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Exhibition play

Basketball star Grant Hill hopes his art collection inspires young blacks to dream big and beyond sports.

September 14, 2004|Dana Calvo | Special to The Times

Houston — Grant Hill knows it's isolating to be both a professional basketball player and a serious art collector, but it was never clearer than the night he launched a national tour of his private treasure of African American paintings and sculptures. Hill had invited all of his teammates from the Orlando Magic. Just one showed up.

"So," Hill sighed, "we've got a way to go."

In a move curators say is extraordinary, Hill, 31, has offered up 46 works from his collection for an exhibition on tour through spring 2006. "Something All Our Own: The Grant Hill Collection of African American Art" premiered in November in Orlando, Fla., moved on to New Orleans in winter and finished its summer stay in Houston on Aug. 31. Over the next 18 months it will stop in Baltimore; Dallas; Springfield, Mass.; and then Durham, N.C.

"In the black community, especially, it's important for young boys and girls to see African Americans who have done well and been successful. In the inner city we need that," Hill said. "I'm a big believer that outside of athletes and entertainers, we need more examples of African American, successful people."

The decision by a professional U.S. athlete to offer up his art collection for national exhibition may be unprecedented. "It's the first time I've ever had this experience, and I've never been aware of any exhibitions at our country's larger museums," said Alvia Wardlaw, for 14 years curator of modern and contemporary art at Houston's Museum of Fine Arts, the home of the nation's largest collection of African American art.

Wherever the exhibition has shown, it has attracted visitors of all ages and colors, including some fans who know less about art than about the NBA. But the exhibition is also drawing an older crowd with more traditional tastes. They are discovering in Hill a precocious collector with an eye for works that articulate the black American experience, especially in the South.

On a recent weekday afternoon, 69-year-old Ronald C. Sharpe came with his wife, daughter and 19-month-old grandson to the museum at Houston's historically black Texas Southern University.

"I had heard he was an art collector," Sharpe said, "but I didn't know he had all this."

Hill's opening at TSU drew about 450 people -- the largest opening in that museum's history.

"We're getting hoards of people in here, which is unusual for us," said Natasha L. Turner, spokeswoman for the university's museum.

Among the show's highlights are several sculptures and lithographs by Elizabeth Catlett as well as several paintings by Harlem artist Romare Bearden. There is also a nearly life-size painting by Edward Jackson that is arresting for the rare moment in which it captures Malcolm X -- with a relaxed, broad smile across his face.

Next to each work, Hill has posted a sentence or two about his emotional reaction or connection to the piece. Alongside Arthello Beck Jr.'s "Confrontation" (1969), in which a black man wrestles with two other figures, Hill writes: "I grew up with this painting, and just as my father is attached to it because it reflects the historic struggle of the black male, so am I."

Valerie Cassel Oliver, associate curator at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, said Hill's exhibition dispels the "cars and home" myth about what professional athletes can do with their immense wealth.

"When you have that sort of breadth of work by artists like Catlett and Bearden, who have been such important artists in terms of production and advocacy, it's a coup," she said. "I think it's important that [Hill] is collecting, and I think he has some important works."

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalog published by Duke University Press that contains an appreciation of Duke alumnus Hill by Blue Devils basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski as well as an introduction by John Hope Franklin, the author and former Duke professor of art history and law.

Grant and his father also contribute an essay. " ... we are disappointed that African American achievement and artistry are more recognized and appreciated in sports and entertainment than in painting or sculpture," they write. "More people know Grant Hill than know Romare Bearden yet Bearden's career had a longer shelf life and more productivity than that of any professional athlete."

The words have been chosen carefully, but the message is clear: Grant Hill wants to distinguish himself from black professional athletes who have not capitalized on the tremendous power and influence they wield. Many are known for encouraging young fans to work toward athletic goals but in public, at least, they have mostly shied away from inducements beyond sports.

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