Peggy Cooper Cafritz’s support for the Duke Ellington School of the Arts went beyond her checkbook. She attended events at the school she co-founded, purchased artwork by its faculty and students and hosted dinners at her home to nurture a community of creativity.
Cafritz died in February at age 70, but her contributions to the school will live on. The activist and educator bequeathed a third of her renowned art collection, or about 200 works, to the Washington high school in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington. The balance of the gift is going to the Studio Museum in Harlem, a champion of artists of African descent.
The donation announced Monday — said to be the largest gift ever of contemporary works by artists of African descent — will raise the profiles of both institutions.
“This is huge, absolutely huge,” said Tia Powell Harris, chief executive of the performing arts school. “There are pieces created by faculty members, by alumni that we will be receiving back. These pieces have traveled with the rest of Peggy’s collection, and now they’re coming home.”
Those who knew Cafritz were not surprised by the gift.
“She was always very clear that her collection was not only important to her, but it had to live beyond her,” said Hank Willis Thomas, a 1994 Duke Ellington graduate whose work Cafritz began buying long after he had graduated.
Duke Ellington has a museum studies program, an art gallery and a collection of several hundred pieces, many representing its graduates. The Cafritz art will serve as a teaching tool, but also will elevate the school’s stature as a cultural institution, Harris said.
“We’re spreading out into the greater community of Washington and beyond,” she said.
Studio Museum Director Thelma Golden said the Cafritz gift will strengthen the museum’s 2,000-piece collection.
“Peggy’s eye, her vision for her collection, is in many ways completely in communion with the values of the Studio Museum,” Golden said. “Her support of artists early in their career and her commitment to their work throughout their career is incredibly admirable.”
The gift comes as the museum is celebrating its 50th anniversary and planning for a major expansion.
“I could not think of a better moment to have our collection so significantly expand,” Golden said. “We’re in the moment of expanding . . . to serve the arts and artist of Harlem for 50 more years and beyond. This gift looks back on our past, but it also . . . is a gift that begins to think about the future.
The 600 or so pieces are the second iteration of Cafritz’s art collection. In 2009, a fire at her home in Northwest Washington destroyed 300 pieces. Those works, and new acquisitions, are detailed in her book “Fired Up! Ready to Go!”
“A person’s collection says everything about where their heart and head live,” Harris said. “By keeping her collection alive, we can peer into what inspired her.”