As a child growing up in Kingston, Jamaica, Suzanne McFayden loved to pore over two volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica which her father had bought from a traveling salesman: one covered foreign lands, and the other covered artists like Picasso, Matisse, Cézanne, and JMW Turner. “In my mind, that was what ‘real’ art was,” McFayden said, though she identified more closely with family photographs and the work of local Jamaican artists around her.
Later, as a student at Cornell University, the philanthropist studied art history and purchased prints from Wassily Kandinsky’s Blue Rider period during the 1920s. While living in Switzerland in 2010, McFayden attended her first Art Basel, the art world’s tent fair. “A light bulb went off because I was able to get really close with works by Basquiat and Glenn Ligon. Suddenly I was like, ‘Oh god, it’s art too, and it’s amazing.’ ”
When she moved to Austin, Texas, with her three children in 2011, McFayden finally had “headroom” to spend on building a collection. She considers I have nightmares with legs from legs (2003), a haunting collage by Wangechi Mutu, to become her first purchase as a serious collector. “It started me on the journey I am on today,” she said.
As a collector, she needs work that reflects her different identities. How do I collect these different pieces of myself? I I’m an immigrant, I’m a black woman, I’m a mother, I have three children, I’m divorced too, ”she said. “But the overall theme of my collection is joy.” Works by artists such as Alma Thomas, Frank Bowling, Sheila Hicks, Genevieve Gaignard and Deborah Roberts are the cornerstones of her collection.
McFayden is the new chairman of the board of the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas, Austin; serves on the board of the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; and supported Julie Mehretu’s solo art in the middle of her career at the Whitney Museum of American Art earlier this year. Recently, she has become interested in helping support artist-led initiatives such as Titus Kaphar’s NXTHVN Art Incubator in New Haven, Connecticut, and Lauren Halsey’s Summaeverythang Community Center program, which began delivering organic products to families in and around the South during the pandemic. Los Angeles.
When deciding whether to acquire new work, McFayden often has conversations with artists to understand what they are thinking, looking at, reading, and engaging in their research. She wants to see intellectual rigor. “There’s a busy day collecting black artists, but that’s not necessarily what I’m looking at,” she said. “I’m looking for artists who are genuinely interested in their craft who want to push themselves and want to go beyond their boundaries.”
Although she feels a kinship with black artists, she is more concerned about the ideas that underlie the work. “It’s not necessarily about being a black artist; it’s about being an artist who happens to be black, ”she said. “Like I’m an art collector who happens to be black and who happens to be a woman.”
A version of this article will appear in the October / November 2021 issue of ART news.
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