Members of the art world remember philanthropist, activist, and collector, Peggy Cooper Carfitz, two months after her sudden passing
Never let it be said that one person can’t change the world. African-American philanthropist, activist, and collector Peggy Cooper Cafritz (1947–2018) did just this, over and over again. As a doyenne of arts and education in the nation’s capital, Cooper Cafritz was a force of nature.
Hailing from Mobile, Alabama, Ms Cooper Cafritz moved north in 1964 to attend George Washington University, with a mission to fight against segregation at the tail end of Jim Crow. As a senior in 1968, she had a vision of what would become one of her greatest accomplishments: a public high school that served artistically gifted students of colour from disadvantaged neighbourhoods.
In 1974, Duke Ellington School of the Arts. Ellington officially opened, providing professional training in music, theatre, paintings, and dance, along with an academic curriculum. Notable alumni include comedian Dave Chapelle, singer-songwriter Me’Shell Ndegéocello, and operatic mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves.
Ms Cooper Cafrtiz did not stop there. Her dedication to cultivating talent extended far beyond the school grounds as she took a hands-on approach in developing one of the largest private collections of African-American and African art that includes work by Kehinde Wiley, David Hammons, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas, Carrie Mae Weems, Emory Douglas, Barkley L. Hendricks, and LaToya Ruby Frazier, to name just a few.
Tragically, more than 300 pieces of the collection were destroyed in July 2009 after a fire at her home. It was a loss that would have devastated many, but Ms Cooper Cafritz, in her inimitable grace and determination, soldiered on. Working with co-editor Charmaine Picard, Ms Cooper Cafritz created Fired Up! Ready to Go!; Finding Beauty, Demanding Equality: An African American Life in Art (Rizzoli), a stunning volume that showcases 200 of the lost works.
On February 18, just five days before the book’s official release, Ms Cooper Cafritz died at the age of 70. Her death came as a shock to the artists whose careers she helped to nurture and cultivate. Two months on, Ms Picard and a host of leading artists remember the life and legacy of Peggy Cooper Cafritz.
HANK WILLIS THOMAS
Hank Willis Thomas is a conceptual artist working primarily with themes related to identity, history and popular culture. His work has been exhibited throughout the US and abroad including, the International Center of Photography, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Musée du quai Branly, and the Cleveland Museum of Art. His collaborative projects include Question Bridge: Black Males, In Search Of The Truth (The Truth Booth), and For Freedoms. For Freedoms was recently awarded the 2017 ICP Infinity Award for New Media and Online Platform. Thomas lives and works in New York City.
Hank Willis Thomas: I was in the Museum Studies program, a critical thinking program, at Duke Ellington School of the Arts. If you go inside the school, you can’t help but get emotional. It’s astounding – that’s the only word that can describe what it means to raise and spend over $150 million for a school for young artists when most school programs are cutting the arts.
As a student, I was able to have exhibitions as a curator at one class at the National Children’s Museum and the National Museum of American History.
Some of my classmates performed at the Bolshoi in Russia or with Michael Jackson. Hillary Clinton spoke at my high school graduation. It was clear being there that this is not a normal high school.
“Peggy was a lead-by-example person, more interested in the mission succeeding above anything else” – Hank Willis Thomas
Peggy was a legend and would have students over at her house on a regular basis for dinner and brunches. I was not one of those students who had that benefit (Laughs). I met Peggy around 2005 through my gallery in Chelsea, Jack Shainman Gallery. Jack told me there was a collector interested in my work who was from DC and then said that it was Peggy. It was fortuitous that she got to know me as an adult who had benefited from the school.
She was a lead-by-example person, more interested in the mission succeeding above anything else. The take away is that if you really believe in something, no matter what you have to do within your own moral guidelines you do it; regardless if it makes you feel like crap in the moment, no one cares, no one likes it, or no one will do it – you do it. You don’t have excuses. What you are born with is what you have and that’s enough. She wasn’t the kind of person who was going to feel sorry for you or pat you on the head. If something wasn’t going well, that’s just how it is (Laughs).
You could say there was a fierce optimism of what one is capable of. And sharing: sharing time, space, food, money, ideas, and that sharing is a form of wealth. She gave until her heart gave out.
Artists, celebrities, politicians – she was there for more people than you could ever imagine, with more intersections than anyone could imagine. At her memorial, (Former Attorney General of the United States) Eric Holder was there. (Former United States National Security Advisor) Susan Rice talked about her adopting her as a godmother at age seven. Spike Lee talked about when he was making Malcolm X and the studio wouldn‘t give him any more money, he called Peggy because he knew that she would make it happen.
Her book is titled Fired Up! Ready to Go! and that’s because she was the coach, we were the team, and she was passing the baton. The book is a baton being put into the hands of all the artists and art enthusiasts and policymakers. We have to carry on her legacy.
