Walter O. Evans calls his penchant for collecting hundreds of artworks, almost expectedly, “an addictive process,” which began somewhat unintentionally in the late 1970s. Though it’s by no means encyclopedic, his impressive holdings stretch as far back to the mid-19th century, with a cornerstone of the collection, the 1848 painting Man Fishing by Robert S. Duncanson, a free Black artist.
Because Evans only first learned about the history of African American art as an adult, his commitment to sharing his collection with the world has the lofty ambition of helping to spread awareness to these often-overlooked artists. And that vision became a reality when he donated some 60 works to the Savannah College of Art and Design nearly two decades ago. But Evans also wants museum viewers to find pleasure in the viewing experience of these works as he as over the years. Showing the collection publicly has become “an incredible learning experience, for me and for the viewer,” he said.
Growing up in Savannah in the 1940s and ’50s, Evans didn’t visit art museums as a child, so it wasn’t until he was in the Navy in the 1960s that he developed a love for them. He had met a young lady who wanted to visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art on their first date. To prepare, Evans went to the library, where the librarian recommended that he study up on French Impressionism and take note of artists like Monet and Renoir. “It was mostly superficial,” he recalled, “but [the young lady] was duly impressed that I knew this stuff.” They visited museums up and down the Eastern Seaboard from Boston to Washington D.C. over the year and a half they were dating. But, he still hadn’t encounter art by African Americans up to this point.
“I became addicted to going to museums,” he said. “There was no question about it. It changed my whole life.” But his collecting journey didn’t begin until after he moved to Detroit where he completed his general surgery residency at Wayne State University in 1976. There, he encountered art by African American artists for the first time. One of the works that made a lasting impression were a series of gouache paintings, titled The Legend of John Brown (1941), by Jacob Lawrence that are now in the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts. (In the 1970s, the DIA commissioned Lawrence to create a suite of silkscreen prints based on the original paintings as they had become too fragile to display.) Shirley Ann Woodson Reid, a local artist, encouraged him to purchase a complete edition of the 22 silkscreen prints.
Soon, Evans was invited to New York by a colleague who was hosting a reception for Romare Bearden, where he met the artist, his wife, and his agent. Evans asked the agent if he might be able to host a reception for Bearden at his home in Detroit, and a few months later, 300 people gathered in his home to toast Bearden, and buy art by the acclaimed collagist, which sold out. Shortly thereafter, Evans began hosting an informal artist residency at his home in Detroit, where artists like Elizabeth Catlett and many others, would stay at his home and then go to schools and colleges to meet the community. It lasted from the late 1970s until 2001, when Evans retired.
With his wife, Linda, Evans started collecting when competition for African American artworks was negligible. “At the time, the museums weren’t interested in spending any money. They were accepting gifts and they weren’t showing it anyway,” he said. His only main competition at the time came from now disgraced actor Bill Cosby, who was amassing his own significant collection of African American art. “Now, if Bill Cosby was in the audience or his curator David C. Driskell,” he added, “there was no way I was going to get it because I didn’t have the financial resources that he had.” Evans was often able to buy works directly from artists.
After his retirement, Evans began investing in real estate to revitalize the downtown area of Savannah, and he caught the attention of Barry Buxton, then the development director at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) who invited Evans to tour SCAD’s campus. That would eventually lead to Evans gifting 62 artworks by artists as illustrious as Catlett, Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Alma Thomas, and Edward Mitchell Bannister, among others, to the SCAD Museum of Art in 2005.
Though it was in need of repair at the time, the building that now houses the collection had once been a railroad depot built by African Americans, with bricks made by African Americans. These historic bricks were repurposed to make up the lower front façade of the museum building with modern concrete and glass encasing the building’s upper portion. Evans felt that the history of the building and the bricks would add a certain resonance to experience the works in person.
The building that houses the collection today is SCAD Museum of Art, which regularly features the work of contemporary African American artists in conversation with art from the Evans collection. Earlier this year, for example, emerging artist Chase Hall’s wonderfully nostalgic figurative paintings and installations were featured in the Evans Center for African American Studies in conversation with Jacob Lawrence’s paint brushes that were gifted to the museum by Evans.
In 2011, the university opened the Walter and Linda Evans Center for African American Studies to serve as a place for research and conservation for the works. Both the center and the museum have focused on preserving the legacies of figures like Jacob Lawrence and Frederick Douglass, and bringing them into the present alongside contemporary artists like Hall, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Kenturah Davis, and Nina Chanel Abney, whose exhibition “Big Butch Energy/Synergy” is currently on view in the Evans Center for African American Studies. “We are honored to continue to enrich the lives of many by illuminating these important works of art to students and SCAD Museum of Art guests,” said Daniel S. Palmer, the museum’s chief curator.
Over a 20-year period, Evans toured an exhibition of more than 70 artworks to some 50 venues, and artworks from the collection are still regularly on loan to museums around the world. That traveling exhibition including the artwork of Edward Mitchell Bannister, Richmond Barthe, Margaret Burroughs, and many other Black artists working in the 19th and 20th centuries.
As art historian Tritobia Hayes Benjamin writes in an essay for a catalogue of the collection, “Evans has revealed his preferences for a multiplicity of stylistic approaches: figuration, portraiture, studies of domestic and social events, and narrative content central to the lives of black people. Nature is also revered in the traditional landscapes and meticulous floral arrangements of selected artists.” Benjamin notes that the 150-year span of artworks in Evans’ collection in particular shows the breadth of artistic expression.
Surprisingly, the number of artworks Evans still owns today is hard to pin down for the collector. “I can’t put a number on it. I don’t want to say thousands, and then people say, ‘You mean prints or photographs too?’ So, no I would never put a number on it,” he said. “I was buying art for my home, but also so my daughters would be able to see that African Americans were doing work on the same level as European Americans.”
When asked how he selected works to add to his collection, Evan said, “But most of what I collected was because I liked it.”