Renowned African-American artist Steve R. Allen enriched the world with his paintings. His new goal is to enrich the world’s art-curious youth, creating opportunities to experience real art and learn ways to make it in a notoriously challenging career choice. Allen’s new multi-million dollar gifting initiative to historically Black colleges and universities will put art in schools and provide new opportunities for discussion. The artist joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes to talk about how his initiative might bring inspiration to students and help widen the playing field for minorities.
“I went to an HBCU, too, but my mother went to Shaw University, and we were doing something with a portrait of her that I had done, that I was gifting to the university,” said Allen. “And so the idea came to me, to ‘spray it out,’ – the collection, shall we say.”
“[The initiative] will give the young people – and some of them not so young – an opportunity to see some of this work up close and personal,” said Allen. “Also, I live not far from the AIDS center, and we have discussed my doing some symposiums and some conferences, and possibly some in-person classes with the young people so that they can see that in the art field, that it’s possible to go from being born in a one-room shack, which I was, to having your work in the greatest museum in the world, the Smithsonian.”
Five paintings of Allen’s find a home in the Smithsonian’s Founding and Permanent Collection. For the gift initiative, he created new “museum editions” of the five pieces, each of which will be given to a Black college or university. In addition to donations of artworks, Allen will organize lectures and discussions of the business side of art, and how minority artists can make themselves seen in a field that too often excludes them.
Allen shared some of his own stories as a young artist, boldly quitting his day job to pursue art. “My mother and my brother, Arthur, really made it possible for me to paint…. I used to be a copier technician, I was the Xerox man, shall we say. And I went to work one morning and the boss wasn’t talking right, and I gave him the job back. And I mentioned it to Momma, and Skeet – that’s what we called him, Skeet – and they really, for years, supported me and made it possible for me to create,” said Allen. “Like Vincent Van Gogh’s brother – Theo, I think was his name – supported him all those years, my brother and my mother did the same for me so that I was able to sit here and create this work.”
In keeping with his goal of inspiring young artists, Allen started the Steve R. Allen Foundation in 2008. The Foundation operates art programs in the United States, and all over the world, including in Brazil and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “To be able to share again, with the young people, and for then to ‘touch the flesh,’ so to speak – most of the time, if they know anything about art or an artist, it’s from a museum or a magazine or something… There are very few opportunities to interact with an actual living and working artist.” He continued, “For them to be able to see someone like myself because I was one of those little children at one time, it’s very important to me. Hopefully, it inspires them.”