Atlanta, Georgia–based collector Kent Kelley is determined to make a difference in the art space. Collectors can do a lot to help further the industry, he explains: “They need to rally alongside their peers to educate new collectors and work in close collaboration with museums and galleries to support the brilliance of Black emerging talent.”
Now the chief financial officer of software company Unanet, Kelley observed artmaking from a young age. He is the son of an artist mother, who died when he was 14. A decade or so later, in the early 2000s, he acquired a few pieces of art, with the sole purpose of decorating his home; among them were works by
Charles Bibbs and Susan St. James. He started taking collecting more seriously in 2015, and now, artists like Ed Clark, Frank Bowling, and Benny Andrews play an integral role in Kelley’s collection. He looks for work with historical significance, though generally, his collecting practice is driven by passion. Kelley buys the work he truly enjoys.
Simultaneously, as a collector, he focuses on the idea of legacy—his own legacy, but also the legacy of urban-influenced art, of the African diaspora, and of individuals who have fought for liberation. Cultural preservation is critical to Kelley’s approach, as is increasing awareness around Black contemporary artists. He emphasizes that he is not in the business to sell his work one day, but to promote the legacies of artists he admires. He hopes to one day pass his works down to future generations, with the goal of ensuring each piece rests in the hands of institutions focused on African American and African diasporic communities.
Collectors, Kelley explains, are tasked with both protecting culture and keeping it accessible, undertakings he intends to continue to pursue. He has an affinity for loaning out and gifting pieces from his collection to institutions, and a desire to draw more Black collectors into the market. Ultimately, Kelley will pursue any avenue that allows him to help support emerging artists. We recently caught up with Kelley to learn more about his collection and what it means to him to be a collector.
Charles Moore: Can you tell me about your first experiences with art as far back as you can remember?
Kent Kelley: My mother was an artist. She actually did charcoal painting, though at the time, being so young, I couldn’t appreciate it as much as I should have. But there were certain things that I understood. I loved seeing her in her zone when she was painting. It was a time of peace and creativity. Unfortunately, she passed away when I was 14 and we don’t have any of her works. I wish I did. She was a self-taught artist who just enjoyed the passion of it. That was my introduction to art.
Years later, in my mid-twenties, after I started my career, I acquired a couple of pieces of art to decorate my place. I did a little bit of research and found out about an artist by the name of Charles Bibbs, whose work was featured in The Cosby Show. There was another artist, Susan St. James, having similar experiences around that time. Although they were well known, for me, not really knowing about the art industry, it was just about purchasing something nice for my walls.
It was at Samuel’s Gallery in Oakland, California, that I found out about Charles Bibbs and Susan St. James, and eventually ended up buying two of Bibbs’s pieces. One was his typical elongated figure, and the other was a sketch. That was my first foray into art. But I didn’t really think about seriously acquiring or collecting art until about 2015.
C.M.: And what sparked that?
K.K.: At that point, it was the collecting aspect as well as thinking about the legacy that I would leave. In researching different areas of art, I connected with urban-influenced art. I grew up in East Oakland and had an uncle and aunt who were former Black Panthers, so the struggle for liberation by people in Africa and the African diaspora resonated with me.
C.M.: How do you learn about new art and artists? Are you going to museums, galleries, fairs, reading—what’s your thing?
K.K.: It’s a combination of all of the above. I’m online doing research, visiting museums, galleries, show openings, and art fairs. I talk to curators, collectors, art advisors, etc. It’s become a passion.
C.M.: Absolutely! And are you reading anything new about art recently?
K.K.: Actually, I picked up a book by Halima Taha titled Collecting African-American Art (1998). In an interview, she said, “Just buy the book and don’t be intimidated by it. It’s okay if you flip to a few pages that you like and start there, do that over time and then you’ll absorb it.” That was so well said. Another book that I have is by Peggy Cooper Cafritz, another great inspiration about collecting as well as education with regards to African and African diasporic art.
C.M.: Awesome! And who would you say have been the biggest influences on you as a collector?
K.K.: There are numerous individuals who helped me get started. I bought my first fine art piece back in 2016 from Nyama Wingood who had a gallery on Martha’s Vineyard. It was a Tim Okamura painting. She also introduced me to the work of Nathaniel Mary Quinn, Vaughn Spann, and Jérôme Lagarrigue. Those were new names to me. I liked their work and acquired it, but had no idea how their careers would evolve. Jérôme’s work was recently acquired by the Brooklyn Museum; Vaughn has had great success; and we all know NMQ.
