A radical kind of love


Dear Artist,

Peggy Cooper Cafritz, the most ardent champion of African and African-American artists, this week bequeathed her entire collection to two of her most beloved institutions.


“Untitled” 2009
acrylic on PVC panel
by Kerry James Marshall (b.1955)

Six hundred and fifty artworks have been divided between the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, the school Peggy helped found while still in her junior year at George Washington University. These works were not Peggy’s first collection. In 2009, when she was 61, a lifetime of art collecting was destroyed in the largest residential fire in Washington D.C. history when Peggy’s home burned to the ground while she was out of town. Peggy’s second collection had been amassed only in the last eight years.



“Give Mummy a Big Kiss for Me” 2013
by Erika Ranee (b.1965)

Born to a well-to-do family in Mobile, Alabama in 1947, Peggy grew up immersed in the spirit of activism. Her father, the owner of multiple insurance and funeral companies, worked to integrate Mobile’s Catholic school system, while her grandmother had opened the first black school there. While in law school at George Washington, Peggy helped to found the Black Student Union and campaigned successfully to prohibit racial discrimination in the Greek organizations. Along with choreographer Mike Malone, she formed an incubator for minority artists that later became the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. And Peggy began collecting art.

Peggy loved adventurous work and explored all kinds of media and materials. A shimmering tapestry by Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, which was destroyed in the fire, was made out of woven bottle caps. The artist, along with many others, offered to make her a replacement piece, but Peggy said she felt awkward about the idea. Instead, she set to work filling a new glass and steel house near Dupont Circle with new artwork. “Collecting,” said Peggy at the time, “has now reached diseased levels in my being.” Peggy Cooper Cafritz passed away from complications of pneumonia on February 18, 2018 at age 70.


“Earth’s Skin” 2007
aluminum and copper wire, 177 x 394 in.
(449.6 x 1000.8 cm)
by El Anatsui (Ghanaian, b.1944)



PS: “It’s as if we will now have direct access to Peggy’s amazing vision, seeing the world’s possibilities as she did.” (Tia Powell Harris, Chief Executive of the Duke Ellington School)

Esoterica: Along with devoting her life to supporting artists, Peggy mentored young people, helped to raise funds for political causes and candidates, was a fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and served as president of the District of Columbia Board of Education. “Her idea of what it meant to be a collector also meant investing in the artist as a human being,” said curator and choreographer Rashida Bumbray. “She had a relationship with each individual. She didn’t take it lightly. She practiced a radical kind of love, and we see that love truly manifest in the success of the artists she collected and nurtured so deeply.”


Highlights from Peggy’s collection, including many lost in the fire and with essays by the artists and others, Fired Up! Ready to Go! Finding Beauty, Demanding Equity: African American Life in Art, is available here.

Sara Genn: New Paintings runs until November 2, 2018 at Voltz Clarke Gallery, 141 East 62nd Street, New York City. If you’re in the neighbourhood, we would love to see you there.

“She had a lot of faith that we could do well. She made you feel like the most important artist in the world. She saw that’s what was needed.” (Artist Simone Leigh)



  1. Inspiring and remarkable….if the collection had been color inclusive instead of segregated, perhaps our collective consciousness would join together in the pure love of creativity instead of racial exclusivity….No matter….I have the book on my wish list and I’m so glad Sara has highlighted this profound achievement!
    Proof that ART has no racial boundaries!

    • The lifting of one does not have to mean, the lowering of the other.
      I have no objection to collections that focus on one kind of art.
      I Love this woman for what she did and shared.

    • Gabriella Morrison on

      It makes sense for a collector to limit the scope of his/her collection The result is probably more refined to the aesthetic or social reasons for the whole compilation, and may have added value to future scholars of art history. The traditions of African American art may therefore be appreciated in the history of its practitioners, and of the circumstances constraining and defining their lives. Kudos to this lady – she provided an extraordinary gift to us from her directed passion.

  2. First and foremost, Iam not wealthy…..far, far from it. I started collecting about 60 years ago. Being a printmaker there are many opportunities to show in juried National Print Shows. I did this and was fortunate enough to be a frequent prize winner in the 70’s. Based on this recognition I was able to become friendly with many other printmakers. I liked their work and began trading prints with them. I also purchased many “bargains” on Ebay and scouted second hand shops plus anywhere else I could find good works at bargain prices. I was always aware to opportunities and very much enjoyed the “hunt”. I have found an Audubon, Piranesi and also an Alfred T. Bricker oil painting just to name a few gems. You just never know what is around the corner. Long story short, I am now 83 and have been able to donate most of my modest collection ( in excess of 600 pieces ), to several institutions. It is extremely gratifying to know that others will enjoy what I have had the pleasure to do for many years to come. I can relate to Peggy and encourage artists to trade and donate. It is worthwhile for all. In my book, “The Print Renaissance in America – A Revolution” I have dedicated an entire chapter on how to collect on a shoestring. Try it and enjoy!

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