In Memoriam: Peggy Cooper Cafritz

Photo: April Greer

Peggy Cooper Cafritz (1947–2018) was a trailblazer in the fields of art and education for over five decades. An amazing supporter of artists of African descent, including countless Studio Museum alumni, she profoundly shaped the landscape of contemporary art in the United States.

Cooper Cafritz founded the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in 1974. It evolved from a workshop she began while still a student at George Washington University, and went on to become one of the leading art-intensive high schools in the country. Last year, Thelma Golden, Director and Chief Curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem, sat down with Cooper Cafritz to discuss her unparalleled collecting career, the legacy of Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and the origin of her unquenchable curiosity and creativity. A true friend of the Studio Museum, we will miss Peggy Cooper Cafritz greatly.

Thelma Golden: The Duke Ellington School of the Arts is the Peggy Cooper Cafritz that we all know. Your reputation around Ellington and what it meant and its founding is worldwide. I’m curious, though—what is the seed that started your collecting?

Peggy Cooper Cafritz: I was always acquisitional.

TG: What was the first thing you acquired?

PCC: Some members of SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] at Howard University would have tables set up in front of Crampton Auditorium with African masks, which they were selling. These guys would travel to Africa and bring back original art to sell, to finance their membership and activities in SNCC. A lot of white kids could drop out of school and go down to Mississippi and be activists. Many Black kids didn’t have this option; they had to make the money to cover their costs. I was drawn to the beauty and the quality of some of these masks. I also thought that I was in some way becoming a part of change through my collecting. That was the serious beginning.

TG: Were you living with these artworks that you acquired?

PCC: Oh, yes. They were immediately on the walls of wherever I was living. I met Warren Robbins, who had been collecting African art for years with the intention of creating a museum. But he was selling art too. He offered me a number of things, and sometimes I could afford them and sometimes I could not. In the very beginning, I still had an allowance, and my father supported me extremely well. Then my dad passed away in November 1969. I had just been in law school a few months, and I had to move out of my apartment by the end of the month because I didn’t have any money to pay the next month’s rent.

I had to figure everything out. My sister, Dominique, was a student at George Washington University. I felt a responsibility, so I went to the university’s president to ask him if he would let Dominique finish GW tuition-free. He said that he would. Then I talked to my brother Jay. We both agreed immediately that my younger brother, Mario, who we knew was gay, needed to be removed from his high school, which was the same one Jay went to. It was a Catholic military academy for boys, called Marmion Military Academy, outside of Chicago, in Aurora, Illinois. We were able to get him into Buxton, which is a wonderful prep school in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Mario loved it. As a very young person coming out, he could not have been in a better place. Later, he became the head of Clinton’s ’92 convention. Mario died in 2015, very sadly.

TG: You and your siblings lived through this incredibly transformative moment where who we were, and who we could be, changed in five-year increments. The difference between your younger brother and older brother around circumstances of race, gender, geography— those shifts were monumental. I really am fascinated with Black women from the ’70s and ’80s who formed creative lives for themselves— how they did that in a moment when what was expected of Black women was so limited. It’s why I look at the work of someone like Lorraine O’Grady . . .

PCC: I was going to say Lois Rice, Lorraine O’Grady.

TG: Women who knew they were meant to have the pearls and gloves on because they were well-raised and well-educated and this is who they were meant to be. They found a path to their creativity, to their intellect, to their success.

PCC: As I look at my own family, Mario went to Middlebury and Georgetown, and then the next children went to mostly GW—almost a hundred percent GW. Then my son went to Harvard and Andover. It was an expected trajectory that every generation should be better than the next, that we should be better than the last.

TG: That was our responsibility as Black people in this country. That’s the brilliance of David Adjaye’s design at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. If you walk that whole museum, you feel the physical weight of our trajectory. Did you consciously set out to create a collection of African American artists and artists of African descent?

PCC: Yes. There were several reasons. One, I always wanted to have kids. I always had kids around me. I love kids. I had been working with them since I was seventeen. I thought it was so important for us to see ourselves in the context of beauty, and things that would make us question. I always knew that—that I would surround them with beauty and our history from the very beginning.

TG: Art by artists of African descent was a way to understand our history. You saw that very essential connection. Who’s the first African American artist whose work inspired you, and that you collected?

PCC: Jacob Lawrence. During that period, I also purchased some Edward Mitchell Bannister and midcentury works. But the more I looked, the more I saw, the more I became involved in a trance stirred up by contemporary African American art, contemporary African art, and contemporary Caribbean art.1

1. Excerpt from Fired Up! Ready to Go!: Finding Beauty, Demanding Equity: An African American Life in Art. The Collections of Peggy Cooper Cafritz (New York: Rizzoli, 2018), 254–56.