“Looking at the African American story is like going into a graveyard with no headstones. So much of the contributions of African Americans in building this country have been wiped clean.”
So says Bernard Kinsey in describing the impetus behind why he and his wife, Shirley, have spent the last almost 50 years amassing close to one thousand artworks and collectibles related to the African American experience: they want to bring those contributions forward. Early on in their collecting, Bernard was surprised to find out how many well-preserved pieces, dating back “two or three hundred years,” were available, he said.
Given what they’re trying to do, the Kinseys have taken what might at first seem like an unconventional approach to exhibiting their extensive holdings, which includes the work of Elizabeth Catlett, Hale Woodruff, Augusta Savage, and Alma Thomas. Since 2006, they’ve brought the collection to 39 venues, ranging from museums to airport lounges to a five-year stint at Epcot in Walt Disney World. Since February 2022, it has been on view at SoFi Stadium, the newly built home of the NFL’s two L.A. teams, the Chargers and the Rams. Opened in September 2020, the stadium is located in Inglewood, California, within blocks of where the Kinseys once lived.
At first, Shirley considered the idea of a show at a football stadium “over the top,” she said. “But when we think about what we’ve done in other places”—prioritizing that the collection is accessible to broad and diverse audiences—“it makes a lot of sense.”
The Kinseys’ relationship with SoFi stadium dates back to 2020, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, when Bernard was invited to speak to the staff of Hollywood Park—a 300-acre sports and entertainment complex that includes the stadium—about the significance of Juneteenth. For Bernard, the only way to frame a narrative commemorating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans was to discuss the “myth of absence,” a concept proposed decades ago by historian Lerone Bennett, Jr. about the erasure of contributions made by Black Americans throughout history.
Bernard’s presentation was essentially “a virtual tour of the Kinsey collection,” he said. From there, the executives of Hollywood Park proposed the idea of mounting the collection inside the stadium—with one caveat: “to lean into the local,” said Jason Witt, senior director of community affairs and engagement at Hollywood Park. The resulting exhibition, “Continuum,” was organized by their son, Khalil, who has been working with his parents on the collection since 2009. Alongside the Kinsey collection, the show also features work by a group of contemporary artists of color, including Genevieve Gaignard, Rashaun Rucker, and Texas Isaiah, who were selected in collaboration with Rick Garzon, owner of the nearby Residency Art Gallery, which will participate in the Felix LA fair this week.
“There are some people who would say maybe the collection shouldn’t be in these places,” said Larry Earl, who has worked on the traveling exhibition since 2016, “but we feel that the mission is beyond preserving, it’s about educating.”
The Kinsey’s first student was, in fact, their son, whom they had in 1977. “When Khalil was born,” Shirley said, “we realized that we really had not learned anything about our culture very much in terms of historical and artistic endeavors.” That education has come full circle as Khalil, now 45 years old, has taken over the management of the collection as its chief curator moving forward. (Khalil is also starting his own gallery; Context Projects will open next year in the predominantly Black LA neighborhood of View Park-Windsor Hills.)
After he started elementary school, they noticed how little he learned about African American history. Over time, the collection grew alongside the Kinseys’ deep dives into this history. “For the last 35 or 40 years, I’ve read two hours a night, and principally on the whole African American historical record,” Bernard said. “Because of that, we’ve been able to really understand what the significant items are to bring into the collection.”
Bernard developed an intense interest in collecting Harlem Renaissance artists, like Norman Lewis and Charles Alston, and positioning those works to “stand within the canon of art history,” said Earl. By the mid-1980s, after having already purchased droves of historical works and objects, Shirley realized that the collection should also include the work by living artists, with an eye toward artists who are influenced by the artists from that movement.
“What we often forget is that the context of seeing ourselves really has a unique meaning when you place that into an historical framework of time and events,” said Earl. “You begin to understand what was important to people and how they saw the world.”
The core “of what we’re attempting to do,” Khalil said, “is show that this is a much fuller picture [of African American history] than what we actually understand in American society. To do that takes us doing things that are not simply in museums.”
By working outside traditional art museums, the Kinseys can center the African American experience in ways that those museums often fail to do. So far, the collection has also traveled to places like the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, a number of universities, and the headquarters of Toyota in Plano, Texas. When the collection traveled to the Smithsonian in 2010, curator Lonnie G. Bunch III, now Secretary of the Smithsonian, credited it as a precursor to his hopes for the yet-to-be-constructed National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Part of the mission of the collection itself is “challenging institutions and education systems,” Khalil said, “to harness this story and to tell this story in a way that will bring more people into the picture.”
And providing that inclusive look in a way that only they, as a Black family, really can—or should. By way of example, Shirley recalled an experience the family had when the SoFi exhibition first went on view. A docent for the show saw Khalil in the space and, “she just figured he was working for whoever owned this art,” Shirley said. The docent later told them that she had “thought to herself: ‘I wonder what white people are putting this up?’”
Rick Garzon thinks that the success of “Continuum,” which has drawn in large crowds, demonstrates to the people of Inglewood “what art projects and historical projects for the community could be,” he said.
The exhibition’s first section provides historical context, beginning with “the earliest document in the collection, a 1595 baptismal record for a young African boy in St. Augustine, FL,” Khalil wrote in an email, “and ending with the Brown v. Board ruling, and letters from Dr. MLK JR. and Malcolm X,” parsing out contributions African Americans have made in between. From there, the show moves into the Kinseys collection of modern and contemporary masters, with works by William T. Williams, Artis Lane, Sam Gilliam, Ernie Barnes, and Phoebe Beasley, that set up the historical and aesthetic frameworks for the final section of contemporary art by emerging artists of the likes of Samuel Levi Jones, Haili Francis, and SlauCienega.
The show demonstrates “that the work that these artists are doing now—the kind of freedoms, the expressions that they are developing stand on their shoulders and are a way of refinement in moving forward the canon of African American art—of American art,” Earl added. For Earl, the neon-sign works by Patrick Martinez, an L.A.-based artist of Filipino, Mexican, and Native American heritage, harken back to the work of the legendary Black Panther artist Emory Douglas.
In many ways, the journey to SoFi started largely by accident. After a Los Angeles Times reporter saw all the art in the Kinsey home, a 2005 article meant to focus on the house’s architecture turned into one about the family’s collecting. From there, the California African American Art Museum came calling and featured pieces from the collection in an exhibition series on African American collectors. At that point, the Kinseys realized that they had an exhibition-worthy collection.
Over the years, the collection, as it has traveled the country, has taken on a life of its own. So much so that Shirley would often say, “Okay, we’ll do this for [a few months], and then it’ll be coming back.” Seventeen years on, it never has.
Correction, February 15, 2023: An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of a curator on the Kinsey Collection. It is Larry Earl, not Earls.