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Constance Clayton still a Philadelphia force - in art

Toward the end of her tenure as superintendent of the Philadelphia School District, Constance E. Clayton received a visit from the leader of another well-known city institution.

Toward the end of her tenure as superintendent of the Philadelphia School District, Constance E. Clayton received a visit from the leader of another well-known city institution.

Unaware of Clayton's lifelong interest in art, Robert Montgomery Scott, then president and chief executive of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, asked her to join the board of trustees, hoping to mine her expertise in education and diversity issues.

Since that day over 20 years ago, museum officials say, Clayton has used her board position to help expand the museum's audience and collection, with a persistence characteristic of her years with the district.

In January, the fruit of that persistence paid off.

"Represent: 200 Years of African American Art," an exhibit featuring a selection from the museum's 750-piece collection of works by African American artists, opened on the ground floor of the museum. The exhibit, and the show's 210-page companion catalog, have been years in the making.

"Dr. Clayton has focused on this and always made sure that it is part of the conversation," said Timothy Rub, director of the museum. "She has led by example and by stating that this is important work to do."

Clayton is founder of the museum's 18-member African American Collections Committee. The group raises money and recommends acquisitions for the museum to expand its holdings by black artists.

For Clayton, "Represent" is an opportunity for the museum to teach, and a chance for the community to learn.

"The museum has an articulated policy of diversity and community outreach," Clayton said. "What better way to do it than to have an exhibit of the works of a significant part of the Philadelphia community and invite all communities to see it?"

The show - featuring 75 works by 50 artists - has been popular, museum officials said. School tours are fully booked until the end of the show, scheduled to run through April 5.

On the walls are masterworks by artists such as Henry Ossawa Tanner and Jacob Lawrence. A towering grandfather clock from the early 1800s made by freed slave and clockmaker Peter Hill stands near a chaotic depiction of World War I painted by West Chester's Horace Pippin, a veteran of the battle. Not far away is life-capturing photography by Carrie Mae Weems showing a woman at a kitchen table in the 1990s.

The museum acquired its first work by an African American artist in 1899 when it purchased Tanner's The Annunciation. The landmark work is prominently displayed in "Represent." Other museum shows have focused on a single black artist (Dox Thrash, William H. Johnson) and group exhibitions in which many of the artists are African American (the Brandywine Workshop).

Clayton and her committee want more.

"I'd like to see greater frequency of exhibits to show the diversity of styles and subject matter of African American artists," said Clayton, who in 1982 co-chaired the museum's "Treasures of Ancient Nigeria" exhibit.

For the "Represent" exhibit and catalog, the collections committee and museum staff assembled a team that included consulting curator Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, an associate professor of art history at the University of Pennsylvania; organizing curator John Vick; and Richard J. Powell, a professor of art and art history at Duke University who wrote an essay for the catalog.

They worked on a project whose roots can be traced to the committee, which Clayton founded in 2000 out of a longtime love of art, which she said started when she was growing up in her grandmother's North Philadelphia home.

"My grandmother had lots of antiques, crystal, fine china, and art," Clayton said during an interview in the library of her Philadelphia home.

Clayton's mother, Willabell Clayton, regularly took her daughter to museums. The first painting Clayton remembers seeing at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is Tanner's Portrait of the Artist's Mother, completed in 1897. Clayton wrote about it in the preface to the exhibit catalog.

Tanner's work depicts Sarah Elizabeth Miller Tanner sitting pensively in a long blue dress. It is the catalog's cover photo.

Clayton says she was struck by the "strength and dignity" in the artist's portrait. She saw even more work by Tanner in the Mount Airy home of civil rights attorney Raymond Pace Alexander and his wife, lawyer Sadie T. M. Alexander, who was Tanner's niece.

"[Sadie Alexander] was one of my mentors, and to visit her home was like going to a museum," Clayton said. "She had Tanners everywhere - magnificent Tanners."

Clayton continued to cultivate her interest in art by traveling abroad with her mother and visiting museums and antiques shops at every stop. In the 1990s, the Claytons opened an antiques consignment shop in Chestnut Hill. Willabell Clayton died in 2004, but her daughter still runs the store.

Four years earlier, Clayton had approached then-museum director Anne d'Harnoncourt about establishing an African American Collections Committee. Clayton lobbied for a catalog on the museum's black art collection, said Donald Parks, co-chair of the committee. The exhibit was added later.

"We would not have 'Represent' if not for Dr. Clayton," said Rae Alexander-Minter, grandniece of Tanner and daughter of Sadie T. M. and Raymond Pace Alexander. She also commended Rub for his leadership, although she said she would have loved for the exhibit to be in a more "glorious and expansive gallery."

Alexander-Minter, a member of the committee, described Clayton's efforts as "a constant drumbeat that was forceful but not strident," keeping the exhibit on the table through the museum's changes in leadership.

In January, 360 guests gathered for the museum's annual gala during which Clayton was honored. Money raised during the event will be used to establish a fellowship for African American scholars at the museum.

"I would like our museum to take a leadership role," Clayton said. "We are an internationally renowned, globally respected museum. If we articulate diversity, it should be visible."