Clarence Otis ’77 didn’t become an art collector to try to correct the historical record, but he acknowledges that the art he and his wife Jacqui Bradley collect helps to tell a truer story about this country’s past and its politics. “When museums exhibit art that is not diverse, it is still political art,” he says. “They’re making a political and social statement, given the history and composition of the world.”
Otis grew up in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. In the years after the 1965 rebellion there, two visual artists opened an arts center in the nearby Watts Towers. Otis took art and theater classes there, and as a Williams student he continued to take studio art classes and perform in theatrical productions. He majored in economics and political science and went into the business world after graduation.
Soon after Otis and Bradley were married, and early in their business careers, the couple began collecting art. They were living in New York City, and after seeing an exhibition of prints from the Bob Blackburn Printmakers Workshop at the Associated Collective of Black Artists in Westchester County, they bought their first pieces. “These were works on paper, done mainly by artists who were not generally printmakers, and they were affordable,” Otis says. “And we’re talking about really good artists—Elizabeth Catlett and Maren Hassinger, for instance.”
Today, their collection consists of more than 120 paintings by African-American artists and artists from the African diaspora. Most of those works were painted after World War II, “some of it right up to today,” Otis says. While pieces from their collection have an impact on museums around the country when they travel on loan, Otis and Bradley recently decided to make a more permanent impact on the collection at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) through a monetary gift earmarked exclusively for acquisitions.
The gift affirms the museum’s commitment to diversity and equity across its program and collecting. “We want to show the breadth of artists who made great works of art in the past and present,” Says WCMA’s outgoing director, Christina Olsen. “This gift allows us to deepen our holdings of African American art.” The museum has already begun to do just that, acquiring several ambitious works of art by renowned African American artists.
One is an oil on canvas by Robert Selden Duncanson, a member of the Hudson River School. “Duncanson was the first African-American artist to gain national and international fame,” says Kevin Murphy, WCMA’s Eugenie Prendergast Senior Curator of American Art. “In his lifetime, critics labeled him ‘the greatest landscape painter in the West.’”
Yet Duncanson was “basically written out of history,” Otis says. The Duncanson piece is the museum’s first acquisition by an African-American artist working in the 19th century.
The museum has also recently acquired a Sam Gilliam drape painting. Gilliam’s drapes are swaths of loose, painted canvas, often on a gigantic scale. They are bunched with twine and suspended from the gallery wall. This piece, Situation VI – Pisces 4, will be on view in March 2018. The museum describes it as “a signature work by an artist who helped shape the discourse around painting during the late 1960s and ’70s. Gilliam’s drape paintings look both backward to earlier Modernist movements and were very much a part of their time, if not ahead of it.”
A third piece, which will also be on view starting in March, is Walking, a sculpture made of 148 two-foot-high bundles of wire rope strands, by Maren Hassinger. Hassinger’s early work, a brief foray into printmaking, can still be found in Otis and Bradley’s private collection.
Hassinger, who is originally from Los Angeles and once taught at the arts center in the Watts Towers where Otis took classes during his childhood, has said, “When I make work, all of me is contained within it. Of course I embrace the feminist struggle, of course I acknowledge the horrors of racism, but my work to this point has been more about timelessness. I want my work to offer an experience to look, to see, to contemplate.”
Otis places the Hassinger piece in conversation with Eyes, the permanent sculpture by Louise Bourgeois whose elements can be found on the grounds surrounding the museum. “We’ve always been impressed with WCMA’s efforts to be inclusive,” Otis says, “and they’ve had great shows over the years.” Now he hopes those efforts are reinforced with these—and other—new acquisitions.
By Julia Munemo
Photo at top of Sam Gilliam drape painting courtesy of Joseph Goddu Fine Arts Inc., New York