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Bonfire of the Humanities
Flames Destroyed Peggy Cooper Cafritz's Home and, With It, a Major Cultural Legacy

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 31, 2009

Just a week ago, Jack Shainman, a New York art dealer, visited the home of Peggy Cooper Cafritz. He brought with him small photographs attached to pendants, given to him by artist Kerry James Marshall. Last Thursday, Shainman hung the images on Marshall's "Power to the People," a 2005 sculpture that Shainman describes as "accumulative," meaning that the artist, over his lifetime, continues to add to it. In a manner reminiscent of certain African art techniques, the work is intended to grow and take on new meanings.

Marshall's work was among those lost in the fire that destroyed Cafritz's mansion on Chain Bridge Road in Northwest Washington on Wednesday night. Cafritz, a prominent arts patron, collector and a founder of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, had a major collection of art by African American and African artists. Experts familiar with her holdings, including artists, dealers and local museum curators, described it as a major loss.

Cafritz, reached briefly before returning to Washington from Martha's Vineyard, Mass., where she had been vacationing, said she began collecting in college, starting with African art. For the past 20 years, she has collected seriously, amassing a trove of works by important living artists including Marshall, Kara Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, Shinique Smith, El Anatsui and Yinka Shonibare, a Nigerian artist who will be the subject of a major exhibition at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art beginning in November.

Cafritz said the collection had been appraised but she declined to give its value. The majority of the collection was in the house, though one piece, which she couldn't recall, is on loan to a gallery in New York. But she is determined to collect again.

"God willing, and the economy willing," she said.

Artists who had visited the sprawling mansion say they were stunned by its contents.

Nekisha Durrett, a local artist who graduated from the Ellington School in 1994 and is now an exhibits specialist at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, said it seemed as if the walls of Cafritz's house were made of art. Cafritz invited Durrett there about three years ago and purchased some of Durrett's photographs. But it was only later, when Durrett attended a Christmas party, that she grasped the extent of Cafritz's home and her collection.

"I've seen art collections before, impressive art collections," Durrett said. "This was just something you don't see around a lot on a smaller scale, like the Hermitage of African American art." The Hermitage, in St. Petersburg, is one of the greatest art museums in the world.

Cafritz's art collection reflected a broad range, from established artists to younger figures, many of whom were nurtured at the Ellington School. A whole room was devoted to work by Hank Willis Thomas.

"It's such sad news," Thomas said from New York, where he is now based. Thomas met Cafritz in 1991, when he was 15-year-old student at Ellington. Years later Cafritz began to collect Thomas's art, mainly photographs, which use images of African Americans and advertising to comment on commercialism and the body.

"My work and success is very much connected to her, and her reinvestment in me," Thomas said. Cafritz had high standards, he said, and her support of the Georgetown school was important to the majority-black student body, which, he said, often felt out of place in the privileged neighborhood. They worked to please her and took pride in her interest in them.

Thomas said that Cafritz spoke of donating her collection to a major museum. It was an example of her long-term, strategic thinking, he said, which was meant to ensure that the work of African American artists would be preserved permanently in a prestigious institution.

Visitors to the house, a traditional structure designed by the Washington firm Hartman-Cox in the 1980s, described a theater of art greeting visitors right from the doorway. A sequined work by Mickalene Thomas was in the front entry. Close by, down the hall, was a piece called "Untitled Sound Suit" by Nick Cave, part of a series that uses clothing to create extravagantly complex sculptures that seem like mannequins in wild costumes.

"That was sitting right at the door, this soldier, like six feet tall," remembered Durrett.

Kinshasha Holman Conwill, deputy director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, said Cafritz purposely juxtaposed works by young and lesser-known artists with works by instantly recognizable artists. It was a "brilliant concept," Conwill said, which demonstrated Cafritz's willingness to set her own agenda and include new names among the more marketable name brands.

"She really breaks open the notion of who gets to create the canon," said Conwill, who described Cafritz as "the ideal collector," with a good eye, an independent sensibility and a deep and lasting interest in the artists she supported. Others describe Cafritz as an intuitive collector. Her house was recently featured in Oprah Winfrey's O magazine, which emphasized Cafritz's strong decorative sensibility.

But it was the commitment, over time, to young artists that defined Cafritz's identify as a force for art. And that, Conwill said, isn't going anywhere.

"This kind of pursuit cannot go up in flames," Conwill said. "It still lives. The impact she had on those artists still lives, so I hope she will continue to collect. I don't think this ends."

It is, like Marshall's "Power to the People," an accumulative work.

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