“So much of what I do is more about connecting than collecting,” says Bernard Lumpkin. Together with his husband, Carmine Boccuzzi, Lumpkin has been supporting emerging artists—with a focus on works exploring Black identity—not only by acquiring their art but also encouraging them to form key relationships that can grow their careers.
Through Lumpkin’s activity on the boards of the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, as well as the numerous events the couple has hosted over the years at their Tribeca apartment, he has helped artists such as Jordan Casteel, Christina Quarles, and Henry Taylor find their way to major museum exhibitions and collections.
Although the pandemic period made it difficult for the couple to open up their home to visitors, they have found other ways to share their collection and the community around it: with the touring exhibition “Young, Gifted, and Black: The Lumpkin-Boccuzzi Family Collection,” which opens at Gallery 400 at the University of Illinois on September 2, and a comprehensive book of the same title.
In the publication, edited by the writer Antwaun Sargent with contributions from numerous artists and curators, Lumpkin details the collection’s roots in his family history (his father, a physics professor at the University of California, was Black, and his mother, also an educator, was a Sephardic Jew from Morocco). He also reflects on the evolution of his approach to collecting in a conversation with the Studio Museum director Thelma Golden, saying, “I used to think that supporting artists meant buying their work, hanging it up in your home for enjoyment, and then throwing away the key. But I’m realizing more and more that collecting art can actually be a very communal and collaborative endeavor.”
Recently, Lumpkin sat down with Artful’s editorial director Karen Rosenberg in the apartment he shares with Boccuzzi and their three children to talk about the difference between a collector and a patron, the making of “Young, Gifted, and Black,” and the art world’s recent efforts to become more diverse and inclusive (as well as the work still to be done).
Karen Rosenberg: How would you define your approach to collecting?
Bernard Lumpkin: Sitting here in my home you can see how we live with art, with the children’s art and the work that is in the book and the exhibition side-by-side. To me, being a collector is really about collecting community. It’s about building and supporting and expanding the community that happens around artists—in terms of increased visibility in museums and increased engagement with collectors, particularly newer collectors and people who have not had access to collecting in the art world in the way that others have. If there’s anything I collect, it’s this community.
The exhibition “Young, Gifted, and Black,” which is a companion to the book, is also about expanding that community—taking these artists and their stories to small towns, college universities, and other places that might not otherwise get to see them.
How did you get started collecting? What drew you to the art world, after a career in academia and television production?
What I do as an advocate for artists and museums grows out of my background in education. My parents were both educators and scholars. I went to college and graduate school and studied comparative literature and was supposed to become a professor. And even when I decided not to pursue academia, after I got my PhD, I still made education a centerpiece of what I do. When I started working at MTV in the news department as a producer, I worked on shows that were about current events and politics—campaigns like “Choose or Lose,” and “Rock the Vote.” This was a time when there wasn’t as much sourcing of news from social media or the internet. Young people were getting their news from MTV. It was exciting to work at the channel and have that kind of platform, to have that voice.
I also met a lot of artists at MTV, because television and film production is a very collaborative, creative medium. I worked with writers, designers, animators, videographers, camerapeople. MTV was sort of their day job. I appreciated that experience, and looking back on it I realize now that it was sort of planting the seeds for my work with artists. I loved the idea of having a big platform. A classroom felt too small for me, in terms of the impact I felt I could have, and MTV made me realize that.
Once you started to get engaged with art and artists, how did you focus your collecting? When did the themes start to emerge?
The focus around artists of color comes from a very personal place. The collections that I admire the most are the ones that have a focus, a vision—that connect to the collector in some meaningful, organic way. It doesn’t have to be about race, it doesn’t have to be about gender. It just has to be something that is meaningful to you. I have learned a lot from collectors who focus on a medium, like photography.
For me, the collection became a way to continue conversations I was having with my father about race and history. It was also a way for me to teach the children about their heritage. You have family photos out, but you also have paintings out—and the art is about family, identity, what it means to be Black in America. So there’s a very personal, specific reason behind my focus on artists of color. I always tell people who are looking to collect to figure out a passion and a focus and a story they’re telling through the collection.
As you make clear in the book, it’s also very important to you to be a patron and an advocate as opposed to just acquiring artworks. What advice would you give people who are just starting to collect and want to engage in this kind of advocacy for artists?
It’s all about building a community around what you do. I think that applies to jobs, friends, anything in life that you’re passionate about and engaged in. Connect with other people who share that passion. For collectors, the best way to do that is to connect with arts organizations and museums who can support the artists you’re interested in. So if you’re interested in early-career artists, maybe think about supporting an art school or a residency program. I’m on the board of trustees of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture—that’s an amazing opportunity to provide critical support to artists at an early point in their career. Through a place like Skowhegan, you meet other people who are also excited about supporting emerging artists.
