Patrick Diamond remembers the moment art got personal for him.
It was on a Thanksgiving trip in the early 1980s. His wife, Judy, had suggested an outing for them, their 4-year-old son and Patrick’s sister’s family, to the Brooklyn Museum. They’d see work by Charlotte-born Romare Bearden, curated by Charlotte’s Jerald Melberg.
Something changed for Diamond that day.
“I separated myself from the rest of the family,” he says now.
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“It was as if I found myself having a private conversation with the art. I’d never had this experience before. I sensed those were my relatives in Bearden’s art.
“This was an extraordinary personal experience.”
It spurred something he and Judy had already begun – a venture now (partly) on display at the Gantt Center – into a different gear.
‘They didn’t want us to know yet’
As a boy growing up in Columbia’s Frogtown neighborhood, Patrick Diamond says, he couldn’t go into art museums because of the color of his skin. But at the time, he didn’t know that.
“Our parents protected us – my eight siblings and me – from institutionalized racism,” he says. “They didn’t want us to know yet about discrimination. We couldn’t go to the library or visit an art museum, but our parents kept that from us.”
He remembers his childhood as joyful, despite a cinderblock wall that separated his neighborhood from the white one. He smiles about building forts from cardboard and whatever he and his friends could find, and he recalls the one neighborhood outhouse as a convenience for kids having too much fun to run home.
His family moved north in 1958, seeking more opportunity when his father had trouble finding work (despite his U.S. military service). By high school, Patrick was going on class field trips to museums, but got more excited about getting out of school than about seeing the art.
Then he went to Boston University, where he met Judy Bookhart, “a native New Yorker with a cosmopolitan background,” he says, as a freshman in 1968. Five years later, the two were married, and left the next day on a life-altering year – in Africa.
They went to Tanzania, on a project with the Harvard Africa Volunteer Project. There, they became enthralled by the artisans and craftspeople who lined the streets to sell their work: sculptures made of wood and stone, and paintings, most depicting family life in Africa.
After returning to the United States, they began collecting African-American art.
“It was a natural evolution for us,” Patrick Diamond says. “We got a little bit compulsive about it.” They kept at it, too, through moves to Chicago, Winston-Salem, Atlanta and Charlotte, where the couple has lived three separate times.
Their collection now includes more than 150 pieces from a remarkable array of artists, from Bearden to Richard Hunt to Elizabeth Catlett, many of whom they also got to know. Part of their collection is now on display at the Gantt, titled “A Creative Journey: The Collection of Judy and Patrick Diamond.”
While the collection has a particular focus, the work and its subject matter are wide-ranging. “The Diamonds’ collection provides an eclectic mix of prints, sculptures, paintings and an interactive piece – all created by African-American artists,” says David Taylor, the Gantt Center’s president and CEO. “Their collection helps broaden the discussion on what African-American art really is.”
And what is it?
Dr. Michael D. Harris, who curated this exhibition and is an associate professor of art at Emory University, says, “Some people will disagree with me, but I don’t think all art by African-Americans can be categorized as ‘African-American art.’
“Leontyne Price and Kathleen Battle are phenomenal operatic singers, but they are not expressing African-American music.”
Harris points to a Cuban artist in Florida, Jose Bedia, who practices African-derived religion and whose paintings and sculptures are rooted in that tradition. His work could be considered African-American, says Harris: “He’s experienced in African-American culture, in a genuine way.”
While the Diamonds’ collection is heavy on narrative works, Harris said every piece of African-American art doesn’t have to tell a story. But he did want the Gantt exhibition as a whole to tell one: the story of the Diamonds’ lifetime of collecting. “As a curator, I try to create a cultural narrative.”
So is African-American art more African or more American – or equal parts of both? Harris says: “It doesn’t consistently lean in either direction, nor is it a balance between the two. But all art – and all art collections – tend to have an autobiography as the foundation.”
That’s the autobiography of the artist – and of the viewer, and the collector, according to Harris.
“There’s a Rorschach aspect to art,” he says. “Art elicits something within the viewer that the artist can’t anticipate.”
The sort of unscripted response that happened to Patrick Diamond in the 1980s.
Continuing that conversation
When he felt that sense of a private conversation with the Bearden painting, he wanted to continue it.
“I didn’t know anything about Bearden until that weekend in Brooklyn,” Diamond says. “But his work – with its Southern scenes and religious images – was mesmerizing to me.
“And the more I learned about Bearden, the more connected I felt to him. He attended Boston University from 1930 to 1932 and played varsity baseball there. That baseball field was converted into a football field, and that’s where I played in college. On that very field.
