BAMPFA Announces Major African American Quilts Acquisition, Related Exhibitions

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Rosie Lee Tompkins: 'Untitled,' 1996; quilted by Irene Bankhead, 1996. (Sharon Risedorph/Courtesy BAMPFA)

The Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) announced Wednesday its acquisition of nearly 3,000 works by African American quilt makers, including more than 500 pieces by the acclaimed artist Rosie Lee Tompkins, from the late Oakland collector Eli Leon.

The Eli Leon Collection, believed to be the largest of its kind, comprises quilts as well as assemblage and embroidery by more than 400 black artists. Leon, who collected the works for decades and died in 2018, willed the collection to BAMPFA in what the museum called one of the largest bequests of African American art ever donated to a United States museum.

The collections forms the basis of a major retrospective opening Feb. 19, 2020 of some 80 quilts by Tompkins, an internationally renowned Richmond artist championed by Leon, including previously unseen pieces. Outgoing BAMPFA director Lawrence Rinder, who’s co-curating the retrospective with Elaine Yau, previously worked with Leon to show Tompkins’ work in 1997.

Anonymous: 'Variations on a Theme,' c. 1940. Photo: Geoffry Johnson.
Anonymous: ‘Variations on a Theme,’ c. 1940. Photo: Geoffry Johnson. (Geoffry Johnson/Courtesy BAMPFA)

“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,” Rinder said in a statement, adding that the museum intends to “deepen public appreciation for … African American quiltmaking traditions.”

In 2022, BAMPFA will also mount an exhibition showcasing the broader collection, which includes pieces by some 400 artists such as Arbie Williams, Lawrence Brackens, Gladys Henry, Sherry Byrd and Angie Tobias. The museum is seeking grants to continue sorting the voluminous collection, which will be the subject of a scholarly catalog published by UC Press.

The acquisition continues a trend of museums racially diversifying their collections—San Francisco Museum of Modern Art recently used proceeds from the sale of a Mark Rothko painting to address gaps in its holdings—as well as taking seriously artforms previously dismissed as craft. Tompkins, in particular, is credited with raising the art world profile of quilting.

Minnie Lee Metcalf: 'Grandmother’s Rose Garden,' 1989.
Minnie Lee Metcalf: ‘Grandmother’s Rose Garden,’ 1989. (Sharon Risedorph/Courtesy BAMPFA)

“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,” Carol Christ, University of California Berkeley chancellor, said in a statement.

Leon, an Oakland psychologist, first encountered Tompkins’ work at a flea market in 1985, spurring his decades-long interest as a scholar, collector and curator in the African American textile and quilts tradition. BAMPFA only learned of the bequest upon Leon’s death last year.