- The Washington Times - Friday, July 31, 2009

It took Peggy Cooper Cafritz more than four decades to amass a collection of work by black artists so impressive it attracted the attention of major dealers and even O Magazine, which featured her home in its current issue.

It took only a few hours Wednesday night and Thursday morning for all that to be destroyed, when a fire swept through the house on Chain Bridge Road, the damage exacerbated when the 150 firefighters who responded struggled with low water pressure.

The house was unoccupied at the time and neighbors were able to move pets to safety. The two-alarm blaze was finally extinguished by noon Thursday.

But the significance of the loss of Mrs. Cafritz’s collection is “tremendous,” said Georgetown art dealer Norman Parish, who runs a gallery specializing in African art. “You can’t replace what took her years to collect.”

Photographs of many of the paintings and sculptures can be seen in the August issue of O Magazine, the publication started by talk-show host Oprah Winfrey, showcasing Mrs. Cafritz’s flair for mixing avant-garde art and traditional furnishings.

Reacting to the news of the fire on the O Web site, writer Cathleen Medwick said, “Peggy didn’t just collect those pieces, she loved every one of them. It is a terrible loss.”

In Ms. Medwick’s article, Mrs. Cafritz refers to herself as an “art glutton” whose “most important purpose is supporting young African-American artists.” As she notes, black artists have been largely absent from the art scene until recently.

Mrs. Cafritz has worked to make them more visible since 1968, when she co-founded a summer arts workshop that became the District’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts.

As one of the city’s leading arts patrons, the 62-year-old Mrs. Cafritz has helped jump-start the careers of graduates from that school and creative talents supported by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, which she chaired from 1979 to 1987.

It was after she and Conrad Cafritz divorced a decade ago that the arts supporter and former D.C. Board of Education president started collecting works by black artists in earnest.

“Peggy is extraordinarily well-versed in African-American art,” said George Hemphill, owner of Hemphill Fine Arts, a gallery on 14th Street in Northwest Washington, who sold several pieces to her. “Hers was a world-class collection. The loss of a collection like hers with such a personal quality is a great tragedy.”

In collecting, Mrs. Cafritz didn’t go for the obvious, such as the sculpture of Martin Puryear, a 68-year-old black artist whose career was surveyed last year at the National Gallery of Art. Instead she sought out younger, lesser-known talents such as South African artists Robin Rhode and Mustafa Maluka, and Australian painter Nick Cave, who also plays with the Bad Seeds, a rock band.

“She went far afield in ways that few collectors I’ve seen do,” said Jack Rasmussen, curator and director of American University’s Katzen Arts Center. “Her collection was out there in a good way. It included more socially motivated work and represented traditions other than American ones, such as works by Haitian and Cuban artists.”

Hanging from Mrs. Cafritz’s living room ceiling was a glass sculpture by Cuban-born Alexandre Arrechea. After a show of Mr. Arrechea’s work opened at the Katzen Center last year, Mrs. Cafritz threw a party at her house to honor the artist, Mr. Rasmussen said.

The collector also didn’t shy away from more political works, such as Kerry James Marshall’s “Power to the People.” The work, which featured photographic portraits of civil rights figures, hung in the foyer of her house. Works by Mr. Marshall, a Chicago artist, are now highly prized.

“You practically have to be a museum to get any of his work,” Mr. Hemphill said. “He will end up being one of the more important artists of this period.”

While Mrs. Cafritz’s collection has been decimated, there remains little doubt she eventually will rebuild it.

“I can assure you my bond with art will never be severed,” she told O Magazine. “I love artists.”

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