“Blacks weren’t allowed to play professional baseball then, but a coach suggested to Romare he could pass for white,” he continues. “He rejected the idea.”
The Diamonds’ first major art investment was one of Bearden’s jazz images. They got to meet him in 1985 when he came to Charlotte for a show at Melberg’s then-uptown gallery. “Getting to know the artists we’ve collected has been one of the most extraordinary aspects of this journey,” Diamond says.
So has being amid a changing cultural landscape: “We were children of the ’60s and the Civil Rights movement. We wanted to learn all we could about the contributions of African-Americans to U.S. culture. But we never saw ourselves as collectors, as such. We were just fascinated by how the African-American experience is portrayed in art.”
And there was something else. They wanted their son, Chad, to know his heritage.
“We wanted to expose him to African-American art and culture as he was growing up. We wanted him to appreciate Miro and Picasso – but to know the great African-American artists, too.” (Chad, now 38 and a Charlotte lawyer, does some art collecting of his own, Patrick Diamond says.)
Pain, and affirmation
The part of the collection on display at the Gantt includes an array of works – including the difficult.
Cedric Smith’s arresting 24- x 60-inch work titled “Negro Wench for Sale” was “painted right here in Charlotte when he was doing a residency at the McColl Center,” Diamond says. Harris, the curator, applauds the Diamonds’ “courage for buying it.”
When it’s in their home, the work hangs in a third-floor stairwell, along with Bearden images. They considered its placement carefully. “Visitors to our home don’t see this work until they’ve seen 40 or 50 other pieces,” Diamond says.
But “when B.E. Noel had her gallery in the Transamerica Center, she had this painting hanging in a window near the front entrance,” Diamond says. “This would’ve been about 2002. She noticed people would stop and spend a few minutes looking at it. So, Noel was insightful enough to invite reactions. She offered passersby the opportunity to comment anonymously. There ended up being maybe 70 or 80 comments ranging from ‘It’s beautiful’ to ‘I don’t want to be reminded of this history. Take it down.’
“When we bought the painting, we bought all the comments, too.”
Those comments, Diamond says, are “a picture of who we are as a country.”
Harris says his job as a curator is to “plot all the possible paths a visitor could take as they come into the gallery.” So he thought about where that Smith work should go.
“That painting does not play nice with other works,” he says. “It had to be on its own wall. But look just beyond it, and you’ll see the ‘Genesis’ series by Jacob Lawrence. That comes out of the Bible. That’s what you have with African-American art – pain and then affirmation.”
You may not immediately see pain in one of the show’s pieces, a commission, by Ben Parrish, employing a pair of teal seats the Diamonds bought from the old coliseum where the original Charlotte Hornets played – Row EE, seats 14 and 15. But there’s more to that work than meets the eye, says Taylor: “That sculpture represents the seating African-Americans sought for so long.”
Elsewhere in the show, Richard Yarde’s “Heel and Toe” (The Savoy Series) – with its vibrant yellow background and the unmitigated joy of the young dancing couple – conveys energy and exhilaration. It’s in sharp contrast to Radcliffe Bailey’s “In the Garden,” a mixed-media piece that includes a photo of African-American schoolchildren in what appears to be a segregated classroom.
“Some of our schools are more segregated now than they were 40 or 50 years ago – before the Brown (vs. Board of Education) decision,” Diamond says. “We’re short-changing our African-American students. Charlotte is better than that. I’m happy Dr. Harris selected that image for inclusion.”
African-American art is now the most collected genre in America, according to the Gantt’s Taylor.
“Auction Buyers Are Catching on to African-American Art,” the New York Times headlined a story in May that noted the $21.1 million sale of a Kerry James Marshall piece. But even back in 2015, the Times described American museums “rewriting the history of 20th-century art to include black artists in a more visible and meaningful way than ever before, playing historical catch-up at full tilt, followed by collectors who are rushing to find the most significant works before they are out of reach.”
By 2015, the Diamonds had already been collecting for 42 years.
They never had an art dealer or consultant coach them on what to buy. As Harris says, a collection reflects the taste, sensibilities and exposures of the collectors. Viewers will come to know the Diamonds by seeing the works they chose.
“Patrick and Judy have classic tastes and a good eye,” Harris says. “They chose strong pieces from strong artists.”
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.
‘A Creative Journey’
See “A Creative Journey: The Collection of Judy and Patrick Diamond” at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture through July 29. Museum admission is $9 for adults, $7 for youth, students and seniors and free for members and children 5 and younger.