Cleveland Remembers Malcolm Brown
Artist Malcolm Brown, who with his wife Ernestine Brown operated Malcolm Brown Gallery in Shaker Heights, passed away October 1 at age 89. Through the gallery, through his teaching at Shaker Heights High School, and in all his relationships, he had a lasting impact. We asked art collectors, dealers, former students, artists, and family members to offer their reflections on the life and influence of a man who created space and raised awareness for African American artists in Cleveland and beyond.
Betty Pinkney, art collector and family friend, as told to CAN Journal
Malcolm Brown—it is hard to talk about him without talking about Ernestine, because they were a couple who presented the gallery to the community. Their gallery created a community. It was a place to go, and to be seen, and to see people, and to learn. It was very enriching. They would have speakers come in, and artists come in, to talk and teach. Some of the artists were hosted at my home—major African American artists. Elizabeth Catlett was one who we had at my house. Romare Bearden was another. It filled a vacuum in the community, because it delivered art in a way I had not seen. It gave a presence to African American artists we may not have been familiar with. It was always a joyful experience to have people with these special gifts to be in our home with other people who were as interested as we were.
When you went to the gallery, you knew more and felt better, because it was an African American gallery, and it introduced us to important African Americans in the artistic world. All the openings were always mixed. It wasn’t just African Americans. You went there for a number of reasons. You enjoyed the art work, what he was producing, what he was showing of other people; it was a place of respite because when you went there you were not thinking about what else was going on in the world. I laugh now because my spirit is enriched again when I think about all the years they were there, and the times we were together.
Sharon E. Milligan, Interim President, Friends of African and African American Art, an affiliate group of the Cleveland Museum of Art
I arrived in Cleveland to take a position at Case Western Reserve University in 1982, two years after the establishment of the Malcolm Brown Gallery. I can think of no other gallery or museum in Cleveland where I could see and purchase art by African Americans. Malcolm and Ernestine Brown knew the major African American artists, and knew the Cleveland community. They introduced many of us to African American artists, including the works of Malcolm Brown. In the 1980s, Malcolm was one of a few watercolorists of color who was a member of the American Watercolor Society.
Malcolm, when not [teaching] at Shaker Heights High School, could be seen at the gallery. In the years that followed, I bought art from the gallery and met African American artists such as Hughie Lee-Smith, and Moe Brooker, among others. Nothing was more thrilling than the artist Moe Brooker showing up at my Shaker Heights home when Malcolm and Ernestine Brown made an appointment to install Brooker’s artwork I purchased from their gallery. I was introduced to University of Georgia at Athens artist and professor Joseph Norman through the gallery, and purchased his work prior to the Brown gallery closing in 2011. When my then 9- and 10-year-old children Sarah Milligan Heggs and Peter Milligan Heggs wanted to purchase their first art piece, the Browns took time to watch them make a selection from posters, and we framed it and presented it to them. What a powerful experience for Black youth to know that there is a place where the visual narrative includes people who look like them.
My experience with Malcolm Brown and his wife Ernestine is so similar to that of many African Americans in Cleveland and around the country. They also introduced me to galleries in New York, such as the June Kelly Gallery.
Over 21 years later in 2003, the Cleveland Museum of Art formed an affiliated group known as the Friends of African and African American Art, with the mission to celebrate, stimulate and encourage art by the African and African American artist. However, it was the Malcolm Brown Gallery that led the way in the Cleveland area to helping Clevelanders acquire the beauty and power of African American art, including Malcolm’s work. Moreover, Malcolm’s work is in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, and he is the subject of a photograph in the collection as well.
Gabriel Allan Tolliver, former student of Malcolm Brown and President of the 366th Creative Mothership Group, is a freelance writer/producer/director across media platforms and an adjunct professor at CSU’s School of Film and Media Arts.
