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Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive Receives Historic Bequest of African American Art

Above: Anonymous, Variations on a Theme, circa 1940. Photo: Geoffry Johnson. Courtesy of BAMPFA.
Above: Anonymous, Variations on a Theme, circa 1940. Photo: Geoffry Johnson. Courtesy of BAMPFA.

BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA—The late collector and art scholar Eli Leon bequeathed his collection of nearly three thousand works by African American quiltmakers to the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) at the University of California. The gift, which includes more than five hundred works by Rosie Lee Tompkins—an artist who helped raise the profile of quilting in the art world—marks one of the largest gifts of African American art ever donated to a museum.

“By selecting BAMPFA as the permanent home for his remarkable collection, Eli Leon has given UC Berkeley a magnificent gift that will advance our commitment to celebrating diverse voices and cultural traditions,” said chancellor Carol Christ. “BAMPFA is uniquely suited to ensure that these wonderful works of art receive the exposure and attention they deserve through the museum’s outstanding exhibition program and the extensive scholarly resources of the university.”

Since receiving the bequest, which BAMPFA only learned about after Leon’s death in 2018, the institution has been conducting extensive research and working with conservators to assess the condition of the holdings, which include embroidery and assemblage in addition to quilts. The museum is also developing the first-ever scholarly publication on the collection, which will be published as an exhibition catalogue in 2022.

Leon, an Oakland-based psychologist, spent more than thirty years assembling the works, which include pieces by more than four hundred lesser known and more established artists such as Arbie Williams, Laverne Brackens, Gladys Henry, Sherry Byrd, and Angie Tobias. A close friend and early champion of Tompkins (1936–2006), Leon organized one of the first shows featuring her work at the Richmond Art Center and worked with the museum on her first solo exhibition there in 1997.

Commenting on the gift, Lawrence Rinder, BAMPFA’s current director and chief curator, said: “It’s not often that a museum receives a gift that, in a single stroke, creates a new, defining institutional strength—which is precisely what Eli Leon has done by entrusting us with his unparalleled collection of African American quilts,” said Rinder. “We intend to honor this incredible act of generosity just as Eli would have wanted us to—by making a sustained commitment to the long-term exhibition and scholarship of these extraordinary holdings, in order to deepen public appreciation for the vibrancy of African American quiltmaking traditions.”

October 21, 2019