The Penn Quarter’s Zenith Gallery is being turned into a minimuseum this week. Displayed on its walls through September will be about 30 works, none for sale, by five black American artists. The works belong to the Freedom Place Collection amassed by Washington lawyer Stuart Marshall Bloch, chairman of Congressional Bank. “The whole purpose of the show is to share his collection with the public,” gallery owner Margery Goldberg says.
During the past 35 years, Mr. Bloch has acquired scenes of cotton fields by Harlem artist Romare Bearden, portraits by Georgia-born Benny Andrews, abstractions by District artist Alma Thomas, and paintings of jazz musicians and partygoers by Boston painters Richard Yarde and Robert Freeman.
His 53-piece collection traces the rise of these talents, once overlooked in the mostly white art world, to recognition in gallery and museum shows. Strong in contemporary works, it doesn’t have the depth or breadth of better-known historical collections of black American art amassed by such patrons as Walter O. Evans and David C. Driskell. Still, there is much to enjoy within Mr. Bloch’s showing of figural and abstract works, particularly the dense, rhythmic collages created by the late Mr. Bearden.
Sitting in the solarium of his Kalorama mansion, the 64-year-old collector, who is white, explains why he was drawn initially to art by unknown black talents. “I’m a rebel,” he says. “I grew up in Detroit and went to integrated public schools. There was never a sense of us and them.”
After attending the University of Miami on a golf scholarship, Mr. Bloch went to Harvard Law School, where he was the founding editor of its Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review. In the early 1970s, he purchased his first work by Romare Bearden from the Wendell Street Gallery in Cambridge, Mass., co-founded by Constance Brown, the wife of a law school classmate.
“I did it to patronize Connie’s gallery, and then I got hooked,” the collector says. Mrs. Brown and her business partner, Jane Shapiro, would go on to sell Mr. Bloch many of the works by black artists now in his possession.
“Stuart has a very good eye, and he would often buy an artist’s signature piece,” Mrs. Brown says. “He was ahead of the curve in understanding the value of these works, which weren’t appreciated at the time.”
Earlier this week, several of the most striking creations from the Freedom Place Collection were still hanging in the restored 1904 residence Mr. Bloch shares with his wife, Julia Chang Bloch, who served as U.S. ambassador to Nepal under the first President Bush. The supposed existence of a tunnel under the site, used by escaping slaves during the Civil War, led him to name the house Freedom Place and extend the title to his collection.
During a tour of the large residence, he points out many of his favorite pieces: “Morning of the Red Bird,” an exuberant Bearden collage; “Ribbon Dancer,” a charming scene by Mr. Andrews; and an abstract field of red with thin colored lines by Mrs. Thomas. Surrounding these artworks are paintings representing Mr. Bloch’s other passion, American impressionism, and Asian art favored by his Chinese-born wife. “You go with your gut,” Mr. Bloch says of his aesthetic choices.
In discussing his collections, the lawyer makes it clear that he doesn’t believe in black cultural separatism. “I don’t know what ‘black’ art is,” he says. “I see this art as reflecting what was in the artists’ lives, what surrounded them at the time.”
Mr. Bloch says he didn’t collect the works at a remove but got to know the artists on frequent trips to their studios. Visiting Mrs. Thomas in her 15th Street Northwest home shortly before she died in 1978, he says, led to buying several of her works. The artist insisted that she be paid by certified check.
“She was losing her eyesight, and her paintings were getting brighter and brighter,” Mr. Bloch says.
For his 40th birthday, he commissioned Mr. Yarde to create prints of his Billy Holiday portrait “Lady Day” for his party guests.
Mr. Bloch’s Freedom Place Collection has been exhibited publicly at the University of Miami’s Lowe Art Museum and the Keny Galleries in Columbus, Ohio, but it never has been shown at a Washington venue before this week. In addition to the selection at the Zenith Gallery, a smaller show of works from the collection will be exhibited at Congressional Bank, 2101 K St. NW, through December. In February 2008, during Black History Month, the gallery show will move to the District’s Meridian House International.
“I hope that by showing this art, it will add to the stature of these African-American artists,” Mr. Bloch says.
WHAT: Freedom Place Collection
WHERE: Zenith Gallery, 413 Seventh St. NW
WHEN: Thursday through Sept. 30; Tuesday through Friday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday noon to 5 p.m.
WEB SITE: zenithgallery.com