A patron is someone who supports the artist over the long term, who is aligned with the institutions that will carry the artist through their career. Obviously buying their work is important, but that should just be the beginning of an engagement which is both personal, in terms of your relationship with that artist, but also more public, if you’re able to help that artist on a wider stage with museum acquisitions, supporting an exhibition, introducing the artist to a curator, introducing artists to other patrons and collectors. Even if you’re no longer collecting an artist, you can still support them by supporting an exhibition at a museum, or an acquisition at a museum. That’s the distinction between collecting and patronage.
As a patron, how does it feel when an artist you’ve supported early on makes it to that next level? When I saw Jordan Casteel’s show at the New Museum last year, for instance, I remembered seeing a painting of hers in your collection back in 2016 and hearing you talk about visiting her studio when she was in the Yale MFA program.
Jordan is a great example of what I do in terms of developing relationships with artists at an early stage and supporting them through their career at different stages. Her career has exploded in so many amazing ways, and it was great to be able to support the New Museum exhibition and to be interviewed with her as part of the documentary Black Art: In the Absence of Light by Sam Pollard.
We asked all of the artists in the book if they wanted to write about their own work or to have someone write about it, and Jordan chose to write about her work. She talked about our dialogue and the relationship we’ve had as artist and patron. Jordan is no longer an emerging artist, but I still continue to support what she does through loaning work to exhibitions and continuing to engage with her in projects like the book.
Working on the book and the exhibition has been an occasion for you to reflect on the evolution of your collection and role in the art world. What has come out of that process?
Doing the exhibition and the book made me realize that the collection really did have a life outside of these walls, outside this home, and that the artists were interested in their work living in the world in a way that it couldn’t do here. I threw myself into the whole process, from design to editing to licensing. I learned about a whole different side of how artists care about their work. Collectors have a really easy role in the art world—you go to the studio and talk about the work, write a check, and it’s done. But when you’re publishing a book, there are other things artists care about that are important in terms of how their work lives in the world. How is my work going to be reproduced? How is it going to be licensed? Who’s going to write about it? It was a whole different set of questions.
The book was also produced during the beginning of the pandemic and the protests around George Floyd, and as you can imagine the meaning and purpose of it was transformed during that period. It’s an art book, meant for museums, collectors, galleries. What I didn’t expect was that, from what people are telling me, it has become something of a user’s manual for how to navigate diversity, equity and inclusion issues in the art world. How do we build community and support around artists—what does that look like, beyond just buying and selling work?
You’ve been deeply involved with these issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the art world for a long time. Where do you feel like things stand right now? How successful have the art world’s efforts been in this past year or two of renewed attention and scrutiny?
There’s a lot of excitement now around artists of color in the commercial space, but that spills over to the nonprofit space. There are collectors coming into the conversation who weren’t there before, patrons supporting museums who weren’t there before. Museums are like any big organization—they have endemic structures which aren’t always conducive to diversity and equality, and I think museums are recognizing that and addressing it in different ways.
As someone who sits in a lot of rooms where these decisions are made, on collection committees or boards, I look around the table and it’s still largely white and male. But change is coming. There’s change that happens when you do an exhibition by an artist of color and there’s change that happens when you hire a curator of color, and there have been many important hires and job positions that have happened in the past year. Just off the top of my head: Antwaun Sargent being made a director at Gagosian, Ebony Haynes having her own space at David Zwirner, Naomi Beckwith coming from the MCA Chicago to Deputy Director here at the Guggenheim.
Ebony and I had a conversation for a podcast recently, and one of the things we talked about was the importance of people of color occupying spaces in galleries and the commercial sphere. The art world really does run on money, and for change to happen you need to have people in those positions where money can make good things happen. It’s about harnessing the commercial space toward a broader sense of what the market is and who the market is, inviting people to participate who didn’t have access before.
You’re not going to create a Rockefeller class when you have many years of underrepresentation and injustice among people of color. When I grew up, if your family had money you gave it to the church or schools. The idea of art philanthropy is something which still needs to be cultivated in other communities. That takes time. But you certainly need people in the commercial space of the art world who are dedicated to diversity and change.
Are there other patrons, past or present, who are important influences for you?
Peggy Cooper Cafritz comes up a lot, both in the context of my engagement with the Studio Museum and my relationship with artists. She was a big supporter of the Studio Museum and was very generous in terms of donating work from her collection. Peggy was in conversation with the museum’s director Thelma Golden for many years and had deep relationships with artists over time. For me, she was a model of what I would like to do. I wish I had known her more, but I know that what I’m doing is definitely in the spirit of what she did.
It takes time. You have to make the time to be with artists, you have to make the time to go where their shows are. I just went to Chicago to see the Christina Quarles show. It was symbolic of what the art world is for me, which is a community that exists in many different places. It’s also symbolic of what I feel a patron should do to support an artist. You go when they have an opening. If it’s a pandemic-delayed show, you still go. You support the exhibition through loans, donations. For me it was important to make that trip, because this is what I do, this is who I am as a patron.
I love talking to artists, listening to them, learning from them. I love figuring out how I can help in many different ways, other than just acquiring their work. I think Peggy was an example of that, and I’ve tried to follow in her footsteps.