been especially successful in those disciplines involving rhythms and flow - from mathematics to music. Consequently, when I look around me, I see we actually have an abundance of good visual artists - and not just an elite few. These artists are imparting quality and innovation in their production of images in part because of our diasporal heritage. Our artists are using their trained or self perfected art talents in ways to create “new” images by quilting visual art concepts from our root culture with those of the cultures where they find themselves. Those images are inherently of cultural significance without their being produced under a manifesto to create, as in the 1960s and 70s, ‘cultural art’ movement.
I prefer to collect ‘contemporary’ images produced during my life and by the hand of artists that I have met and known. I have only one painting that is older than I am and it was done by my father. I have the highest regard for the master diasporal artists of the last two centuries. It is important that they are finally being recognized for their genius, talent and perseverance and that their works are being collected at the highest levels worldwide. I have special regard for the artists, many unknown to the general public, that created art work in the middle decades of the twentieth century without outside patronage or any meaningful community support. With all due respect, I do not plan to collect those artists’ work. I leave that to others.
For me contemporary images reverberate with special meaning and importance. Its not because the artists of today are inherently better at creating important images than those artists creating images in the past. Today’s diasporal artists have been exposed to and have experienced the same societal and cultural changes that I have also experienced and lived through, from the mundane to the major. In general, artists’ works are like mirrors and harbingers; they reflect and they project. Even though most of the works produced in our communities today are not consciously done to represent some aspect of the culture, they are in the collective reflective of that culture and its interests, perceptions, prejudices and its changes. Tracking the changes in the quality art produced by a people provides a means of knowing where the culture is going. Each piece in my collection is special because it represents a manifestation of the evolved cultural life that has occurred around me. The collection as a whole is one record of this time. You could be putting together another one.
When I listen to the current master collectors of African American art speak on collecting I hear a common message. They say to collect the artists producing quality work right around you, just as they did, and if you do, they project, you will end up with an important collection. I, the members of Diasporal Rhythms and many others in Chicago, have taken heed to that advice. In our collecting we are giving special attention to the Chicago artists. We attend their shows, we invite them to our homes, we visit their homes and studios, we work together on common projects, we introduce them to other collectors and galleries, we write about them and we collect their original works. As a result, the atmosphere in the African American art community in Chicago is now electric. Many more people have developed critical eyes and a passion for collecting contemporary art. We believe that phenomenon will also occur in other African diasporal communities across the globe when those communities are the first to claim the visual images created by their artists.
Collecting African American Art in Chicago
Patric McCoy interviews Patric McCoy, Art Collector and President of Diasporal Rhythms
Q. What is Diasporal Rhythms?
A. Diasporal Rhythms is a newly formed organization of African American art collectors here in Chicago. It’s an organization of collectors of ‘contemporary’ art works made by artists of African descent. I’m stressing “contemporary art works’ because that concept is important to me and my cofounders. We understand how “contemporary” can be used in American art criticism as the “now challenging past aesthetic concepts” but believe our approach is more in line with collecting the art that is contemporary to you because it has meaning to you now and that recognition has long term cultural consequences. We honor those who collect and bring to light the accomplishments of artists of African descent from all time periods ... and we charge them to keep doing it. Collecting works of our master artists (one or more generations removed) is of great importance for our people and for an enlightened America. But we have our own cultural spin on the term “contemporary” and on the role and responsibility of African American art collectors.
Our primary interest as an organization is with supporting the artists that are alive and actively producing quality visual art creations within our communities ... those artists right around us ... those artists that we can know personally and those artists that can inform us, through their works, on how our culture changes and how it stays the same. Artists in our communities are experiencing the same changes that you experience, and are giving back through their talents myriad images of how those experiences can be interpreted. We plan to support artists by promoting within the African American communities the act of collecting art for cultural reasons. Art, if treasured and respected by any community will appreciate in value. So collecting art for the potential increase in economic value does not need promotion, it is inherent.
Our organization has no intentions of dictating any particular styles, subjects or formats for collecting. Visual artists, like all other artists, always have to catch an audience’s attention through their mastery of craft, their creativity and the clarity of their visual messages. We are cognizant that some of our artists have been formally trained at the best schools and others are self taught, and all are compelled by internal forces to produce images. Our communities need images just as we need songs.
