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John and Vivian Hewitt's art collection comes to August Wilson Center

June 22, 2017

An exhibition opening Saturday at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, Downtown, offers the opportunity to see a highly regarded collection of 20th-century artworks on loan from the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts+Culture in Charlotte, N.C.

“Instill & Inspire: The John & Vivian Hewitt Collection of African-American Art” has local ties — Mrs. Hewitt is a New Castle native — and that was one inspiration for Yvonne Cook to bring the art to Pittsburgh. She is the exhibition’s executive producer and a co-founder of the Wilson Center.

As Mrs. Hewitt approached her mid-90s, Ms. Cook began fundraising for a Pittsburgh viewing. “I thought it was so significant and so important to do it.”

When Mrs. Hewitt learned the exhibition would be seen here, “she was just giddy that this was happening for her in her beloved city of Pittsburgh, where she still has a lot of friends and family,” Ms. Cook said.

 

The collection comprises 58 paintings, lithographs, collages, woodcuts and other works on paper by 20 artists. Some will be new to visitors, but others have long been a part of the art history canon, including Romare Bearden, Ann Tanksley and Henry Ossawa Tanner. All three were born in and/​or worked in Pittsburgh.

Also at the Wilson Center will be approximately 50 poster reproductions of paintings by Jonathan Green, who permits nonprofit organizations to reproduce his work without charge to use in fundraising.

“It’s his way of giving back,” Ms. Cook said, adding that the artist is “almost like a son to Mrs. Hewitt.”

An orientation space will feature a video interview with Mrs. Hewitt.

 

Vivian Ann Davidson was born in New Castle, Lawrence County, in 1920. She received a bachelor’s degree from Geneva College in 1943 and a master’s in library science in 1944 from the Carnegie Library School, a cooperative venture of Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) and the Carnegie Institute.

Ms. Davidson was the first African-American librarian employed by Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. In the 1940s, she was on the faculty of the graduate school of library and information science at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University), when she met John H, Hewitt Jr., a professor at Morehouse College. They married in 1949 and moved to New York City in 1953. Mr. Hewitt died in 2000, and she resides on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

 

Although they were of relatively modest means, the Hewitts collected art throughout their marriage, Mrs. Hewiitt told the Geneva [College] Magazine in 2010. On their honeymoon in New York City, they visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum of American Art. They purchased art with monetary wedding gifts and gave art to one another on birthdays and other special occasions.

The 58 works in the collection were purchased from the Hewitts in 1998 by Bank of America, which donated it to the Gantt Center. It toured the country before settling in Charlotte.

 

The exhibition will be open several days a week, and admission is free. Funding was secured to pay for bus transportation for students from the Pittsburgh Public Schools to visit, and Ms. Cook hopes other students will come, too.

Her goal is that the exhibition will inspire others to begin to collect art, particularly by African-American artists, and will show that collecting is not reserved for the very wealthy.

 

“There’s history in the art. It tells something about African-American life — who these artists were, what was happening at that time,” Ms. Cook said. “Art should transform you. Art should play upon your creative side as well as your intellectual side.”

“The Hewitts opened their home and invited people and artists to come. They wanted to instill a love for art, to instill a love for community.”

A book, “Instill & Inspire: The John & Vivian Hewitt Collection of African-American Art,” is being released this week by the University of Pittsburgh Press (hardback with 58 color illustrations, $49.95).

The exhibition continues through June 30 at the August Wilson Center, 980 Liberty Ave., Downtown. Hours are 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 11 a.m.-5 p.m Sunday. Admission is free. Information: www.ArtsPulseLLC.com. 

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