Charmaine Picard is an art historian, writer, and editor trained at the University of Chicago. Past positions include curatorial appointments at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago, and US Associate Editor at The Art Newspaper. She specialises in modern and contemporary art with expertise in Latin American and African American art.
She is the editor of a 2016 monograph on Cuban artist Yoan Capote published by Skira Editore, Italy, and the co-editor of Finding Beauty, Demanding Equity: An African American Life in Art. The Collections of Peggy Cooper Cafritz published by Rizzoli Electa in February 2018.
Charmaine Picard: I met Peggy a few years after her 2009 fire, when I was asked to help inventory the over 300 pieces of art that were lost in the blaze. She struck me as incredibly kind and always honest. Although we had a professional relationship, Peggy brought me into her world and shared her personal stories. From the onset, she asked about my family and she took an interest in my life. It was important for Peggy to have real human connections. If she could help, she would. Peggy wanted to see you succeed. She unselfishly nurtured all those around her.
Peggy asked me to work on the book in 2016. Throughout the process, we were in daily contact. Peggy knew what she wanted from the start. She selected the contributors, who interestingly were mainly artists, and the artworks to be included. Co-editing this book with Peggy was a labour of love. It was an incredible opportunity to work with some of the most talented artists today, including Kerry James Marshall, Kara Walker, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Hank Willis Thomas, and Simone Leigh, among so many others. Our biggest challenge was working within the 288-page limit. If she could have included additional artists, she would have.
“One of Peggy’s most enduring contributions was her lifelong struggle for cultural equity... she fought for the rightful inclusion of people of colour” – Charmaine Picard
One of Peggy’s most enduring contributions was her lifelong struggle for cultural equity. Whether it be in the classroom, the boardroom or in the great museums of the world, she fought for the rightful inclusion of people of colour. Peggy is someone to emulate. She gave without expecting anything in return. She was smart and she pushed for what she believed in; she rarely backed down. Peggy’s determination was a great part of her success.
I stand in awe of all that Peggy accomplished during her lifetime. Her tour de force essay is a beautiful testament to her inner strength and supreme confidence, and to the tremendous impact that she has had on so many of our lives. Working together was a life-changing experience, and I am grateful to Peggy for all that she taught me. I truly loved Peggy.
NJIDEKA AKUNYILI CROSBY
Njideka Akunyili Crosby is a Nigerian-born visual artist working in Los Angeles, who was awarded a “Genius Grant” from the MacArthur Foundation in 2017. After receiving her MFA from the Yale University School of Art in 2011, she was selected as artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem. In 2015, she had solo exhibitions at the Hammer Museum and at art and Practice, both in Los Angeles. In 2016, Victoria Miro began representing Akunyili Crosby, and she had another solo exhibition at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida. In 2018, she designed the mural that wrapped the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby: I felt so honoured to have my work on the cover of the book. Peggy is not someone who collects because the artwork or other people told her to buy something; she collects because she saw something and decides on the spot if she wants it or not. Even to be part of that group of incredible artists that I have studied, admired and been influenced by meant a lot to me.
Peggy had a very holistic approach to collecting so that it wasn’t just about getting an artwork. She was interested in the artist as well. She had a good relationship with all the artists she bought work from. She was the kind of collector that stays in touch after she buys work and generally cares about the well being of the artist as a person; it’s not just about the transaction.
“Peggy had a very holistic approach to collecting so that it wasn’t just about getting an artwork. She was interested in the artist as well” – Njideka Akunyili Crosby
She would email and text things she thought would be helpful to my career. That meant a lot to me – how much she cared about the longevity of my career and making sure I was doing well. She put herself in the position of looking out for me. The business of art is not taught in school and I totally understand why but the downside of that is when you leave school you are very vulnerable on the business end. Peggy would give me advice so that I didn’t fall into traps young artists tend to fall into.
One thing I took from her, and it’s still the advice I pass on, is that as a young artist, we don’t believe in ourselves or the power we have. Maybe it’s because there are so many of us and so few galleries but we tend to think of galleries as wielding all the power. Peggy made me realise is that it’s not a situation where a gallery is doing you a favour – it’s a symbiotic relationship. Once that’s clear to you, it changes the dynamic of how you operate. Peggy pushed me to ask for things I didn’t think I could ask for. Just having that courage that I can ask for this. That was really important for someone to lay that out for me: you have that power.
Peggy left me with the desire to show me the importance of mentorship and to build a community. She’s a focal person that lots of roads lead back to especially among artists of African descent. That has inspired and influenced me in terms of making time when younger artists reach out, trying to pay back and do that for other artists and mentor and advise in any way I can. It’s important to have a community and have people looking out for each other.
