Michael Guerin is the owner of the Diartspora Gallery, a private art collection focusing upon African-American art, and the art of the African diaspora. Collected over a period of over 20 years, the collection includes many pieces by self-taught and outsider artists, as well as some by those who are well-known.
I had the opportunity to talk with Michael about the collection, what compels him to collect, and about the the gallery’s future and the current Indiegogo campaign.
Please tell us a little bit about the Diartspora collection. What sort of art does it include, and when did you begin collecting?
The Diartspora Gallery is a collection of works by and of people of the African Diaspora in the New World.
Most of the works were created by the self-taught, although there are a few works by listed artists. Paintings comprise the majority of the collection, but there are also some vintage photographs and some sculptural works. The artwork ranges in style from those exhibiting a “street” aesthetic to more fanciful works, as well as formal portraits.
I began collecting sometime in 1995. I was with the artist Katie Pfeiffer when we discovered a striking painting of a woman harvesting sugar cane going for a song in a now-defunct thrift store. It later received a glowing appraisal at an antiques convention, and was spotlighted on a local TV news show.
I realized that there might be many such hidden gems tucked away in odd corners and the farther reaches of the city, and took it as a challenge to discover them. My work as a contractor already placed me in many of these neighborhoods, and I soon found that works of surprising originality and quality were hiding in plain sight.
How have you gone about growing the collection? And, has it mostly been collected in the Philadelphia area?
At first, and for a long time, and to some extent, even today, it has been hit and miss. Like anyone who has experienced being consumed by some sort of obsession, any spare time I had was used to explore and search for new places where art might be found. These included flea markets, thrift stores, sidewalk sales, rummage and moving sales, you name it. I didn’t really go to exhibits or art shows; you could correctly characterize my pieces as “found” art.
After a while, these happenstance forays led to connections and relationships. People saved works for me. I met a couple of the artists. I also came across others in the community who had been collecting long before me, and were willing to part with some of their artworks. As with many things, it started with a seed and grew organically from there.
Most of the art was collected in the Philadelphia area. However, my broadening search took me to the Internet, and I did buy many pieces on eBay. One can find pretty awful offerings starting at $.99, as well as exceptional, pricey works by famous artists, and everything in between. My modest budget keeps me looking in the “in between” section. It can be surprising what one can find, and at what price.
Are there particular artists whose work you particularly enjoy collecting, or have developed relationships with?
Meeting and getting to know the artist Esther Johnson has been the most heart-warming and rewarding connection I have been privileged to receive in my search.
I met her, as well as her daughter and granddaughter, on their traditional corner at a bi-annual, multi-block, flea market extravaganza many years ago. She was a charming person; simple in the best sense of the word. I bought some of her watercolors, and we ended up becoming friends. I visited her in her art and antiques-filled home in Coatesville, and we had a habit of speaking on the phone for an hour every Sunday evening.
She had had a stroke before I met her, with the result that she switched from painting with her right hand to her left, with interesting results. A child-like sense of wonder is evident in much of her work, and she possessed the calm, nonjudgmental, and humble dignity of a young-at-heart elder.
What is it that compelled you to grow your collection?
A combination of things, I suppose. Doing it just for the thrill of the hunt was fun in and of itself; long-time “thrifters” and flea market warriors know of what I speak. But as I began to acquire a number of images that were similar in that which they represented, I also began to feel an additional sense of purpose.
These often abandoned and neglected paintings, rescued from random storefronts, basements, and garages, when grouped together, offered some sort of visual narrative. I realized that I hadn’t really seen a similar collection anywhere before. It began to seem necessary and important, as well as edifying. These were works by, of, and, hopefully, for the people.
The more pieces I found, the more it felt like I was getting pieces to a puzzle whose outcome was slowly taking shape. Something like a sense of stewardship took hold, and looking for and finding artwork by those often gone unseen in our society just seemed like something i could and should do.
About how many works of art does Diartspora include now?
There are 166 pieces now displayed on the website. There are perhaps 15 to 20 more ready to be photographed and uploaded. Beyond that, there may be 50 or so more works in the collection.
What is it about African-American art, and the art of the African diaspora that appeals to you?
I purchased the first couple of paintings solely on the basis of their striking imagery; their acquisition had nothing to do with the amount of melatonin of their subjects. But as I mentioned, the more success I had discovering works by and of people of color, the more the significance of such a gathering of images became clear to me.
I think this affinity is just a natural outgrowth of working for the past 20 years in the African-American community of West Philadelphia. My workers and customers are members of that group, and the connections and relationships established over time lent themselves to finding artwork that reflected and expressed their lives.
In a city where African-Americans comprise the majority of the population, it seems more than odd that there several art museums where primarily Caucasian subjects and artists are displayed, while no similar institution exits for the black community.
Has the work been viewed by others, or exhibited publicly as of yet?
There was a month-long exhibit of 35 pieces focusing on portraiture last February during Black History Month at the University City Arts League. A capacity crowd attended the opening reception, and the enthusiasm and appreciation for the art was overflowing.
I think for many of the attendees, it was the first time they had seen an art exhibit centering specifically on people of their own community. A cultural gap was, for a time, at least, filled.
A request was made by an institution in Trenton that wished to feature works at their annual festival, but that was unfortunately not logistically possible.
The Diartspora Gallery has some 2400 Twitter followers as of this writing. Yet only a few have been able to view it in person; among them, a photographer, a curator, a journalist, and a professor and Art Center Director. Others have questioned as to where they might be able to see the art. Our hope is to one day be able to give them an answer.
What are your goals for the collection?
In the short term, there is a need for some degree of conservatorship for a number of paintings, as well as suitable storage.
The works which are ready for display on the website need to be photographed, catalogued, and uploaded. And adding new works when possible is always an aim.
In the long-term, I hope that some day this collection might be the foundation of or an addition to an institution where the public can come and see it in person, as well as other, similar artwork.
A dream scenario would be if a coalition of city, cultural, and philanthropic forces might establish an African-American Folk/Outsider Art Museum; where there would be a permanent exhibit, rotating exhibits, workshops, gift store, etc.
You’ve just begun an Indiegogo campaign to benefit the collection. Can you tell us more about what you’d like to accomplish with it?
The Indiegogo campaign funds will be used to provide the conservatorship, which is acutely needed.
Some of the art is in rather bad shape. There are a few rips and tears, much flaking and paint loss, touch-up painting on some works, a missing corner on one masonite painting, and a good deal of simple cleaning and stain removal.
In addition, a number of works have no frame and would exhibit much more powerfully with a suitable one. Some need re-framing, as their current enclosures are either inadequate or in need of repair. Several works need re-matting, as they have yellowed or warped.
Each one of the works will need effective packaging, as they all need to be transported and stored at an outside facility for an indefinite period.
There is simply no safe way to accommodate them all at their present location.
A successful crowd-funding campaign will insure that the collection is upgraded to its best possible condition, to ensure its longevity and be that much more impactful to its future audience.