When the public has the chance to view a monumental, but private collection of art, it usually occurs if the collection is loaned to a museum and perhaps organized as a special exhibition. On even rarer occasions, a collector might establish a museum dedicated to the collection.
Bernard and Shirley Kinsey went a decidedly different route with their world renowned collection of African American art and historic artifacts. Taken together the Kinsey’s collection makes an expansive survey of African American achievements. To get a glimpse of the collection, the Kinseys never asked the world to come to them; instead, they’ve sent the collection on the road for over a decade. Now the Kinsey African American Art & History Collection heads to Houston for an extended stay (Jan. 12 through June 23, 2024) at the Holocaust Museum Houston.
Some objects in the collection have been seen before locally when the Houston Museum of African American Culture hosted a version of the exhibition in 2014, but Kinsey Collection curator Larry Earl says that iteration had about 25 percent of the art and cultural objects that will be on display in HMH presentation.
“The collection has since evolved and developed from one of a few hundred items to well over a thousand,” he says. Even ten years ago, the collection was unique in its balance of great art alongside artifacts, the photographs, rare books, letters and manuscripts that give context and tell the story of African American art and cultural achievements.
“We believe in order to tell the unique African and African American experience in the Americas you need an understanding of the physical and historical times that these individuals endured,” explains Earl.
He adds that for people to fully appreciate the “genius” of an artist like American Impressionist artist Henry Ossawa Tanner, we have to also understand the “racial structure, the challenges of living the American experience as an individual of African descent at that time period.”
Organized both chronologically and thematically, the exhibition begins with some of the earliest documentation of life in the Americas for Black men and women, including 16th century baptismal and marriage records.
Along with these chronicles of daily living, the first thematic section of the exhibition, titled “Early Geniuses,” also highlights the works of those Black artists that gained acclaim as well as those who died in obscurity, perhaps not to be recognized until centuries later.
The Cultivators, 2000, Oil on canvas, by Samuel L. Dunson, Jr. Courtesy of The Kinsey African American Art & History Collection
Well-to-do Black Couple, maker unknown, Hand-colored tintype, ca. 1860. Courtesy of The Kinsey African American Art & History Collection
The Dancer, 1937, by Richmond Barthé. Courtesy of The Kinsey African American Art & History Collection
The Boss, 2006, Quilted cotton, appliqué, by Bisa Butler. Courtesy of The Kinsey African American Art & History Collection
Honor King: End Racism!, 1968, Ink on board. Courtesy of The Kinsey African American Art & History Collection
Baptism Record, 1595, St. Augustine, Florida, Ink on paper. This document is a facsimile and on display with special permission from the Catholic Archdiocese of St. Augustine, FL. Courtesy of The Kinsey African American Art & History Collection
Bernard and Shirley Kinsey, 2002, Oil on Canvas, Artis Lane
Other sections of the exhibition are organized around historical periods like Reconstruction, the Harlem Renaissance and into the mid to late 20th century. The exhibition presents artifacts of the Civil Rights movement alongside artworks from modernist and contemporary artists. As the HMH exhibition becomes the Kinsey Collection’s 40th presentation and since the Kinseys continue to acquire important works, Earl says we can look forward to some objects and artworks never seen in other venues.
Bernard and Shirley Kinsey’s son, Khalil Kinsey, who grew up surrounded by many of the artworks in the collection and now serves as the general manager and chief curator for the collection and exhibitions, explains the importance of not separating the art from the artifacts.
“We honed in on how to tell a cohesive story and how to weave history and art together throughout the time periods we cover for an holistic view of a people.”
When I asked about this unique model of a continuously traveling exhibition, Khalil Kinsey explained that it goes back to his parent’s hope that as many people see these works as possible.
“There’s a need for brick and mortar museums that people can visit when they’re in a city. But what about all of the people who can’t make it to these museums?” Kinsey ponders.
“We can be nimble and be an ambassador for this that most can’t,” he explains. “Being as accessible as we can means that we want to go to as many venues as we can to touch as many people as we can. We also are keen on going to nontraditional places.”
While HMH has certainly presented many traveling art exhibitions before, it might not be the first Houston venue one thinks of for this particular collection. But the Kinseys like to send their collection to venues people don’t expect. In fact, the exhibition recently landed at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles. The HMH makes for another opportunity to reach new audiences.
Kinsey says HMH’s mission also connects with his family’s approach to collecting in order to educate and tell a greater story. “We are about blending these stories and narratives and shining a light in a way that we see each other in a much fuller view. We are stewards of this story, of this narrative and the contents of the collection. We don’t feel you can own these things; you can only protect them and preserve them. That is why we do this in such a public way. It’s meant to be experienced by as many people as possible.”