Sunday, August 9, 2009

Largest Private Collection of African American Art Destroyed By Fire

(l-r) Front view of Peggy Cooper Cafritz's home before the fire. Ms. Cafritz in her entry hall.
(Photo: Sang An/O, The Oprah Magazine)

For over two decades, Peggy Cooper Cafritz, the prominent D.C. political fund-raiser and art patron, amassed one of the largest private collections of African-American and African art in the country. Ms. Cafritz's home and art collection were recently featured in the August '09 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine. Sadly, on July 29th, a tragic fire claimed Ms. Cafritz's Northwest Washington mansion that housed her entire art collection.
From The New York Times:

In Collection’s Ashes, a Heritage’s Seeds

Published: August 7, 2009

WASHINGTON — Every morning Peggy Cooper Cafritz steps outside and confronts the wreckage: the acrid smell of her incinerated walls and furnishings, the police tape clinging to a chain-link fence surrounding her property, the rumbling backhoe hauling away the charred remains of her longtime home.

She has been living in the house of a friend across the street from this scene, which she matter-of-factly calls “the ruins.” And for the moment, at least, she is all business, filling out insurance forms, talking to fire investigators and real estate brokers, replying to scores of e-mail messages and letters of sympathy. She has not had time, she says, to weep or grieve.

So, when asked about her loss, Ms. Cafritz hesitates. Her $5.2 million mansion here in the Kent neighborhood of northwest Washington held one of the largest private collections of African-American and African art in the country, more than 300 sculptures, paintings, photographs and other pieces that she painstakingly accumulated over the past two decades, often from artists whose careers she had personally nurtured.

The works of 19th- and 20th-century painters like Edward Mitchell Bannister, Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden hung amid contemporary work by artists like Hank Willis Thomas, Nick Cave, Kara Walker and Kerry James Marshall. Virtually everything was destroyed in the blaze that gutted the house on July 29, while she and her son were on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard.

“I had a wonderful picture,” Ms. Cafritz began, on the verge of a reverie about one of her favorites, and then she paused. “It’s gone. It’s gone. No more pictures, you know.”

“I’m hoping I can be strong enough not to be hit by that ton of bricks, not to become dysfunctionally sad,” said Ms. Cafritz, 62, as she sat on a couch in her temporary home this week. “Right now my emotions are submerged, like under water.”


For 23 years her eight-bedroom mansion served as a meeting place for both the powerful and the unknown. She gave parties for John F. Kennedy Jr. and Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson and local Democrats. She raised thousands for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and was invited to the Stevie Wonder concert at the White House earlier this year.

But Ms. Cafritz — who in the 1970s had helped to found the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, a public high school here for talented and often underprivileged teenagers — also opened her home to foster children, poor students and struggling artists. And she regularly championed minority artists, buying their work, calling them with words of encouragement and haunting art galleries, art shows and auctions in Washington and New York to find young people with promise.

“When do artists need you the most?” asked Ms. Cafritz, who also collected some works by Latin American artists. “When they’re young. There is greater representation of African-American and Latino artists in these great art galleries and museums now, but it’s not enough. Too many people are unfamiliar with these young people’s work.”

Read More:

NY Times: In Collection's Ashes, A Heritage's Seeds

The Washington Post: Fire Scorches the City's Cultural Landscape, Too

O, The Oprah Magazine: Inside the Home of Art Patron Peggy Cooper Cafritz

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