Collector Russell L. Goings Prepares To Disperse Rarely-Seen Romare Bearden Trove

At first glance the modest living room with parquet floor and track lighting resembles any space with an indifferent housekeeper: papers abound, stacks of paintings lean against walls, an indistinct jumble of items swallows a small table. But then Russell L. Goings starts pulling out what he calls his “stuff,” and his home improbably transforms into a personal art gallery, one brimming with his extensive collection of work by Romare Bearden, the 20th-century artist best known for his soulful collages of African-American life. Bearden also happened to be Mr. Goings’s longtime close friend.

Mr. Goings’s Upper West Side apartment has just become a bit less crowded, however. Dozens of items from his collection are on loan to the 92nd Street Y for a multidisciplinary program that includes an art exhibition, a writers’ panel, a dance and an educational program for children. The exhibition, beginning on Wednesday and running through Dec. 9, features watercolor and mixed-media works that make up the “Odyssey” series; portraits of people who helped shape African-American history and culture (including Crispus Attucks and John Brown); and a self-portrait made days before Bearden’s death, at 75, in 1988.

The self-portrait, drawn on a page from a book of Jewish mysticism, has never been shown publicly, Mr. Goings said. The historical portraits have never been publicly displayed in New York, and this particular “Odyssey” (there is more than one version) has not been shown in its entirety in New York in more than 30 years, according to Y officials.

The downsizing is about to continue: Mr. Goings, who turned 80 this year, wants to sell the collection.

“I’m doing this because I am at the end of my life,” he said recently. Pointing to the messy room, he added, “It’s time to get a couch.”

Well known in the art world for his collection, Mr. Goings has lived many other lives. He was a linebacker in the Canadian Football League and a black pioneer on Wall Street who founded First Harlem Securities. He became a published poet in 2009, with “The Children of Children Keep Coming: An Epic Griotsong,” a book that includes the Bearden art that inspired Mr. Goings.

Mr. Goings first met Bearden in 1969, when he was chairman of the Studio Museum in Harlem, and Bearden sat on the board. Mr. Goings bought works from the artist and received some as gifts, assembling a collection that he numbers in the hundreds. During Bearden’s final years, spent in faltering health, Mr. Goings served as caretaker, giving Bearden baths, feeding him and driving him around.

“What he did for me was that he allowed me to get inside of him,” Mr. Goings said of his devotion to Bearden, known for his charisma and generosity. “And what I mean by that is he took me to museums, he took me to shows, he talked to me, he gave me all kinds of books and he taught me how to see.”

Mr. Goings was ebullient the other day as he showed off four journals filled with Bearden’s musings on a wide range of subjects, from jazz to Homer. They were nestled against a plastic container holding 40 hours of cassette tapes recording the two men conversing about many things, often as personal as Bearden’s light skin color.

Mr. Goings also opened drawers and pulled out paintings: a 1956 collage called “First Circus”; Bearden’s “left-handed drawings” (he trained himself to draw with his left hand, as bone cancer made him lose control in his right); and self-portraits sketched on porous white paper with a black felt-tip pen, made days before his death, showing him slumped in a chair.

Mr. Goings said that his loan to the 92nd Street Y was made partly to recognize the pivotal role Jews had played in his life. A Jewish therapist and Jewish school officials helped him as a child struggling with stuttering and dyslexia, he said, and a Jewish firm hired him on Wall Street, as other doors slammed shut.

“Every time I began to engage life in a way, I was given avenues and presented bridges by my Jewish brothers,” Mr. Goings said. “I chose the ‘Odyssey’ and the historical pieces because they build bridges,” he continued. “They expand awareness and speak to the universality of the ‘Odyssey’ and the African-American experience and the situation of how we, as African-Americans, are able to understand the suffering of Buchenwald and Auschwitz and the journey that comes afterward.”

The exhibition, “Romare Bearden: The Paper of Truth: Works From the Collection of Russell Goings and Evelyn Boulware” (she is his longtime companion), also provides greater visibility for his holdings, just as Mr. Goings determines their future. Museum curators and a major university are among the institutions that have expressed interest in the collection, Mr. Goings said.

“It’s a courtship,” said Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. “If we could acquire some strategic portion for its research value and exhibition value, it would be fabulous.”

Mr. Goings said that the money the collection might bring was not his main motivation, adding that he may also donate some items. “Do I honor the notion that there is a greater responsibility to a trove that speaks to who we are as a people?” he asked rhetorically, when questioned about offers and prices. “I want it to go somewhere it will be seen, not put in a cellar. As you can see, I have more resources than revenue.”

The collection is important to scholars because it shows the evolution of Bearden’s ideas and technique, said Michael R. Chisolm, an art historian and fine-art appraiser in New York. He appraised Mr. Goings’s collection about a year ago.

“Some of these things are quite revealing,” he said, declining to divulge an estimated value for the collection, citing professional ethics. “He’s got to make a decision — he’s got all the work,” Mr. Chisolm said of Mr. Goings. “What’s going to happen?”

Mr. Goings said he would take his time deciding the future of his collection because of what is at stake. “I have this body of work that is part of the national treasure trove,” he said. “I have to take care of it so my soul can rest. I’ve got to go meet Bearden. You know what he’ll say to me: ‘What did you do with my stuff?’ I’ve got to be able to face him.”

article by Felicia R. Lee via

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