Bama Gets Paul R. Jones Collection, And Sydney Lewis Plus Warhol And A Roll Of Quarters

The AP and the Tuscaloosa News reported last week that the University of Alabama was chosen as the recipient of the $4.8 million Paul R. Jones art collection. And it isn’t just any collection – it’s one of the largest collections of black art in America – over 1700 pieces.

Mr. Jones grew up in Bessemer and even though he lives in Atlanta now, he decided that Alabama was home and where his collection should be.

The AP article reads in part:

“This is my way of coming back home in wanting to give a gift to the state of my birth,” he said. “This is a gift to Alabama and Alabamians.”

Jones, 80, grew up in the mining town of Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Co. and went to Alabama State University, where he played football. He finished his college education at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and was then denied admission into UA’s School of Law in 1949 after it was discovered he was black.

He then embarked on a 15-year career with the federal government. He worked with the departments of Justice and Housing and Urban Development before becoming deputy director of the Peace Corps based in Thailand.

Included are photographs and paintings of all sizes, materials and form. The only rule for Jones was that the pieces be created by black Americans, and often the works come from young or struggling artists…

I found an article from the NAACP Crisis magazine where he was quoted – and this is my favorite:

“I could have sold this collection and got me a maid, a butler, a nurse, a cook and a chauffeur and traveled the world twice a year,” Jones says. “But I’ve led a good life and had the pleasure of living with art and using it as an instrument for change.”


This story about Paul R. Jones reminded me of a monument that Av and I saw when we were at the Jewish cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. It had this sculpture on it:

Richmond Cemetery

Richmond Cemetery

Well I knew when I got back home that I had to look up and see who Sydney Lewis was – how many people have a sculpture like that for their monument? It turns out that he founded a company called ‘Best Products’ in 1958 and although it is out of business now, at one time it had 200 showrooms in 27 states with sales of $2 billion. Now in the AP article about Paul R. Jones they made a point out of saying that Mr. Jones was a great investor in art but wasn’t what people would consider terribly wealthy. But what I thought was interesting about both men – although I guess one was incredibly well-off and the other more modest was that they made it a point to help artists who hadn’t yet “made it”.

A portion of the NY Times article about Mr. Lewis and his wife reads:

But the couple found their true calling in the early 1960’s, when Mr. Lewis’s doctor told him that he was working too hard and needed a diversion. Acting on a lifelong common interest in the arts, the Lewises turned to collecting contemporary art, concentrating at first on Pop Art and Photo Realism.


Over the next 20 years they amassed an enormous collection and became close friends with many artists. They frequently acquired art through trades of Best Products goods, enabling many struggling artists to furnish their lofts with appliances and televisions and to live in relative comfort, sometimes before they were selling much work.

Well, the Lewises went on to donate more than 1500 pieces of art to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and donated money for the museum’s West Wing, plus the NY Times article read that:

Mr. Lewis was also a board member of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington. He served on the trustees’ committee for architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where he and his wife established a fund that enabled the Modern to acquire several architectural models, including that of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. The Lewises’ philanthropies included $1.5 million to help establish Eastern Virginia Medical School; $2 million for a business school at Virginia Union University, where Mr. Lewis was a trustee, and $9 million to Washington and Lee for a law school building and the development of a legal studies center.

Now my favorite story about the Lewises – from when they were just starting their art collection – is from the Richmond paper. Can you just imagine this:

In the mid-’60s, Richmonder Sydney Lewis was reading the free New York weekly The Village Voice. He saw an ad that basically said, “I will trade my art for anything.” He called the number.

Pop artist icon Andy Warhol answered the phone. He told Sydney and his wife, Frances, to meet him at a photo booth and to “bring lots of quarters.”

They did.

And the rest is art history. Seriously.

When the Lewises met Warhol at the photo booth, they brought their roll of quarters. Frances hopped in the booth, smiled for the camera and presto!, Warhol created “Sydney’s Harem”. Classic Warhol, “Sydney’s Harem” is created from 12 photos of Frances and features Warhol’s fascination with repetition and seemingly identical images.

It’s fitting that “Sydney’s Harem” is the first painting in the exhibition — it’s also the first work of art that sparked the Lewises’ lifelong fascination with collecting contemporary art.

“They enjoyed that experience [with Warhol] so much that they decided to collect more art … and to become friends with the artists they collected,” John Ravenal, curator of the exhibition, says.

Can you believe?!

Love it.

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