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Regenia Perry has spent a lifetime collecting the work of African-American artists.

Art in Abundance


What does it feel like to walk into a house where the owner has collected more than 3,000 pieces of African-American art? The word overwhelming seems curiously inappropriate. If you visit Regenia A. Perry, you won't be served cocktails in the living room because it is now a gallery for famed sculptor and assemblage artist Renee Stout. There won't be Christmas dinner served in the dining room this year: it's a gallery for a collection of African art. Walk towards the back of the house and there's bedlam: dozens of paintings and photographs leaning up against each other on the floor, some covered, some hanging on walls, most hidden away behind closed doors. China figurines glint from vitrines; antique dolls, beds and carriages are lined up like sentries; a battalion of black Barbies are on the back porch in various degrees of dress and undress. "A friend of mine, " says Perry, laughing "says I'm a collectoholic." Once inside the house, you have to be careful where you step, where you sit and what you lay your hand on, for art is everywhere willy-nilly, and it's all good: a Mose Tolliver painting on the floor; Josephus Farmer woodcuts stacked up next to the Kwanzaa decorations for one of her traveling shows; a wall covered in James Van Der Zee photographs. The names in Perry's collection are a who's-who list of some of the greatest talents in the world of African-American art. Life would have been oh, so different if Perry had stuck with her original career choice and become a nutritionist. Perry was born on March 30, 1941, in a hamlet called Virgilina down on the North Carolina border, the younger of two; her parents were tobacco farmers. She and her brother were sharp as tacks; both went off to college as young teen-agers, and one summer at Virginia State University Perry switched her major from foods and nutrition to fine arts education "because she'd always loved art." Thus began the studies in art history, that were capped off by a doctorate in American art from University of Pennsylvania. She is the first African-American to hold a Ph.D. in art history. The serious collecting began in 1969, the year she received a Ford Foundation grant at Yale to gather material on a comprehensive book for the history of African-American art. It was during her research trips she met artists who gave her samples of their work. The earliest purchases were in Louisiana, then she expanded to the Deep South, and finally, throughout the United States. Perry was among the first to collect only black folk artists, and as tempted as she has been over the years to buy some exceptional pieces by whites, she has stuck to her original goal so she could "know more about the art of my own people." Given she grew up in the segregated South, perhaps this is understandable. Emotions run deep: One still hears the anger in her voice as she recalls the morning her father went outside of the new house she'd built her parents from her university earnings, only to find the KKK's calling card, a partially burned burlap cross. (The FBI investigated; an unsolved hate crime, it never happened again.) Perry, who retired from VCU in 1990 after 25 years as an art history professor, found the best contemporary black folk artists through word of mouth, galleries, publications, museums, historical societies - anyone in the know. Ninety-five percent of her paintings and woodcarvings came directly from the artists and she always paid cash, usually buying in lots. "For decades, I spent all of my money on art. No stocks, no bonds, no mutual funds. No IRA. My collecting became a passion. I had such a good time," she admits, eyes alight, remembering her odyssey. The artists she bought from usually had no artistic training and were often illiterate. "These artists have no idea what art is initially. They have no contact with the art world. They have a desire to create something beautiful and often this is for their own pleasure or to decorate their own environment," she points out. Perry, befriended the artists and their families, trying to persuade them to make wills and keep the most important pieces for heirs. She was only successful about 30 percent of the time, recalling with sadness the time she returned to Crystal Spring, Miss., to see Luster Willis, accomplished artist, only to find he'd sold the woodcut of his grandfather she'd begged him to hold on to for his family. Willis explained a white collector "kept begging me for it, so I sold it." "So many of the elderly artists are still taken advantage of," says Perry. She stopped buying folk art 10 years ago because of soaring prices, and her collection is now for sale. Her wish is that it stay in her home state, preferably at a Virginia museum. (Her collections of academic art and photography will be probably left to museums.) Although Perry jokes about living it up and blowing all the money, truth is she's helping out several elderly relatives who have no health insurance. She has donated money for merit scholarships and plans to leave a portion of her estate to fund undergraduate and graduate studies for an African-American art history student at VCU. Having been educated by scholarships, this respected art scholar, who is single and has no children, would feel remiss if she didn't give something back. Today Perry may not be chasing down stellar art in the wilds of the Deep South, but she's still acquiring. And she rents out her vast collection of black dolls, doll beds and Christmas curios (she's up to 350 black Santas) for holiday exhibitions throughout the country. Pensare Design Group in Washington is currently working on a book and CD-ROM project on Perry's folk-art collection, which will be published next