Collector's Eye: an interview with Bernard Lumpkin, a 'black art ambassador'

Art lovers tell us what they’ve bought and why

New-York based collector Bernard Lumpkin Photo © Don Stahl/INFGM/ARS

New-York based collector Bernard Lumpkin Photo © Don Stahl/INFGM/ARS

New York-based collector Bernard Lumpkin has been unofficially dubbed a “black art ambassador” by those who know him—and for good reason. With his husband, Carmine Boccuzzi, the former MTV producer has amassed a collection of some of the biggest names to emerge in the past two decades, including Kevin Beasley, Rashid Johnson, Deana Lawson, Kerry James Marshall, Julie Mehretu, Jennifer Packer, LaToya Ruby-Frazier, Henry Taylor and Kara Walker, as well as his own sister, the performance artist Narcissister. “My collecting is mission-driven, the goal being to shed new light on the contributions of African American artists,” he says, adding that he believes collectors have a responsibility to “advocate and educate”.

Real and lasting change happens at the institutional level. That’s why I’m always encouraging new collectors to get involved with museums and non-profits

His collection of around 500 works is split between Boccuzzi’s law firm and their Lower Manhattan apartment, where their five-year-old twins, Lucy and Felix, and newborn Zachary get a crash course in art daily—even the playroom is filled with silhouette cut-outs by Walker. But Lumpkin is adamant that the artists’ work gets seen by a broad audience, so a fair share of the collection is on loan at any given time and will be the subject of a travelling exhibition put on by Lehman College Art Gallery/CUNY in 2020.

Additionally, Lumpkin sits on the board of trustees of the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, while also serving on education and outreach committees at the Whitney and MoMA. “I think real and lasting change happens at the institutional level,” he says. “That’s why I’m always encouraging new collectors to get involved with museums and non-profits.”

The Art Newspaper: What was the first work you bought?

Bernard Lumpkin: I collected the work of Wardell Milan and Henry Taylor early and in-depth. I bought those artists first, then kept buying. 

What is your most recent buy?

Around this time of year, I spend more money on art benefits than works—The Studio Museum in Harlem’s Spring Luncheon, the Skowhegan Gala, The Brooklyn Museum’s Artists Ball and MoMA’s Party in the Garden are a few of my favourites. I think a great way to support the artists in your collection is to become a patron of your favourite museum or non-profit.

What is your preferred way of buying art?

Getting the best work at the best price. Good collectors acquire work from all the available sources: galleries, artists, auctions, benefits and even other collectors. This means building relationships with all those folks, which is part of the fun.

My daughter Lucy loves making art. Her paintings, drawings and collages are just as precious to me as anything in the collection

If money was no object, what would be your dream purchase?

An artists’ residency, a museum, or other public space that would allow me to nurture and support emerging artists on a larger scale than I can as a private collector.

If your house was on fire, which work would you save?

My daughter Lucy loves making art. Her paintings, drawings and collages are just as precious to me as anything in the collection. I would definitely save those.

Which work in your collection requires the most maintenance?

Sculptures by Kevin Beasley, fabric works by Eric Mack and site-specific installations by Allison Janae Hamilton all require a little extra TLC. And they’re worth it!

In Beasley’s case, the sculptures are made of resin, which is susceptible to changes in light or temperature. Hamilton’s materials are inherently fragile: feathers, twine, horsehair. Yet another reason why it’s good to maintain close, working relationships with artists and dealers: they can help with all this stuff.

What is the most surprising place you have displayed a work?

When my daughter Lucy was born, on the wall over her crib we hung Sleep: Deux Femmes Noires (2011), a mixed-media collage by Mickalene Thomas which celebrates black female sexuality and was inspired by Gustave Courbet’s 19th-century erotic painting Le Sommeil. Sweet dreams, Lucy!

Which artists, dead or alive, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

In my living room, a cut-paper collage by Kara Walker hangs over a Conoid bench by George Nakashima and a mirrored-tile painting by Rashid Johnson overlooks a galvanised steel sculpture by Isamu Noguchi. Each of these artists has something important to say about racial and ethnic difference in America. I’d love to hear that conversation play out over dinner.

What is the best collecting advice you have been given?

Buy with your eyes, not your ears.