The Kinsey Collection: Celebrating Artistic Contributions of Black Americans

By Alec Clayton

Art lovers from Olympia to Portland to Seattle should travel to Tacoma Art Museum and see an historically important and one-of-a-kind collection of African American art and historic artifacts in The Kinsey African American Art & History Collection.

The collection fills two of the Museum’s galleries, including more than 150 objects including paintings, sculpture, photographs, books, letters, manuscripts, and other important objects celebrating the lives, artistry and accomplishments of Black Americans from 1595 to today. Only the Smithsonian Institution currently has a larger collection of African American art.

Bernard and Shirley Kinsey began their collection shortly after they were married five decades ago. They were not extremely wealthy people, but they were able to build their collection by saving, working and investing. The two worked for the Xerox Corporation. Bernard Kinsey said that, from the beginning, “we saved Shirley’s paychecks and lived on mine.” Everything they did was about their personal mission. “What we’re really trying to do is change the story of African American art.”

Speaking at a press preview shortly before the exhibition opened, Bernard Kinsey said, “Art makes the invisible visible. You’re going to leave and say I didn’t know that.”

He went on to say, “The Kinsey Collection strives to give our ancestors a voice, a name, and a personality, enabling the viewer to understand the challenges, obstacles, triumphs, accomplishments, and extraordinary sacrifice of African Americans in building this country.”

“The Cultivators” by Samuel L. Dunson, Jr, one of the 150 items in the Kinsey Collection.

Most of the artists in the show have been unknown until now because art historians have given short shrift to African American artists; although some famous artists such as Jacob Lawrence, Sam Gilliam and Romare Bearden are represented in the Kinsey collection.

Among the many historical artifacts included in the exhibition are bills of sale, advertisements and letters and legal papers documenting the slave trade; and hand colored images from the Civil War era.

The Harlem Renaissance is represented by art and literature.

The exhibit has been meticulously curated by The Kinsey’s son, Khalil. He offers some advice and wisdom to exhibit-goers, saying, “This is an American story, and most people only know a fraction of it.”

Museum Executive Director David F. Setford said that when he first saw the collection in Dallas, “it was a real Transformative experience for me — so many amazing writers, artists. Few had been heard of when I saw the exhibit. I burst into tears.”

Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards said art educates in ways “mere words can’t” and this show is “an opportunity for healing to happen.”

The Kinseys have collected and curated this breathtaking collection for many years. It is one that should not be missed.




10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday and Sunday, through Nov. 28


Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave, Tacoma


$15-$18, children, military, veterans, museum members free


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