William Villalongo navigates the politics of historical erasure directing his work towards a reassessment of western, American and African Art histories. Working out of the notion of blackness as a verb, he explores dualities such as male-female, visibility/invisibility, humanity/nature incorporating appropriations from ancient myth to contemporary politics. The recipient of the prestigious Louis Comfort Tiffany Award and the Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters & Sculptor's Grant, Villalongo is currently represented by Susan Inglett Gallery, New York, and is an Assistant Professor at The Cooper Union School of Art.
William Villalongo: The first time I met Peggy was around 2005. I think she had known I was at the Studio of Museum of Harlem residency and she was actively looking for me even though I didn’t know her. She came to visit me at my studio in Tribeca with an entourage of young guys (I later realised it was her sons Zack and Cooper and a couple of high school friends). She was all excited, going through my stuff, and would ask how much something was or tell me I should do more of these. I probably had a look on my face of like, “What in the world?”
She just said, “I know, I know, I know! I’m too much!” But she came there on a mission. She bought a couple of pieces from that visit and had someone helping her with the logistics.
I didn’t bump into her again until maybe a year later at an art opening and she looked at me and asked, “When are you coming to visit me in DC?” So I decided to visit and it was amazing. She was a very warm and unbelievably generous person.
“She went for things that were boldly political, tough images to consume, that were right there above the designer sectional sofa... you can just imagine these young kids visiting her and seeing their work next to a Kehinde Wiley” – William Villalongo
I hadn’t gone to a lot of collectors’ homes at that point in my life, but the ones that I had didn’t have collections as in your face as hers. She went for things that were boldly political, tough images to consume, that were right there above the designer sectional sofa. She had art from Ellington students and work that she was collecting all together. She didn’t draw a line between them; she thought of them as the future and the present all in the same place. You can just imagine these young kids visiting her and seeing their work next to a Kehinde Wiley.
Peggy was like a mentor. She helped me understand what it means to be doing art, thinking about art, having it as the centre of one’s life, as a force that does something good in the world, as a way to be thoughtful, as a way out, particularly in underprivileged communities. It was really inspiring.
She would call me every once in awhile and say, “How are you doing?” I could be very straightforward with her. She was very frank, didn’t beat around the bush, and would say, “Do you need some money?” (Laughs). At that point in my career, I was trying to make something happen and it was really hard. To have a person who supportively checks in and even buy something at a critical time was very helpful.
I could visit her and have really good conversations about what was going on in the world. I remember talking to Peggy as a young professor. I was having a tough time with younger African-American students. I was talking to her about understanding the place of representation and how important it is to understand that framework. I found that younger students really didn’t care or were sometimes hostile to the notion that those things would matter and be part of the conversation. She looked at me and said, “You have to make them understand!”
It hit me really hard. For her, that type of understanding of self in relation to the world, particularly African Americans to the world, is too important to let go.
Tschabalala Self received her BA from Bard College in 2012 and her M.F.A. from the Yale School of Art in 2015. Her work deals with the emotional, physical and psychological impact of the black female body as an icon, and is primarily devoted to examining the intersectionality of race, gender, and sexuality. Selected for the 2018 Forbes “30 Under 30 List,” Self has exhibited her work in solo and group exhibitions worldwide including Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon at the New Museum, New York.
Tschabalala Self: I first met Peggy in my second year of Yale School of Art. She had already bought some of my work through a friend of mine, Dexter Wimberly, who was an independent curator. That was my first experience with Peggy but later that year she came to Yale where she was engaging in a talk at the Law School and stayed the whole day to do studio visits with students from the Art School.
She came to my studio and ended up spending a couple of hours there. We hung out, talked, and got to know each other. She had already got to know about me through my work and then we got to know each other through that visit. She reminded me a lot of my mom. She told me a lot of stories about different people she met through collecting and travel. She was really nice, interesting, fun, and easy-going. She had a really artistic personality even though she was not an artist.
“She would always call to make sure that I was on track and not being taken advantage of by the people I was doing business with” – Tschabalala Self
After I left school, Peggy would call me every couple of months to see how I was doing. There was a lot going on with me at that time. I had graduated and was travelling for work. I had a show in New York and Berlin. She would always call to make sure that I was on track and not being taken advantage of by the people I was doing business with. She would give me advice about how to move forward, to sell my work, to show my work, general advice on how to stay focused and take care of myself.
I learned a lot from who she was as a person and the way she modelled behaviour. Peggy was a very kind, humble person and a strong, independent black woman. She was kind, generous, supportive, didn’t have anything negative to say about anyone, gave advice, and told people about her own experiences. She not only mentioned the positive but also being vulnerable about her losses, the fire, recovering from that, explaining her intentions and wanting to rebuild her collection, and the importance of preserving black culture.
Peggy showed me that there are people within the black community and the art community at large that are sincerely invested in an altruistic way in preserving black culture because they believe that it is important for our community and the society at large. Her legacy is her collection. Her collection is what is going to live on now that she is gone and it is going to live on when all of us are gone.