African American and African diasporic art fills the Upper East Side townhouse of Studio Museum trustee Rodney Miller
For Rodney Miller, a big perk of being on the board of the Studio Museum in Harlem was having Thelma Golden, its longtime director, rehang the art throughout his Upper East Side townhouse. When asked whose idea it was, Miller, senior managing director of J.P. Morgan’s mergers and acquisitions group, laughed, “I think she told me she was doing it and I thought that was a fantastic idea.” It prompted Miller to invite other art-world notables to guest curate his collection, which is focused on modern and contemporary African American and African diasporic art. Next year former National Gallery of Art curator Ruth Fine, who is borrowing works from Miller for a Norman Lewis retrospective at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, will reinstall his home, and then the artist Senam Okudzeto will have a turn.
Miller, 55, grew up in Indianapolis and studied business as an undergraduate at the University of Indiana, before continuing on to the University of Chicago Business School. He is now on the board of the University of Indiana’s business school. Having never taken an art class in school, he began collecting after attending a Sotheby’s event two decades ago. “I wanted to do something different in my non-work hours,” says Miller, whose early acquisitions included photographs of jazz musicians by William Gottlieb and a painting by William H. Johnson, who chronicled African American life in the mid-20th century. “It’s a fantastic way to learn, which is great to do after you’re out of the formal education process.” Today, Miller serves on the acquisitions committee at the Studio Museum, where he is also treasurer.
With works by older masters including Beauford Delaney, Romare Bearden, Alma Thomas, and Hale Woodruff, and contemporary artists such as Shinique Smith, Lyle Ashton Harris, Glenn Ligon, Lorna Simpson, Odili Donald Odita, and Hank Willis Thomas, Miller’s collection today numbers some 200 works. He remains on the lookout for important pieces by Jacob Lawrence, Kara Walker, and Chris Ofili—what he considers “glaring omissions” in his collection.
While he has never bought a work because he thought it would appreciate in value or sold a piece, Miller recognizes that works by black artists have been largely undervalued. “It does allow me to own artists in depth that I might not be able to if the market were truly reflecting the quality of their work.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 64 under the title “The 10.”