‘Memories and Inspiration’ brings large collection of African American art to Huntington Art Museum

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While art is inarguably a core part of history, identity, and culture, the concept of art remains one of the most difficult to articulate in language.

When I ask art collector and retired mailman Kerry Davis about how he defines art, he gives me perhaps the truest definition I’ve heard yet.

“I think art can be defined as the manifestation or record of human existence,” he tells me.

The lives and experiences of those of the African Diaspora have been sorely missing from American museums since the very beginning. Davis’ massive collection of African American art has become a part of a movement to change this, and through June 12 those in the Huntington, WV area will have an opportunity to see these works in person at the Huntington Museum of Art (2033 McCoy Road).

The exhibition is entitled “Memories and Inspiration: The Kerry and C. Betty Davis Collection of African American Art,” and it’s been sponsored at the Huntington Museum of Art by Leslie Petteys and William ”Skip”  Campbell. “Memories and Inspiration” is made up of 67 works from the collection of art that Davis and his wife, C. Betty Davis, have amassed since the mid-80s when Kerry began his collection.

“I hadn’t met Betty as of yet, but in the mid-’80s I had bought a small house, and I wanted to decorate my home,” said Davis. “But I wanted artwork — I didn’t want quote unquote pictures from someplace like K-Mart — I wanted something that reflected me and my culture, and my ethnicity — I wanted a real piece of art, so to speak.”

While the collection does notably contain work by artists such as Romare Bearden, Beverly Buchanan, Elizabeth Catlett, Ernest T. Crichlow, Sam Gilliam, Loïs Mailou Jones, Jacob Lawrence, Gordon Parks, Alma Thomas, and Charles White, Davis’ intention was never to only collect work from well-known artists.

“These works were always cultural gems to me, but that was just to me. I never put a monetary value on them or anything like that,” he said. “I was pretty much just alone in a crowd appreciating artwork that I had that really made me feel well.”

Executive Director of the Huntington Museum of Art, Geoffrey K. Fleming, said this exhibition is particularly close to his heart.

“You have these great artists that were not given the same chances as others because of their color or race, or even in some cases because of their gender,” said Fleming. “Being able to show off great African American artists or great women artists, or any other group that you can think of is especially important to a place like the Huntington Museum of Art.”

“I am so happy for these artists to start to get some recognition now because when I started collecting their works, they were so under-recognized — and some still are — but I’m just so glad that I live and that many of them live in a day and a time when they could be recognized and respected for what they spent their life creating,” said Davis. “From my perspective, what I want to do is to share these artists with the world, to expose some of these lesser known artists, and particularly artists of color, because their work has just been absent from the canon for so long.”