The way Warren Robbins tells it, the Smithsonian Institution has a new museum because the State Department took away his parking place.
Robbins got mad, quit his job as a USIA Foreign Service Officer and went on to found the Museum of African Art.
In 14 years, he has acquired for the museum art and real estate valued at $10 million. About three years ago, he began to worry that after he was gone, no one else would spend 24 hours a day fundraising for his museum. So he talked the Smithsonian and the Congress into taking it on. Congress is expected to appropriate the first $1 million for the museum's maintenance some time soon.
It's an unusual story and Warren Robbins is an unusual man. When he started his museum in 1964, he'd never been to Africa, never worked in a museum, never been in the arts or politics, or raised money.
Robbins arouses strong reactions.
Smithsonian Secretary Dillon Ripley says, "He's the best director of this size museum in the country."
The late Sen. Hubert Humphrey called him "a national treasure."
His friends say Robbins is persistent and singleminded.
Others who know him use harsher words: "worrywart," "pushy," "monomaniac."
Amenia Dickinson, program director, is the highest ranking black person on his staff of 42 (40 percent black). She says: "He's an eccentric, a character, demanding."
Robbins' museum is stuffed into nine small gingerbread and bay window townhouses, on A Street NE, three blocks from the Capitol. There are about 100,000 visitors a year, three-fourths of them black.
Inside, green tropical plants recall the rainforests of Africa. From every wall, the magical images of Africa call for your attention -- 5-foot high polychrome masks with straw beards; tiny gold weights in the shape of men; aerodynamic antelope heads; drums carved into fantastic animals; ceremonial stools for royal seats; costumes jingling with beads; tapestries recalling desert and sky. Sliding glass doors from the galleries open onto a courtyard painted with symbols of the N'Debele people of Southwest Africa.
Robbins' office is upstairs in the second row house. He sits behind a contemporary desk in a comfortable brown-walled bay-windowed room. On the shelves are books on art, on protocol, on Africa -- "Who's Who" ("Because I'm in it," says Robbins); "African Art in American Collections," Robbins' first book (he's working on another). There are a few pieces of African art. Gus, the dachshund ("My chef de protocol"), inspects visitors with the boredom of one who has seen many.
Recently Robbins sat in his bay, the south sun on his back and talked about the way he began his museum.
In the 1960s he was a cultural officer with the American Embassy in Bonn. One day he went on a trip to Hamburg, with now-Sen. S. I. Hayakawa (R.Calif.). On an impulse, they walked into a shop and Robbins bought 25 pieces of African art for $1,000. Hayakawa says, "He and I wildly spent money."
On the boat back to the United States Robbins read a book by Eliot Elisofon about African art. Robbins was hooked.
As a social scientist, he was also interested in the great civil rights movement then at its height. "I've always been fascinated by the moment when divergent people come together and suddenly understand each other."
First Robbins organized "The Center for Cross Cultural Communications." He set up a typewriter in the basement of his Capitol Hill house. He dusted off his propaganda talents, honed with USIA in Bonn. And he persuaded a number of important people to serve on his center's board. (The center is now on the "back burner," but he plans to revive it some day.)
Finding the Bucks
He heard that the Frederick Douglass house, home of a well-known black reconstruction era leader, was up for sale. To buy it, Robbins raised $13,000 (his first attempt at fund-raising). He also took out a $35,000 mortgage.
"My mother left me something under $20,000 when she died in 1962. It was a big help during those first three years of the museum when I wasn't taking a salary. In all, I guess I and my family have given the museum about $150,000," he said.
That most people think Robbins is rich strikes him as funny. "We were in comfortable circumstances for most of my life. But I remember the Depression years when we didn't have enough coal and had to burn old furniture. But my mother saw we got to the beach every summer.
"My brothers and sisters have been successful financially. They've given money to the museum at critical times. My brother Norman gave the Henry Tanner 19th-century Afro-American paintings as well as a group of Joseph Epstein bronzes."
Robbins needed other things as well. His first political venture was politicking the city government to change the zoning ordinance to permit museums in residential areas.
He swapped the rent on the top floor to a secretary in return for typing. And he flooded radio, television and newspapers with news releases, telephone calls, invitations and photocopies.
From the first, Robbins concentrated more on education -- he'd taught at American dependent schools in Germany -- than connoisseurship.
The museum is full of the sound of African drums and the sing-song of story-telling. Instructors from the museum go out to schools and universities. Robbins likes to say it isn't a museum with an education department but an education department with a museum.
Robbins spent much time educating the public about the museum. He found being director of an art museum, if a small one, put him on the list for art openings. He turns up at all of them and he's likely to be noticed.
He has a handsome facial structure, decorated with a Mephistophelean beard and enough black hair to show he's an artiste. He wears corduroy suits for day, op art shirts and sometimes velvet suits for evening. He has an aura of fin de siecle Paris. Robbins is 55, but looks a good 10 years younger. He is a hunchback, not that it's kept him from piloting planes, skiing, or collecting a number of "longtime relationships" with women.
At one party, Frank Getlein, a Washington art critic, introduced Robbins to sculptor Chaim Gross. The sculptor gave the museum several pieces. As important, he gave Robbins names of people like himself who had African collections.