Another early mentor is Karen Jenkins-Johnson, with Jenkins Johnson Gallery and Jenkins Projects in New York. Karen has such a wealth of information. She is so well connected in the art world and has been invaluable in advising me early on in how I should think about my collecting.
C.M.: You mentioned a few artists, but what else is in your collection? Who else excites you?
K.K.: They all excite me, but I’ll indulge you for the sake of the interview. I was fortunate to acquire Kehinde Wiley on the secondary market. Other artists include
February James, Tariku Shiferaw, and Nate Lewis. New artists I’m excited about include Ryan Cosbert (an abstract artist), Jurell Cayatano
Another interesting piece that I just love—it sits right behind my desk—is this one called Amarillo by Asuka Anastacia Ogawa. She is someone who Nyama put me on to very early before her career really took off. That move also introduced me to Max Marshall at Deli Gallery, another great resource for talent.
C.M.: Excellent. It seems like abstract and figurative are sort of playing off each other in your collection. Is there one type of painting that you favor more than the other?
K.K.: There isn’t really. I initially collected more figurative work because that’s the typical path for new collectors. Figurative works reflect the people around us, and that’s the emotional connection we’re most familiar with. Abstract, on the other hand, may require deeper reflection and exploration to make the emotional connection (for me at least). It’s visual, then cerebral, then emotional. It may take longer, but the appreciation is enduring and grows over time. I pursue abstract art much more now that I’ve learned to appreciate it.
C.M.: Awesome. Let’s go back to what might be one of the most important topics you touched on—legacy. What does that mean to you as it pertains to your art collecting pursuits?
K.K.: That means so many things. To start with, we have a responsibility to protect, preserve, document, and display the history of our culture. That’s crucial for ensuring future generations know their history, its contribution to their way of life. That’s not a responsibility that can be delegated. We have to own it. Nothing does that like art.
Think of a show like “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power.” In walking the floor or viewing the book, you experience that period of time through the works of
Faith Ringgold, Romare Bearden, Betye Saar, Alma Thomas, Frank Bowling.…Each artist put thought, emotions, or concepts to canvas. When I walked that show, I took special note of the names of individuals who loaned or gifted the works. It was inspirational and an example of how any collector can contribute to our cultural history.…I also like what Bernard Lumpkin has done with “Young, Gifted and Black.” I’m still exploring how legacy will fully manifest itself for my collection, but the aim is similar. Legacy is also ensuring that my family understands the value of it. That we are not in this merely for art’s commercial value, though that’s not a negative aspect.
C.M.: Have you done anything like loan works for exhibitions or donate works to galleries or museums?
K.K.: Yes. For instance, I have an amazing Enrico Riley work that’s on loan to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. I’ve also gifted works. I’m very supportive of making work available for shows, particularly museum shows.
C.M.: I love Enrico Riley’s work, though I think he’s extremely underrated. Maybe a lot of people that know about him are just not speaking enough about his work to others.
K.K.: I would agree, which is why I agreed to loan the work. He’s a rising star and with his role as a professor at Dartmouth College, he’s able to continue elevating his craft. It’s just a matter of time before larger recognition happens and I’m glad I discovered him early enough.
C.M.: Right. Now let’s go back to museums. Are you on any museum boards? And do you think that’s important as a collector who is also serious about protecting the culture?
K.K.: That’s something that I’m open to, but I don’t think you have to be on a board to be involved. Art institutions are open to supporters at various levels, from docents to patrons. It’s important to build relationships regardless, whether it be with the director, curators, administration, or board members. I’ve had the opportunity to work with museum staff on a project and found that to be very rewarding as well as educational. Those relationships also help identify where you might prove useful should you ever become a board member.
C.M.: What do you know now that you wish you had known when you started collecting?
K.K.: Early on my acquisitions were solely based on what I liked, irrespective of the artist’s pedigree or potential for commercial success. As you acquire more, you think of your collection as a portfolio reflecting you and your interests. So you’re naturally drawn to increase the value of that portfolio by acquiring more established artists versus those newly emerging. That’s a real conundrum. For example, do you stay true to what initially got you started? Or do you switch to a more commercially appealing approach? If I went with the latter, I might not have made those early purchases, which would have been a mistake. So there’s a balance that I have to maintain to keep my passion from becoming transactional. That means continuing to take risks by supporting new or emerging artists, while also adding more established ones.
