- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 15, 2000

Vivian Hewitt recalls a memorable Sunday afternoon one May when she and her husband, John, showcased the works of artist Hale Woodruff in their New York brownstone.
She served strawberries and champagne while a succession of 150 friends strolled through their duplex to admire a collection of 27 paintings by Mr. Woodruff that adorned the walls.
Mrs. Hewitt is still struck by the company that gathered in her living room. "There was Eugene Grigsby, Romare Bearden, Hale Woodruff, Ernest Crichlow, Robert Blackburn and Alvin Hollingsworth," she says of the artists present that spring afternoon 20 years ago.
The Hewitts considered the late Mr. Woodruff a good friend, as they did countless artists who would later become American icons.
"All of these artists were our friends, and we wanted to encourage others to collect [their artwork]. We not only bought art, we promoted artists. It was our passion for art and our commitment to them," Mrs. Hewitt says.
It took the couple nearly 50 years to meticulously build a collection that ranges from Henry O. Tanner, the 19th-century impressionist painter and first American black to achieve an international reputation, to painter Jonathan Green, 45, the youngest artist included in the Hewitts' extensive collection.
Two years ago, the Hewitts sold their collection to the Bank of America Foundation so their vision could be shared with others.
"Celebration and Vision: The Hewitt Collection of African American Art" is on exhibit at the Howard University Gallery of Art through Oct. 15. The collection consists of 58 paintings and drawings by 20 black artists, among them luminaries such as Henry Ossawa Tanner, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett, Hale Woodruff, John Biggers, Hughie Lee-Smith, J. Eugene Grigsby, Ann Tanksley, and many more.
Mrs. Hewitt visited Howard University's gallery along with artist Green last week to be part of the exhibit's Washington opening. She said she was pleased to see the lifelong passion she had shared with her late husband presented so beautifully.
Tritobia H. Benjamin, Howard's associate dean for fine art and the director of the gallery, says the Hewitt Collection continues a legacy of promoting black heritage and culture that the university has had since its founding in 1867.
"From the second decade of the 20th century when the art department and the gallery were founded, the two entities have provided and supported African-American artists in their educational pursuits, as well as being a forum for the visual artists," she says.
After a three-year national tour that kicked off last year, the Bank of America Foundation will donate the collection to the Afro-American Cultural Center in Charlotte, N.C.
The Hewitts' enduring love affair with one another and art began in 1949.
John Hewitt taught English at Morehouse College in Atlanta. His bride-to-be, Vivian, worked as a librarian at nearby Clark Atlanta University. They met in September and in December were married in the bride's hometown near Pittsburgh, Mrs. Hewitt says.
"It was a whirlwind courtship," she says, laughing.
The newlyweds received money as wedding gifts and spent their honeymoon in New York museum-hopping and buying art.
"We could have splurged, but we were living in a faculty suite at the university, so we decided to dress it up with art. We bought good reproductions and took them back to Atlanta, had them framed and lived with good art," Mrs. Hewitt says.
"While we were in Atlanta, we were exposed to the annual art shows started by Hale Woodruff in the late 1940s. The exhibitions exposed us to the best of African-American art [nationwide]," she says.
A couple years later, the Hewitts moved to New York and began collecting Haitian art.
"It was affordable, and my husband's sister owned an art gallery, the Marketplace Gallery, in Harlem. She personally knew and hosted shows for all of the artists who were not considered mainstream. We met Ernest Crichlow and quite a few artists through her," Mrs. Hewitt says.
In 1963, the couple purchased their first oil painting from Mrs. Hewitt's cousin, J. Eugene Grigsby.
"Once you start collecting, well, you never stop," Mrs. Hewitt says.
They bought art on Mother's Day, Father's Day and anniversaries. The house even got a Christmas gift each year art, Mrs. Hewitt says.
The two were such avid enthusiasts, they delayed a mortgage payment so they could buy a piece of Haitian artwork. Mr. Hewitt's philosophy was not to let a painting get away because the opportunity might not come again, Mrs. Hewitt says.
Collecting art provided a lot of pleasure for Mr. and Mrs. Hewitt, but there was something even more gratifying.
"One of the most satisfying things for me and Mr. Hewitt was mentoring young collectors who needed guidance," she says.
The Hewitts experienced a stroke of luck several years ago when their mind-sets jibed with those of Hugh McColl Jr., chairman and chief executive officer of Bank of America.
"As we got older into our 70s, my husband's health wasn't that good. We knew of so many horror stories [about collections of art being split up or hidden away]. We didn't want that to happen to us. We realized the collection had become meaningful and extremely personal. We knew all of the artists and thought it would be nice to keep it together," she says.
"We wanted it to be in a museum or educational institution and used as an educational tool. To be an inspiration to young people and young collectors," Mrs. Hewitt says.
"So many people, through the generosity of Bank of America, will now have the opportunity to learn about and appreciate the outstanding contributions of some of the greatest African-American artists," Mrs. Hewitt says.
"It was serendipity," she says, smiling.

WHAT: "Celebration and Vision: The Hewitt Collection of African American Art"
WHEN: Through Oct. 15
WHERE: The Howard University Gallery of Art on the university's main campus (at the intersection of Howard Place and Sixth Street NW)
GALLERY HOURS: Monday through Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. and Sundays, 1 to 4 p.m.

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