The Hewitt collection

The Hewitt collection

Premiere African-American art collection on display in the Littman Gallery

Betsy Crombie

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Vivian Hewitt and her late husband, John, collected art together for over 50 years. The result of their half-century of collecting is one of the most comprehensive collections of African-American art in the country. The immense collection contains about 300 pieces, 55 of which are on display in the Littman Gallery in the Smith Memorial Student Union from Feb. 2 until March 27, 2004.

Portland State University is the only Oregon stop on the tail-end of the collection’s three-year tour of the United States. After the tour ends, the collection will take up permanent residence in the Charlotte, North Carolina African-American Cultural Center.

Bank of America, which purchased the collection in 1998, contacted PSU about displaying the exhibit on campus. “They wanted it to be some place where everyone would have access to it,”said Erin Malecha, PSU’s marketing and communications manager. “The Hewitts sold the collection with the stipulation that it be open and free to everyone, especially children.”

Vivian Hewitt credits her love of art to her public school education and wants children to have the same opportunities to experience art that she had. “When I was in school, art and music appreciation were a given. I grew up going to museums and my husband was a native New Yorker, so he grew up looking at art. I deplore public education today. The children are being cheated.”

The Hewitts’ love of art is directly reflected in the collection. “We bought what we loved, what we couldn’t live without.” The Hewitts were not wealthy collectors, though. Vivian is a retired librarian, and John was an English teacher. “We were people of modest means from the get-go,” said Hewitt.

The Hewitts resided in New York, and bought the majority of their collection from New York artists. They knew many artists as friends and family, and wanted to support the community. “I am related to two of the artists featured in the collection, Dr. J. Eugene Grigsby, who is a first cousin and John Biggers, who is a distant cousin. John’s sister ran a Harlem art gallery, and introduced us to many of the artists whose work we collected. We purchased the art directly from most of the artists, sometimes from galleries.”

The familial bond of Hewitt and her collection also extends from the literal to the figurative. Hewitt refers to her collection as ” my children.” And, no, she doesn’t have a favorite. “You wouldn’t differentiate between children, now, would you?”