A statuesque lawyer, her toenails painted an incandescent coral, lopes through a Georgetown courtyard in strappy leather heels, ducks out of the stormy dusk into a gallery, collapses her umbrella and falls into a warm bath of art love. The jazz riffs of Parisian beatmaker Buddy Sativa surge over the sound system as the crowd squirms between canvases and installations. The lawyer turns from one hug into another, throws hellos across the room, grabs a plastic cup of Argentine wine and finds a friend, Jamil Hamilton, admiring a large artwork consisting of chicken wire strung with colorful undergarments.
“This is me programming myself for a future when I can afford enough wall space for it,” says Hamilton, a DJ, nodding toward the piece, then turning to the lawyer. “What brings you here? You could be anywhere. Have you been to ‘30 Americans’?”
“I’m on the board, you know,” the lawyer says.
“Of course you are.”
The lawyer is Schwanda Rountree. “30 Americans” is the upcoming show of contemporary African American art at the Corcoron Gallery of Art, where Rountree sits on three committees.
“I’m really sad I didn’t get to the McQueen show in New York,” Hamilton says.
“It was so hot,” Rountree says. “If I could get one piece . . .”
“Why doesn’t the Smithsonian show that [exhibit]?”
“We’re in D.C. D.C. is very conservative.”
Zippy, insider dialogue crackles all around the cozy Parish Gallery past the 9 o’clock end time for its new exhibit, “Delusions of Grandeur: Ascension.” As a collector and budding art dealer-consultant outside her day-job hours, Rountree, 34, is at a gallery opening or artist reception once a week at least, there to network, to learn, to buy, to be a booster of artists of color, to help nudge the District past its conservative familiarities.
Emerging artists need emerging collectors. Yes, a wealthy patron may pluck a no-name painter from obscurity, but rookie creators and rookie appreciators form a crucial symbiosis: Engaging, under-the-radar work is affordable to enthusiastic young collectors who can talk it up. Especially in a market as small and conquerable as Washington.
Over the past five years, Schwanda Rountree — runner, cyclist, world traveler, pescatarian — has invested her time, money and energy in the local art scene and become something of a player in it, all outside a demanding day job as a litigator in the public sector.
“Schwanda Rountree is awesome, she’s gorgeous, she’s part of a group of passionate young collectors in the city, and they buy really amazing stuff,” says Philippa P.B. Hughes, a commissioner on the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities and founder of the Pink Line Project, an arts-promotion group that bills itself as “a catalyst for the culturally curious.” “I see her everywhere. People in the know know who she is.”
Born in Ahoskie, N.C., Rountree first lived in Washington in 2000 while working a judicial clerkship. She met attorney Gloria Sulton, whose upper Northwest home is filled wall-to-wall with art. Seeing a robust private collection inspired Rountree to begin building her own.
“She does her homework and is very bright,” says Sulton, who’s been collecting for 20 years. “Her focus has been broader than mine — she’s branched out to New York, she goes to [Miami’s] Art Basel,” a major contemporary art fair.
“She’s outmaneuvered me in terms of her outreach,” Sulton says.
The tired maxim remains true: It’s who you know. Networking nurtures collecting. Rountree visits private studios and gets to know artists before she buys. She has chaired art auctions, sat on the executive committee for the Porter Colloquium on African American Art at Howard University, and last year was invited to be part of the steering committee for contemporary art at the Corcoran.
Rountree has been instrumental in the “30 Americans” show at the Corcoran, according to fellow committee members, because she knows several of the participating artists personally.
“She’s got a great vital energy around her,” says Beatrice Gralton, the Corcoran’s associate curator of contemporary art. “She’s committed to the arts in the city, and she’s able to lend her insight and be a perfect supporter. She’s young, she’s interested, she’s connected — in a city like D.C., it’s great to have people like that pull it all together.”
The afrobeats of Nigerian musician Fela Kuti bump on the stereo of Rountree’s charcoal BMW as she drives from Georgetown to her condo near the waterfront in Southwest D.C.
The exhibit at the Parish Gallery felt new and young and different, Rountree says as the windshield wipers work double-time. She’s cheered that the opening reception featured a DJ and drew so many of her peers.
She does, of course, own work by one of the young local artists featured at Parish. A portrait titled “Venus” by Jamea Richmond-Edwards hangs above Rountree’s bed in her studio condo, a mini-museum to original work and prints that she’s acquired over the past five years.
“If there was a fire, I would take this one,” Rountree says in front of Shinique Smith’s “Leda and the Swan,” a 41-by-38-inch collage hung in her kitchen. Rountree met Smith in New York and then “hunted down” the piece at a gallery in Chicago.
Her canary-yellow walls are adorned with small-scale works by Yinka Shonibare, Iona Rozeal Brown, District-based Michael Platt and Nigerian artist Victor Ehikhamenor, whom she met through Sulton and now represents in the United States on a commission basis. She keeps papered-up art in her front closet and part of Ehikhamenor’s inventory in storage in Maryland.
Through this side job, she’s learned to pitch and interact with galleries and negotiate and connect with collectors. She’s served wine and cheese in her condo to friends and acquaintances who were interested in Ehikhamenor’s work. She also is an independent art consultant for a couple of dozen newbie collectors who have sought her advice on research, appraisal and purchasing.
And she and four friends have an informal collectors club that meets at members’ houses to trade books, recommendations and collecting strategies. They also frequent museums, take trips to New York events, arrange visits to artists’ studios, and discuss buying art as an investment for the group. They’ve talked about formalizing the club, opening it up to others, becoming a youthful force to promote the D.C. arts scene and artists of color.
“I think it serves fellowship to have like-minded people who have the same interest and passion,” says Rountree’s friend and fellow club member Jennifer Hardy, an attorney at the Securities and Exchange Commission. “When my friends find how much I’ve spent on a painting, they think I’m crazy. They don’t understand the value of it. So it’s nice to have people on the same wavelength.”
Rountree must be strategic about buying. Sometimes one purchase can eat up her entire collecting budget for the year. The individual works in her collection are several thousand dollars each, she says. But she doesn’t look at her walls and see dollar signs. She sees what she sees in her work at the Corcoran, in her partnership with Ehikhamenor, in her behind-the-scenes visits to studios in New York and Chicago and the District.
She sees duty, continuity and beauty.
“It’s a sense of responsibility, in terms of preserving history and serving as custodians and caring for the work and sharing it in any way you can,” Rountree says. “When you invite someone over to your home for wine, this is an opportunity for them to see what you have. The work spreads, and people are inspired.”