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Misplaced Masterpieces

Why did an important RPS art collection possibly worth thousands languish in storage?

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Richmond Public Schools staff tossed, gave away and lost track of art, including a signed Joan Miró print and paintings by renowned African-American artist A.B. Jackson, once housed in its old humanities center.

The district's former coordinator for arts and humanities, Samuel Banks, rediscovered works by Miró and Jackson are among 100 pieces of art in storage. Prints by Miró fetch thousands, as does original work by Jackson. The School Board brought Banks on as a volunteer in November to catalog its arts collections after pleas by current and retired art teachers.

Staff removed the art and supplies from the humanities building two years ago in advance of its demolition. The new Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, which will open this fall, was built on the site.

At the time, a staff member called former art teacher Melinda Mottley to let her know what was happening. She rushed over to the school, she says, eventually calling in a truck to haul away what she found for use at the Virginia Home for Boys and Girls.

"I was literally inside the dumpster pulling things out that I would have loved to have had or had value for," Mottley says, describing brand-new books, crafts, puppets and original art.

"It was beyond my comprehension. I looked at the staff there and they were just numb," she adds. "They were just directed to get rid of stuff."

Banks says his predecessor, Helen Rose, collected much of the art. She started collecting in the 1950s, and Banks came to know the collection well. It also included books and sculptures and other artifacts, he says.

"It was made available to schools with the idea that it would not go to decorate an office," he says. "It would be placed in a school building so that students and parents who came into the building would be exposed to it."

Banks worked for the Richmond schools for 37 years, eventually serving as coordinator for arts and humanities before retiring in 2001.  

Banks says other Virginia artists represented include Barclay Sheaks, Baylor Nichols and several Virginia Commonwealth University faculty members. But perhaps Jackson, who had local connections, is the best known. He broke the color barrier at a Virginia Beach art show in the 1960s. Jackson was born and raised in Connecticut and taught at Yale University. He was the first black faculty member at Old Dominion University.

His renown grew following his death in 1981. A donation of 14 Jackson works to North Carolina Central University came with an estimated value of $194,000. In 2010, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts purchased "Ghetto Sketch #1" for $10,000.

Banks says he is nearly finished cataloging the work.

"My concern was that they not get misplaced and have no one know what the items were and the value," Banks says.

Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School recently displayed about a dozen pieces. The paintings hung in the hallway, but had no information about the artists. Assistant Principal Joyce Bassette said she was unsure where they are going once the school shuts down and moves into its new home later this year, but that her students enjoyed them.

For now, Banks says the collection will be safe in a secure storage area. School Board member Shonda Harris-Muhammed, who represents the district that contains Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, says she was unhappy to hear about how such a collection went adrift.

"It just shocked me that that happened, that we didn't have a better process in place," Harris-Muhammed says. "People have to be held accountable."

Arts funding has been repeatedly slashed, culminating in shutting down the once vibrant arts and humanities center. Banks' task is also assessing what's left of the art program.

Interim Superintendent Jonathan Lewis recently told the School Board that it should prioritize replacing arts funding. Second District member Kim Gray says a curator is a more immediate need, and that keeping track of the collection should be a priority.

"I've talked with teachers who were in tears," Gray says.

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