The Studio Museum in Harlem and Duke Ellington School of the Arts were bequeathed with a historic donation of works by Peggy Cooper Cafritz, revered art collector, educator, and activist. Cooper Cafritz, who passed away in February of 2018, amassed a legendary collection of contemporary artwork throughout her life, and was known for her prolific mentorship and patronage of Black arts and education. Yesterday, October 8, the Studio Museum and Duke Ellington School school announced the two institutions have received over 650 works from her collection, the “largest gift ever made of contemporary art by artists of African descent.”
Cooper Cafritz was infamous for her home collection, brimming with contemporary Black art and a museum in its own right. Much of her collection was immortalized in the recently published book, Fired Up! Ready to Go!: Finding Beauty, Demanding Equity: An African American Life in Art. The Collections of Peggy Cooper Cafritz. Essays by Thelma Golden, Kerry James Marshall, Simone Leigh, Uri McMillan, and Cooper Cafritz herself detail her considerable assortment and eminence in contemporary art collecting.
Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum and a close friend to the activist, said in a press release about the bequeathment, “Peggy was a trailblazing champion of artists of African descent, and at her core believed deeply in the power of art. Through her collecting and her support of artists, she quite literally transformed the way the world viewed black artists.”
The Studio Museum in Harlem, founded in 1968, is one of the world’s leading voices on artists of African Descent. Its pioneering Artist-in-Residence program has served as a crucial incubator for dozens of leading artists of the African diaspora, including Mickalene Thomas, Wangechi Mutu, Titus Kaphar, Kehinde Wiley, and Kerry James Marshall, all of whom are housed in Cooper Cafritz’s monumental collection
The Studio Museum will receive over 400 works from the gift, adding to their collection of over 2,000 objects as the museum celebrates its 50th anniversary. The Duke Ellington School will receive over 250 works.
Peggy Cooper Cafritz was born in Mobile, Alabama in 1947. She was brought up in the Jim Crow South, a fact that made her hyper-aware of the intricacies and realities of racism. Descended from a long line of educators and pioneers, her grandmother opened the first Black school in the city.
Cooper Cafritz herself became a champion of the arts and education in her life, co-founding the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in 1974 with choreographer Mike Malone. At the time, she was junior at George Washington University, where she founded the school’s Black Student Union. The Duke Ellington School now houses the only high school Museum Studies program in the United States. Cooper Cafritz also served as president of the District of Columbia Board of Education and as a fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Tia Powell Harris, the Duke Ellington School’s Chief Executive Officer, said in a press release, “Peggy still guides every step we take at the Duke Ellington School … It’s as if we will now have direct access to Peggy’s amazing vision, seeing the world’s possibilities as she did.”
President of the Board of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Project, Charles K. Barber, added, “It was because of Peggy that we have one of the leading high school arts programs in the country. Now our students will curate and experience the artworks of the woman who made that program possible … Now our students will look at Peggy’s artworks and see vividly what it means to give back to the community.”
Throughout her life, she was known for her abundant arts patronage and youth mentorship. This legacy lives on in her posthumous, historic gift to expand the nation’s public access to hundreds of contemporary works by Black artists.
“Peggy understood the real political significance of training young black artists, and that political significance also extended to when those artists are beginning their careers. Her idea of what it meant to be a collector also meant investing in the artist as a human being. She had a relationship with each individual. She didn’t take it lightly. She practiced a radical kind of love, and we see that love truly manifest in the success of the artists she collected and nurtured so deeply,” Rashida Bumbray, a curator and choreographer who previously served as the artistic director of the Duke Ellington School, told the New York Times.
Artists represented in the gift include: Nina Chanel Abney, Derrick Adams, Sadie Barnette, Sanford Biggers, iona rozeal brown, Nick Cave, Renee Cox, Noah Davis, Abigail DeVille, Emory Douglas, Derek Fordjour, Samuel Fosso, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Theaster Gates, David Hammons, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Samuel Levi Jones, Titus Kaphar, Deana Lawson, Simone Leigh, Eric Nathaniel Mack, Kerry James Marshall, Wangechi Mutu, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Chris Ofili, Lorraine O’Grady, Ebony G. Patterson, Martin Puryear, Deborah Roberts, Tschabalala Self, Malick Sidibé, Lorna Simpson, Henry Taylor, Mickalene Thomas, Hank Willis Thomas, James VanDerZee, William Villalongo, Kara Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, Kehinde Wiley, Jack Whitten, Saya Woolfalk, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, and more.