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.
“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.”