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A Collection of African American Masterworks

Long-time friends, former colleagues, art lovers and community leaders filled the spacious lobby of Downtown’s August Wilson Center on a recent rainy Friday evening to honor Vivian Davidson Hewitt (SIS ’44), a revered former Pittsburgh librarian who, along with her husband John, has spent decades amassing one of the premier collections of African American art in the world.

“I never cut ties with Pittsburgh,” said Hewitt, 97, who earned a degree in library science in 1944 from what was then called the Carnegie Library School and, soon after, became the first African American librarian in the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. She recalled taking classes in the Czechoslovak Room and working to help raise funds for the African Heritage Room.

But it was collecting oil, acrylic and watercolor paintings over the years that brought Hewitt the most satisfaction. She and her husband got to know the artists personally — Romare Bearden, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Elizabeth Catlett, Jonathan Green, Jacob Lawrence and Hale Woodruff, to name a few.

“We had very good relationships with them. It was important to support them,” Hewitt said.

Her 58-piece collection has been housed since 2009 at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture in Charlotte, North Carolina, and has been shown in more than 25 cities across the United States over a decade-long period.

Now, the art is on display at the August Wilson Center for a local audience.

At the event, Hewitt offered some advice for novice collectors.

“Buy what grabs you,” responded Hewitt. “Invest in your own heritage. Support local artists. And don’t let an interior decorator tell you what to buy.”

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

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