Georgia museum receives major collection

Couple donates 100 works by African-Americans

Part-time Atlantans Larry and Brenda Thompson, who have amassed one of the country’s major private collections of African-American art, are donating 100 works to the Georgia Museum of Art, with the promise of more in the future, and they also will fund a new curatorial position at the Athens museum.

A large touring exhibit drawn from the Thompsons’ collection helped open the museum’s $20 million, 30,000-square-foot expansion last year. And museum board Chairman Carl Mullis called the couple’s contributions, being announced today exclusively in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “transformative” for the official state art museum of Georgia.

“It is truly an amazing gift to the museum, to the University of Georgia and to all the people of Georgia,” said Mullis, an Atlanta attorney. Included in the donation are pieces by Hale Woodruff, Beauford Delaney, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Wadsworth Jarrell and Radcliffe Bailey.

Larry Thompson, a former U.S. deputy attorney general based in Atlanta and retired general counsel and secretary for PepsiCo, was repeatedly asked “Why Georgia?” during a recent collectors’ tour of their home in Greenwich, Conn., the couple’s main base since 2005. His response to his bewildered questioners: “We lived in Georgia for 30 years, and so much of who I am is Georgia.”

Beyond wanting to give something back to the state where his law career prospered and where he and his wife, a retired Atlanta Public Schools clinical school psychologist, raised two sons (now both attorneys), Thompson said he had “an instant meeting of the minds” when UGA President Michael Adams introduced him to William Eiland, director of the museum.

“I talked to Bill a little about my background, being from a small town [Hannibal] in Missouri, and how important I think it is being able to expand cultural opportunities for kids in small towns all around the state of Georgia,” Thompson told the AJC from Connecticut. “We had a very similar vision, and he took it beyond what even I envisioned.”

It was Eiland’s idea that the couple endow the full-time curatorial position, the Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson Curator of the African Diaspora. The yet-to-be appointed academic professional will oversee all the museum’s African-American and African art holdings, develop special exhibits and educational offerings, conduct research and publish.

The Thompsons said they were both moved by a comment an African-American high school student made after viewing the nationally touring exhibit from their collection, “Tradition Redefined,” which includes abstracts, landscapes, figurative pieces, still lifes, works with a European influence, self-taught art and more, with many pieces by Atlanta-based artists.

“They always told me that I could be whatever I wanted to be, that I could be an artist,” the student wrote in the feedback book at the University of Maryland’s David C. Driskell Center. “But no one ever told me I could create the kind of art I wanted to create.”

The collection represented “freedom” to the student, Brenda Thompson said. “We hope other students — black, white or whatever — will see the work and get that same feeling, that you can’t just typecast African-American art,” she said.

Brenda Thompson grew up the daughter of a tailor and nurse who only had two works of art hanging in their Salisbury, N.C., home: a landscape and a depiction of the Last Supper. Larry Thompson’s parents, a railroad switchman and a cook, didn’t have money for art, either. But he was nurtured in collecting by a professor during his undergraduate studies at Missouri’s Culver-Stockton College. After the Thompsons married in 1970, he wanted to be surrounded by art, even checking out paintings from a library.

Today, their collection exceeds 600 works, many purchased directly from artists, many well-known but some undeservedly obscure, they believe.

“This is something we’ve grown with for the last 30 or 40 years,” said Larry Thompson, who began teaching corporate and business law at UGA last fall. “It’s a lot, and it’s a responsibility. ... People have entrusted us with works, and so it’s best to place as many as we can in the next 20 years or so.”