The African-American Experience in Art and Artifact
Author: Gary Schwan, Palm Beach Post
Nearly 20 years ago, a man was clearing out his late aunt’s homestead in Alabama and discovered a letter that startled him.
It was dated 1832 and told of the sale of an 18-year-old slave for $550. The man knew what to do with it. He called his friend Bernard Kinsey.
“My white friend Wally was a little embarrassed to tell me about it, but I wanted to see it,” recalled Kinsey. “It arrived on my desk the next morning. When I held this document in my hand, chills just went through me. It was like entering into another person’s fate.”
Kinsey, a Los Angeles business consultant and West Palm Beach native, and his wife, Shirley, already collected all sorts of objects. But this letter “changed our view about what we should do as collectors.”
The Kinseys began to seriously collect African-American art and artifacts.
The result can be seen at the Norton Museum of Art, where the exhibition “In the Hands of African American Collectors: The Personal Treasures of Bernard and Shirley Kinsey” is on view through July 20.
For Bernard Kinsey, the collection is a way to tell a story that will “inspire people about their possibilities,” he said.
“It’s the story of a single African-American family and our interests, but it’s also the story of African-American triumph and success from 1632 to today,” he added. “Through the centuries, people were doing wonderful things under tough circumstances. So this is not a ‘woe is me’ exhibition. It’s about achievement.”
The collection is wide-ranging. With more than 90 works, the show includes art, artifacts, vintage photos, books and letters. There is a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, as well as works by such noted artists as Jacob Lawrence, Sam Gilliam and Romare Bearden.
An early object is a book of poetry from 1773 by New Englander Phyllis Wheatley. It was the first published book of poetry by an African-American.
There are numerous letters and documents relating to the humiliations of slavery. But there’s also a copy of an order issued by a Union Army general praising the performance of an African-American unit during a battle in Tennessee.
There are slave shackles but also an American flag used on parade by the “Buffalo Soldiers,” the 9th U.S. Cavalry and first black peacetime regiment, which patrolled the Plains during the Western expansion.
The art ranges from paintings by 19th-century African-Americans who worked in Europe, such as Henry Ossawa Tanner, to artists who formed the Harlem Renaissance of the early 20th century, to contemporary abstractionists.
The Kinsey Collection is “very personal and eclectic, and they treat it as though they’re caretakers for the community,” said Charmaine Jefferson, director of the California African American Museum, in Los Angeles, organizers of the exhibition.
The “eclectic” part is an important distinction.
“There may be larger or more definitive collections, but this one touches on so many aspects of the African-American story,” she said. “It lets people know that our history didn’t start yesterday, nor with the civil rights movement, nor did it end there.”
Citing the art as an example, she added that “through history, we might have been painting cows, or Parisian cityscapes, or black field workers, or our sons and daughters.”
The Norton’s curator of American art, Marisa Pascucci, agrees. “There are works with strong African-American themes but also pictures that you couldn’t tell if the artists were African-American or not.” She cited Tanner, who worked in Paris, and Robert Scott Duncanson, a prominent 19th-century landscape painter inspired by the Hudson River School.
None of the objects is directly related to Florida, but both Kinseys have deep roots in the state. Shirley is from St. Augustine, and Bernard was raised in West Palm Beach, the son of the late U.B. Kinsey, a noted public school principal whose name is now attached to his old school in the city – U.B. Kinsey/Palmview Elementary School of the Arts.
A graduate of Roosevelt High School – “I was class president!” – Bernard retains family ties to the area, and remembers being known in his youth as “little Kinsey, the son of U.B. There was no getting around it.
“I grew up in a family that was always reading about the Italian Renaissance or some other subject,” he added. “Our appreciation for art and music was pretty intense, which eventually led to this interest in collecting. And, then my father was steeped in the civil-rights movement. My only regret about this exhibition is that he’s not here to see it.”
Bernard and Shirley Kinsey met as students at Florida A&M University. But their acquisitions began out West. As young newlyweds, they fell in love with our national parks, and somewhere between the Grand Canyon and the Grand Tetons, they caught the collecting bug.
They began by acquiring rocks, sand, petrified wood and numerous photographs to remind them of their travels together. Today, their collection includes art of all types, from Lalique glass to Oriental painting and Inuit sculpture. They reckon they own some 500 objects.
The Kinseys are collaborators, although Bernard tends to be the history buff, while his wife responds more to the art. “Shirley likes to forge relationships with the artists, and we have some very good friends among them,” he said.
But Shirley has favorite artifacts in the collection – personal ones. They’re letters written by Florida novelist Zora Neale Hurston to Shirley’s uncle, James A. Webster. The pair met while students at Columbia University. “Growing up, I didn’t realize how well-regarded she was, so it meant a lot when I learned my uncle actually knew her back in the 1930s.”
As collectors, the Kinseys are often inspired to go a step farther when they find an object that intrigues them.
An example is an 1854 letter to a slave dealer from a woman who fretted that she had to sell her maid, a 17-year-old named Frances, in order to pay for horses.
“I never got it out of my mind,” said Bernard, who bought the letter at auction “for considerable expense. It says a lot about slavery and the duplicity of it.
“The person selling was the wife of the plantation owner, which was terribly unusual. We concluded that the wife was trying to get rid of the competition, if you know what I’m getting at.”
After much research, the Kinseys were able to identify Frances in an 1870 census in Georgia, then lost track of her. “We would love to find her descendants, so we could reunite them,” he said.
In 1991, Bernard Kinsey retired from Xerox Corp as a vice president, and Peter Ueberroth tapped him to co-chair RLA (Rebuild Los Angeles), aimed at attracting investments to the city after the 1992 riots.
As a business consultant, he has provided economic advice to governments all over the world.
In 2006, he was hired by Riviera Beach to negotiate with developers for the city’s proposed billion-dollar waterfront project. He negotiated a contract, but the project stalled over legal issues of eminent domain, and his contract wasn’t renewed last year by the city council. A smaller development is slated to begin soon.
He’s unfazed. “I had a one-year deal, and I negotiated the contract in six months. I did my job. In fact, the contract was the only thing that happened in Riviera Beach in 20 years, and I did it in a six-month period.”