Collector Bernard Lumpkin has had a single question on his mind for the past decade: How do you cultivate a new generation of art patrons from diverse backgrounds? One way he’s found success in his twin aims of education and advocacy is by building his own trove of vital contemporary art by visionary black artists, and inviting people over to share it with them; among the artists he’s collected are Rashid Johnson, Kerry James Marshall, Kara Walker, and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.
On a recent evening, Lumpkin had a dozen or so associates from the law firm of his husband, Carmine Boccuzzi, at his spacious lower Manhattan apartment. Works by Tony Lewis, Henry Taylor, and Glenn Ligon were dispersed among the space’s mid-century furniture, and a Kara Walker silhouette cutout presided over the playroom for the couple’s twins, Felix and Lucy. The night’s proceedings were organized in partnership with Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, where Lumpkin is a trustee and an active member on the acquisition committee.
“Opening my home to the art world and beyond—‘creating space,’ as Thelma calls it—is part-and-parcel of my collaborative, community-based approach to collecting,” Lumpkin told ARTnews.
Lumpkin began collecting a little more than ten years ago, starting with photographs by Lyle Ashton Harris and drawings by Wardell Milan. Today, he owns close to 500 works, split between the apartment and the offices of the law firm where Boccuzzi works, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton. His collection is the subject of a traveling exhibition, “Young, Gifted, and Black,” curated by Matt Wycoff and Antwaun Sargent, that will be on view the Lehman College Art Gallery in the Bronx, beginning in February, and make stops in California, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina later this year.
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The impetus for his collection was the unexpected 2009 death of Lumpkin’s father, who was African-American. His mother is a Sephardic Jew from Morocco. That event, Lumpkin said, changed his priorities. He left MTV, where he’d been working in the news and documentaries division, and began to focus intensely on his father’s African heritage through his collecting. Lumpkin sees his collection as a visual dialogue between the present and future of black identity. “Though I support artists of all ages and backgrounds through my service, I choose to live with artists of color because I want people to know—when they meet me or come to my home—my background,” he said. “The same thing goes for my children and their friends. In this way, the collection is a celebration of family and heritage.”
Lumpkin wasted no time getting involved with New York’s top art institutions. He serves on the Education and Painting & Sculpture committees at the Whitney Museum of American Art. He’s a trustee of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. For the Museum of Modern Art, he advises its Friends of Education initiative that aims to promote work by African-American artists. In 2012 he gifted MoMA the institution’s first photograph by African photographer Zanele Muholi, from her series “Faces and Phases.” The museum now owns five other works by Muholi, all acquired the following year.
The Studio Museum has a modest acquisition budget, but through his work on the acquisition committee over the past 10 years, Lumpkin has helped acquire major works, like Derrick Adams’s 2017 mixed-media The Journey. And he’s also made a concerted effort to consider seriously the work of early career artists, particularly those just finishing up M.F.A. programs, for both institutional collections and his own holdings.
“Bernard is one of the rare individuals whose collection reflects not only his personal taste, but also his deep desire to support emerging artists,” said Connie Choi, the Studio Museum’s associate curator for the permanent collection.
“There’s a school of thought out there that collecting art is about privacy, personal property, and protection,” Lumpkin said. “You buy the work, hang it up (or lock it up), and throw away the key. But for me collecting is about collaboration and community.”