The Kelleys are prominent San Antonio-based art connoisseurs, who possess one of the most important collections of African American art in the United States. Now, they have brought their traveling exhibition to Miami, adding another jewel to the crown of the contemporary art season to the Magic City. "It's exciting to know about all this activity here," Harriet Kelley says of the buzzing art season.
African American artists of the last three centuries have been a particular interest to the Kelleys, who began building their collection with dedicated research and the assistance of Thurlow Tibbs (a multi-million dollar contributor of African American art to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.). "Initially, we were only interested in the past," says Kelley, "but as we've collected over the years and our confidence has grown, we've looked into up-and-coming artists as well." Still, the icons of African American art are who is best represented in the Kelleys' works, including Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, and Henry Ossawa Tanner (a noted inspiration of Norman Rockwell).
Why strictly focus on this sector of modern art? "We wanted to tell the story of African American art," she explains. "Just as we learned the story from being museum-goers in San Antonio. I trained as a docent for four years, and my husband and I started slowly finding works that were beautiful to us."
A wide array of paper-based media appears in a dedicated section of the museum, including linoleum cuts, collage, lithographs, and watercolors. There's almost a melancholy hint of the struggle and triumph in scenes of slavery, music, the natural landscape, and community life.
The Kelley's collection takes us through turbulent waves of history, be it the periods of Antebellum, Harlem Renaissance, the Civil Rights Movement, or the Postmodern era. Kelley acknowledges that their collection is not just a stable investment, but a poignant reminder of the peaks and valleys of their own lives. "We started collecting at a time when my husband and I experienced many changes and transitions: the death of our parents, I was gravely ill for a time...this was a kind of therapy for us," Kelley says, thoughtfully. "It's been an interesting journey."
"The Harmon and Harriet Kelley Collection of African American Art: Works on Paper" is on view at the Lowe Museum of Art, University of Miami until January 16, 2011. 1301 Stanford Drive, Coral Gables on UM's main campus. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10am to 4pm, open Sunday from 12pm to 4pm, closed Mondays. Adults are $10.00, students/seniors/adult groups over ten are $5.00, and Kindergarten through College-level group tours are $3.00. Call 305-284-3535 or visit lowemuseum.org.