C.M.: What advice would you give to a collector who has resources available and doesn’t know how to get started?
K.K.: You can either do as I did and follow your passion and let it evolve, or first educate yourself for a year or two before buying. Identify artists that you’re interested in and follow their careers. Depending on your interest, it may matter whether the artist has gallery representation, is collected by museums, has an art degree, and can articulate where they stand in the art canon.
It’s important to go to galleries, to show openings, to talk to artists, and to learn about the art ecosystem in general. This is a wonderful time to be involved in art. Don’t be intimidated by not knowing much, that’s part of the process.
But if you aspire to be a serious collector, know that educating yourself takes time and happens progressively. I estimate it will take me 10 to 15 years of active learning to have a good perspective. Building good relationships with the people you meet along the way is just as important.
C.M.: Can you tell us more about your collecting strategy?
K.K.: My collecting strategy is evolving. For instance, there are a lot of mid-20th-century masters that I missed out on. I’m now going back and acquiring them. I haven’t stopped buying emerging and established 21st-century artists, so I’m executing on three different fronts right now, which can be challenging.
C.M.: What about the mid-century masters interests you? Which artists interest you the most?
K.K.: This is one area that I wish I knew about sooner. Take Norman Lewis, for instance. He was part of the Abstract Expressionist movement but conveniently left out of the historical documentation until fairly recently. We know that he participated in artist sessions at Studio 35 in New York in 1950, with painters like Adolph Gottlieb,
Hans Hofmann, and Robert Motherwell. And like them, Lewis’s work is exceptional. Yet the discrepancies between the price of his works and his peers are unexplainable, until you consider that racism excluded him from the canon. So the canon needs to be rewritten to include him, Alma Thomas, Ed Clark, Faith Ringgold,
Mary Lovelace O’Neal, and others. Ed Clark’s painting Winter Bitch (1959) was recently shown at the Whitney right next to Willem de Kooning’s work, which is a step in the right direction, but we have a long way to go. Will the pricing discrepancies be reduced over time? I think so, which is why I’m buying, but we also have to modify the art canon and make the deciding voices at art institutions more diverse.
For the moment, art collecting is still a passion, but also there’s this sense of urgency around it because of the market discrepancies, as well as the historical significance of the work.
C.M.: I can appreciate that. Who are some of the more established living artists that you’re looking at these days?
K.K.: Deborah Roberts, love her. I’m saving wall space for Rashid Johnson, Derrick Adams, Derek Fordjour, and others.
C.M.: I heard you have just acquired an Ed Clark, right? Tell me about that work.
K.K.: The Ed Clark is a beautiful, nicely sized piece from 1984. The color palette is not too dissimilar from Winter Bitch. Kudos to Peg Alston for helping me find it. I also acquired a large Benny Andrews recently. I was also fortunate to find a Frank Bowling.
C.M.: Tell me about the Frank Bowling. What’s it made of?
K.K.: It’s a large painting on canvas. For those who aren’t familiar with him, Frank Bowling is a British, Guyana-born abstract artist born in 1934. The work is from 1974, when Frank lived in New York and was influenced by the American abstract movement. He developed a method of pouring paint onto a canvas on a tilting platform that he maneuvered around to achieve the desired flow of paint. His use of color and the poured paint technique created innovative and breathtaking abstract works. Like Norman Lewis, he was overlooked for decades but is now collected and shown by the Tate and represented by a major gallery.
C.M.: And you also recently bought a piece from The Armory Show, right?
K.K.: Oh yes, Genevieve Gaignard. I really like her work. The one that I have is called Put A Spell On You (2021). It literally stops you in your tracks. On a floral pink background, Genevieve placed a reclining and very attractive nude Black woman. She’s looking right at you with this inescapable alluring gaze. There’s a mirror in the center, so you see your facial expression as you’re looking at the woman as she looks at you. It confronts misogyny by reflecting it right back at the viewer. It’s a powerful display of feminism. The title is so on point. She’s doing a show here at the Atlanta Contemporary, which is awesome.
C.M.: Is there anything else about collecting that you want to highlight?
K.K.: I would say that there are a lot of people out there who could be collecting and engaged in the arts, but aren’t. We need to make a concerted effort to draw more collectors, especially Black collectors, into the market. There’s a Black art renaissance occurring, and you don’t want to miss it.