"I learned all the New York collectors, though we missed many collections then because they didn't think we were stable enough," he said.
Robbins thinks there are about 50 first-class private collections in the country. Ever resourceful, he turned his research for support for the museum into a book, "African Art in American Collections." together loan shows. He hoped, of course, some of the donors would leave a few pieces of art or at least some money behind after the show. Some of the loans came from African governments. Others came from collectors Harold Rome, Chaim Gross, the Gaston de Havenons, Dr. Milton Ratner, among others.
Robbins has had other problems along the way.
The Case of the Missing Statute, for instance, in December, 1973, called up all his diplomatic training. The Afo-A-Kom statue, sacred to the Kom people of the Cameroons, was smuggled out of Africa by relatives of the King of the Koms. It turned up in the New York gallery of Aaron Furman. Robbins heard about it, raised money to buy the statue from Furman at his cost, and took it back to the Kom King with a group from the National Geographic Society.
At that time, resentment against a white man running a black museum surfaced again. Robbins replied: "I make no apologies for being white." You don't have to be Chinese to appreciate ancient ceramics, and you don't have to be a fish to be an ichthyologist."
One detractor says much resentment against Robbins comes because a black man couldn't raise the kind of money Robbins has. Robbins says that's wrong -- Alma Lewis in Boston, for instance, has raised money for the Afro-American Cultural Center there.
"People think I've been able to do what I've done because I had contacts. That's not so. I made the contacts because of what I was doing. And, after all, I had 10 years of experience with USIA, putting together cultural programs."
To art professionals who criticize his lack of formal art education. Robbins says, "I've had on the job training."
As for political savy, Robbins was a quick learner.
He met Sen. Hayakawa 29 years ago when he wrote him a fanletter. Robbins met then-Vive President Hubert Humphrey through his State Department sister Frances Howard. Humphrey was chairman of the museum's board for years. "Robbins would tell me who had money, and I would say 'Let's go get it,'" Humphrey said later.
He's been able to attract many famous people to the museum's parties, from Henry Kissinger to Elizabeth Taylor Warner.
One of Robbins' brighter ideas was to rent the museum as a party place. Since it's only a few blocks from the Capitol it works out well for fund raisers.
"I remember one American for Democratic Action pre-inaugural party we had. We expected 300, and in the end 1,100 came," said Robbins.
"We have it all down pat. We have our own arrangements with caterers to do African food. For an honorarium, we'll throw in a speech." (Robbins fancies himself as a standup comedian as well as a philosopher. I do several dialects. Our only big regulation -- no red wine on the first floor because of the rug."
Some 1300 groups have rented the museum. Former mayor Walter Washington has entertained a good many dignitaries there, especially heads of African nations.
Such events helped introduce the museum to Congressional leaders who have become supporters such as Rep. John Brademas (D-Ind.), former Sen. Frank Moss (chairman of the museum's board), Sen. Edward W. Brooke, (R-Mass. Chairman of the national board) and Rep. Lindy Boggs (D-La., also a Smithsonian Regent).
They were important when Robbins decided that the best hope for survival was to become part of the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian had had its knuckles firmly wrapped for acquiring new museums without Congressional advice and consent. So when Robbins made his proposal to Smithsonian Secretary Dillon Ripley at the Hirshhorn Museum opening, they agreed that the impetus would have to be from Congress.
Seldom has a bill slipped so smoothly through Congress. Sen. Humphrey, too ill to introduce the bill, sent a letter around urging the merger.
Congress has promised to appropriate $1 million for the museum's yearly maintenance. The museum hopes to add $300,000 from donations and museum shop sales. Robbins' salary will go from $25,000 to about $47,500. His staff members may also get raises.
The Smithsonian is currently studying a plan to build a new home for the African museum as well as rare book libraries on Independence Avenue, across the Victorian garden from the old Castle. A twin building would also house temporary oriental art shows.
After the Takeover
Robbins says that when the Smithsonian takes over, he hopes to take up some of his old hobbies "I am not uninterested in women," he says "I might take up skiing again, or piloting."
He hasn't had time. "People get divorced for the kind of unbalanced life I've led. I remember one week I worked around the clock, setting up the exhibition of our collection in the National Portrait Gallery. It gives you a healthy arrogance, knowing you have the mental capacity and the physical stamina to make it through."
Today, with his goal in sight, he has time to ponder why he has spent almost a decade and a half of his life on an improbable idea.
Robbins says he thinks his aggressive spirit comes from being the youngest of 11 children -- "That was worse than having a hunchback. My father, a stock salesman, was neutral in my life because he was away so much.My mother was domineering, dictatorial. Both were Ukranian Jews, right out of 'Fiddler-on-the-Roof,' though they came to America as children."
As a child Robbins collected stamps, bubble gum cards. Later, books, antiques and art. "Now I don't collect at all; the museum has liberated me." He thought for a minute "I guess that's not true. I collect newspaper clippings." He bestows copies of clippings grandly. He puts much faith in the printed word.
Most of all, he believes in never giving up.
Robbins has a plaque on his desk that says. "Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome." And he keeps another handy that begins, "Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence..."