In our communities the number of visual artists is on the same order as our musicians, poets, singers, actors, dancers! Yet, most of them have not received during the early phases of their careers a modicum of public recognition from their communities and only a few will be recognized at all by the larger society during their active careers. This is true even though many have decades-long histories of continuously producing works of high quality. And their works have been quietly acquired (some would say at undervalued prices) over those years by private collectors from within and outside of the community.
Our organization of collectors was formed to be one of the first voices in the community to identify, promote, honor and validate those visual artists that we find, through our collecting activities, are producing works of exceptional artistic merit and of cultural significance. Our expectations are that the artists that get early recognition and support from their communities will better navigate the path to national and international recognition of their true artistic mastery ... just as, for example, our musical artists have done. The people that ‘acquire’ the art should become ‘collectors of the art’ and act in a manner to promote and preserve the art that has come out of our community. Don’t you agree?
Q. Whoa! Let’s go back a few steps. When was Diasporal Rhythms formed? Who is in your group? And where did you get that name? ... it conjures up something from dance or music or poetry ... not art!
A. Oh yes. That is an interesting story. We were formally organized in September 23, 2003 but the four cofounders met as panelists at an October 2002 forum on art collecting held at the South Side Community Art Center in Chicago. Carol Briggs, Principal of DuSable High School, Joan Dameron Crisler, Principal of Arthur Dixon Elementary School, Daniel Parker, Emeritus Professor, Olive-Harvey College and I, an environmental scientist, were asked to sit on a panel and talk about our art collections. This was the first time in memory that such a panel had been formed so no one knew what to expect or if the panelists would even show up - art collecting in the African American community has mostly been a very private affair. Everyone listened intently to each panelist express the passion in which they pursued collecting and of the positive relationships that they had forged in that process with artists (most from the Chicago area). The projected images of artworks from the collections, and the selected pieces that were on display, elicited “oos” and “ahs” from the audience. There was a very lively discussion period. Joan Crisler’s observations on the positive socializing effects of art work on the students in her school were most enlightening. She, as curator, has for 17 years, collected African and African American art for the school and permanently displayed it throughout the halls, stairwells, offices and classrooms! We were all very impressed with each others’ collections and yet none of the big names of African American art were identified as being in those collections - many of the artists in our collections were in that audience.
We parted that night with a greater appreciation of the importance of collecting the works of local artists but without any collective agenda.
In February 2003 the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) presented, A Century of Collecting African American Art, a show of its permanent collection of African American art. I attended a mid-day panel discussion at the AIC to hear what the artists that were in the collection had to say. My simple mind thought they would be proud to be in the company of Tanner, Motley, Barthe, Catlett, etc. However, I was shocked and perplexed by the acid statements and the biting criticism of the AIC that some of the artists made from the panel. I left confused.
Later that day, I attended an art exhibition at the South Shore Cultural Center that was featuring some of the artists in my collection. As soon as I arrived an artist introduced me to Nathaniel McLin, an art critic and radio art show host at Kennedy-King College. Mr. McLin had also been at the AIC panel discussion. I asked what was happening on that panel. He said that art institutions and museums like AIC do not pay much attention to what artists have to say, so no damage was done. He said that their primary focus is on what collectors have to say and definitely on what collectors do ... like lend, donate and bequeath artwork. He said that a museum is just an association of collectors. The lightbulb went on in my head! Form an association of art collectors and the world will listen.
With that insight, I brought together again Carol Briggs, Joan Crisler and Dan Parker and by May 2003 we had formed Diasporal Rhythms. We quickly organized a three day event called the “Collectors’ Invitational” that was held at the beginning of the October 2003 Chicago’s Artist Month. For that event we ‘invited’ five artists, selected by us in a super secret ballot from those artists in our collections. We asked them to participate in an exhibition at the South Side Community Art Center showing their latest works. And we asked for their cooperation in the production of a catalog for that show. On the first day we sponsored an honoring ceremony and opening reception, free to the public, for the artists - Marva Pitchford Jolly, clay artist; Makeba Kedem DuBose, painter; Adedayo (Dayo) Laoye, painter; Dale Washington, painter; and Julian Williams, painter. On the second day we hosted a roundtable discussion that brought together a large and very diverse group of African American artists and collectors. There was a very stimulating discussion on the development of productive relationships between artists and collectors in Chicago’s African American communities. On the third day the members of Diasporal Rhythms opened our homes and the Dixon Elementary School for a tour ... showing the works, collected over the years, of the honored artists. It was quite a success. The catalog for that show is presently in the final draft before printing.
