The Role of Collectors in Haitian Art

By Candice Russell

In thinking about the trajectory of an artist’s career, I keep coming back to the role of the collector, which is absolutely essential for someone to progress from obscurity to a known and celebrated entity. Collectors are often under-sold as important links in the chain to fame for artists. They can be misunderstood by the general public as moneyed predators trying to get as much as they can for as little cash as possible or, worse, some rarefied class of pickers with big bucks, only on the lookout for the next hot trend.

And, yes, those types of collectors do exist. Just wander around the halls of the Miami Beach Convention Center during the annual Art Basel/Miami Beach extravaganza in December and eavesdrop on collectors negotiating with dealers for works by up-and-coming artists as yet unknown to the larger collecting world.

I’m thinking of collectors with a genuine, even a life-long interest in one area. The late John Fulling of Lighthouse Point, Florida is one example. He amassed a sizable and impressive collection of pre-Columbian artifacts, arranged for an exhibition of them at the Smithsonian Institution, and donated all the works to this institution.

Then Fulling turned his focus on Haitian art. When he learned that Andre Pierre was the pre-eminent painter in Haiti, he commissioned the artist to do an impressive series of the largest works he had ever created. Fulling found an interviewer to speak to Pierre about the meaning of each work, had the words translated into English, and published the results for family and friends. It is a work of invaluable scholarship about Andre Pierre and his deep, personal relationship with a pantheon of Haitian Vodou (voodoo) spirits.

Fulling’s collection included bigger-than-life-size sculptures in wood, one of which stood near the front door of his large home, delicate drawings by the inimitable Rigaud Benoit, and outstanding paintings representing masters of the first and second generations of the mid-century Haitian art renaissance. The man was passionate about these works and justifiably proud of his accomplishments in regard to putting Andre Pierre in a context no one else had ever done.

Dr. Walter Neiswanger, a physician, philanthropist, and arts patron, is another admirable collector. He donated the first significant collection of Haitian art to a U.S. museum in Davenport, Iowa in 1967 (now known as the Figge Art Museum).

Erna and Richard Flagg’s outstanding collection of Haitian art was donated to the Milwaukee Art Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And, for more proof that the midwest section of the country is a hotbed for Haitian art, the Waterloo Center for the Arts in Waterloo, Iowa boasts of the largest collection of Haitian art in any U.S. museum, thanks to the generosity of collectors with a hope for preservation and appreciation of these works in future decades.

Then there is Ramapo College in Mahwah, New Jersey. It can rightly brag about the Morris/Svehla collection of Haitian art and valuable pieces donated by Selden Rodman, the late scholar, author, and leading authority on Haitian art. Some of the best works in Haitian art ever created can be found at Ramapo.

Like these other collectors, Winslow Anderson was similarly smitten with Haitian art. From 1948 to roughly 1989, he travelled to Haiti at least once a year and bought from Le Centre d’Art in Port-au-Prince. His collecting acumen was showcased in the catalog “Winslow Anderson Collection of Haitian Art” from the Huntington Museum of Art in Huntington, West Virginia. It features the largest body of Montas Antoine paintings I had ever seen. (Antoine, by the way, is recognized but not yet fully given his due by the academic world).

The joy of collecting may have been enough for these seminal figures in the cause of Haitian art. But their efforts will prove invaluable to museum visitors and scholars, now and in the future. It is time to understand and praise their pursuit of cultural preservation.