Published: December 3, 2019
In 2018, it came as something of a shock to Lawrence Rinder, the current director and chief curator of the University of California’s Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), to receive word that his museum had been bequeathed nearly 3,000 works by Oakland, California-based psychologist, collector and scholar Eli Leon. After what is almost certainly one of the largest gifts of African American art ever donated to a museum, Antiques and The Arts Weekly wanted to catch up with Rinder to get a better handle on what the gift entails, how he is managing it and what it will mean to his museum.
Is the Eli Leon gift entirely quilts?
No, it also includes embroideries, assemblages, appliques and other textiles, including a number of African (i.e. Kuba) pieces. Also, a number of his own artworks: Eli was an accomplished graphic designer and made a number of iconic works in the late 1960s.
What kind of works did he make? Are they quilts as well?
Eli was a graphic designer. He designed posters, including one for the UC Berkeley Centenary in 1968.
How is BAMPFA uniquely suited to be the recipient of such a gift?
Eli chose BAMPFA for this gift because he knew that we would appreciate the works as fine art and not see them as solely craft or “outsider” art. Also, perhaps, because so many of the artists in his collection lived and worked in the East Bay.
Was the bequest really a surprise…or did you have an inkling Leon’s collection would come to you?
It was a complete surprise.
What drove Leon to collect these works?
Eli loved them, as works of art. He was also driven by a scholarly interest in continuities between African aesthetics (especially Kuba textiles) and African American quilts. So, he often collected as a way of studying these connections.
Do you know when he started acquiring quilts?
He started acquiring quilts in the 1970s but started to focus on African American quilts in the 1980s.
How far into cataloging the collection are you? When do you expect to be completed?
We have not yet begun to catalog the collection. We are applying for grants now that will enable us to hire a cataloguer. However, Eli did catalog them, and we have access to his extensive records. We just need to bring his records into alignment with our format.
What are some of the surprises of the collection?
I was surprised by the inclusion of a number of historical works, including pieces made by artists who were born into slavery, such as Hattie Mitchell and Monin Brown. We have several exceptional works by these remarkable sisters. Also somewhat surprising is the sheer scale. For example, there are more than 400 individual artists and 500 works by Rosie Lee Tompkins alone.
Is there a work that you consider singularly important – one that particularly stands out from the rest of the collection?
The overall quality of the collection is extremely high. There are exceptional works by many artists. To me, Rosie Lee Tompkins’s Untitled (1986), which I refer to as the Blue Medallion, is a work of tremendous and unusual artistic power.
Will some of the collection go on permanent display?
No, BAMPFA does not have permanent displays of its collection. We display our collection in the context of temporary special exhibitions. Currently, two major exhibitions drawing on the Leon collection are planned.
Did BAMPFA have a sizeable collection of African American quilts prior to Leon’s gift?
No, we owned a single piece, by Rosie Lee Tompkins.
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