Q. And the name?
A. Oh! Yes. Diasporal Rhythms. As you know Chicagoans are very proud of the cultural movements and artisans that come out of Chicago. And our group is no different. Our group’s name has a connection to a published observation about the work of the late Dr. Jeff Donaldson, Chicago artist, art activist and cultural philosopher in the Black Arts Movement, cofounder of AfriCOBRA, coordinator of the Visual Arts Workshop of OBAC that created the Wall of Respect, vice president of the North American zone of cultural delegates to FESTEC 77 held in Lagos, Nigeria and a highly respected professor and Dean of the Art Department at Howard University. At the time that we were looking for a name for our organization, I was reading Dr. Richard Powell’s Black Art - A Cultural History. In the chapter covering the art movements of the 1960s and 70s Dr. Powell describes Jeff Donaldson's 1967 painting Victory in Zimbabwe and says that it “is also [a] black disaporal rhythm...” The concept was fascinating! A visual image created by an artist of the African Diaspora was also a rhythm! ... just like the steps to a dance ... the beat of a drum ... the syncopation and polyrhythms of our music ...the cadence in our verses, songs and raps ... a rhythm just like all of the other rhythms that we now are able to trace back to their source in Africa. All of those types of rhythms bind us and define us as being a part of a diaspora. And we know those other rhythms are collected and preserved because of their cultural importance. So collecting contemporary works of artists of African descent was also collecting the visual diasporal rhythms of our times.
In addition to my excitement over ‘the image as rhythm’ concept I recalled that the AfriCOBRA movement had some guiding principles that involved the utilization of rhythms among other key features that were essential within their works. You can see a discussion of the long standing importance of rhythms and mathematical concepts in diasporal art in the International Review of African American Art, Volume 19, Number 3. Those AfriCOBRA principles are still in play among some artists here in Chicago, most notably in the group of artists that formed the Black Artist Guild (BAG). BAG developed and promoted the concept of rhythmism and rhythmistic painting. Some of the artists that were in our collections had direct or indirect involvement with the BAG artists. So the name Diasporal Rhythms resonated with us on several levels.
Q. Wow. That’s a lot on a name! What has your organization done in 2004?
A. Well, we brought in two new charter members, Stephen S. Mitchell, attorney at Harris, Mitchell & Dinizulu, LLC and Pirfirco Williams, Northwestern Memorial Staff Support Specialist in Home Health and Palliative Care and we held off doing a Collectors’ Invitational for 2004 because our cofounder, Daniel Parker was finishing up his book African Art: The Diaspora and Beyond. The book is about his collection of ancient and ethnic African art and his extensive collection of contemporary art by African American, African, and other artists of the diaspora. He clearly shows the connection of those two periods of artistic creation. As an organization we assisted in putting on four days of events surrounding the October 1st release of the book. We graciously deferred doing our program because his book accomplishes one of the missions of our organization ... promoting the written analysis of the artwork by artists of African descent. We expect to do an Invitational again in 2005.
Q. Any other plans for the future?
A. We have so many things to do but the one that brings a smile to my face is to posthumously induct Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable, Black frontiersman from Haiti, Founder of the City of Chicago, as the first charter member of Diasporal Rhythms. He was a man of great accomplishments but not a lot of details have been recorded. In the 1790's he had the “first” and “only” of everything in the empty land that was to become Chicago. Out of the few words that have been recorded we know he was a man of refinement and that he had 23 fine art paintings in his five room house! The only house and the first art gallery, in Chicago. DuSable was definitely the first art collector in Chicago and he has left behind an admirable tradition for us to follow.
Q. Thank you.
A. Thank you.