I was a class clown at Woodbury Junior High School in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and I was a visually-oriented learner often at odds with the “one size fits all” method of indoctrination within the Shaker school system. I had Mr. Brown as an art teacher, and his presence had a profound effect on my early development as a visual artist. I eventually found my mode of expression through the film/video medium. Mr. Brown was an anomaly. I had Black female teachers, most notably Ms. Paige and Ms. Hall, and a black gym teacher, Mr. Quinones; but a Black male teacher who was an accomplished painter and businessperson was a first for me. Black male teachers are a rarity. According to a 2017 study by the Institute of Labor Economics, Black male teachers comprised only 2% of the workforce, but their presence in the classroom is shown to improve outcomes for students. Going further, the study found that Black students who have a Black teacher—male or female—for at least one year in elementary school are less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to consider college. Still, only seven percent of teachers nationwide are Black. I wonder what those findings would have been during my time in the early ‘80s?
As a teacher of color, Mr. Malcolm Brown mattered far beyond the classroom. He was an accomplished, nationally-known Black artist who operated his own gallery in the apartheid art world. These realizations took on significant resonance as I got older and wiser in the world beyond the integration bubble that was Shaker Heights, Ohio.
I can’t say I learned a particular painting technique from Mr. Brown or that I learned about the art business, but what I did learn is that representation is important. Mr. Brown primed my understanding of what a thriving Black artist was and the rich collective influence and impact Black art has had on society and the world. Lastly, I can’t say for certain that if I didn’t have Mr. Brown for art class, I’d be on the same path I am today. But his presence and legacy are cobblestones on my artistic journey. For that, I consider myself blessed to have been taught by him.
David Lusenhop, Lusenhop Fine Art, Cleveland, Ohio
The eponymous Malcolm Brown Gallery in Shaker Heights was one of only a few Black-owned galleries in the Midwest when I was beginning my own art-dealing career in Cincinnati in the early 1990s. When I learned through Cleveland friends that Ernestine and Malcolm were exhibiting not only Malcolm’s paintings but also the work of legendary African American artists like Romare Bearden and Elizabeth Catlett—both personal friends of the Browns, I made a special trip to Shaker Heights from Cincinnati so I could stand in front of masterpieces by these artists, whose work I only knew from illustrations in books and exhibition catalogs. At the time, mainstream, encyclopedic museums in the Midwest rarely exhibited African American artists, and few museums had the work of Black artists represented in their permanent collections. The Malcolm Brown Gallery became THE place in Ohio for collectors, and students of art history like me, to see and confront the art of these luminaries.
In 2001, I visited Ernestine and Malcolm again when they mounted the important Celebrating a Legacy: African-American Artists: WPA—1970s. That exhibition, and the beautiful catalog published to document the show, profoundly impacted my career. I stood in front of paintings, drawings, and prints by legendary artists with Chicago roots, including Fred Jones, Margaret Burroughs, Frank Neal, and Charles Sebree, for the first time. Inspired by these artists and their histories, I moved to Chicago in the summer of 2002 to direct the Robert Henry Adams Fine Art gallery, a space known for its programming focused on historical African American art. I went on to know and work with many of the artists, or the families of the artists, that I was first introduced to by Ernestine and Malcolm. I will be forever grateful to the Browns for teaching me so much that I needed to know.
Today, when mainstream museums are trying to tell a more accurate story of American art by acquiring and exhibiting African American artists, and when the artworld has become more inclusive and diverse, we must look back and honor the artists like Malcolm, and the gallerists like Ernestine, whose tireless efforts to exhibit and promote African American art and artists helped spawn this important moment of reckoning and appreciation.
Vincent Ballentine, Shaker Heights High School Class of 1995
I was a Shaker High student from ’91 to ‘95. I had Mr. Brown three of those years. We would come [into Mr. Brown’s classroom] on ten! A group of boys, mostly black, would storm into the room with the energy of teenage rebellion. We gave Mr. Brown a hard time. He would fuss at us to quiet down, and eventually we did. That’s when the magic happened. We’d gather around a table in the middle of the room, and he would give us tips for the day and objectives for the week. In hindsight, I didn’t realize how much he was preparing us for the next level. Now as an adult and full-time artist, I see why he moved through the halls the way he did. He was there for a reason. He did what he had to do to support his passion. I admired that more than anything else. After graduation, I would visit his studio on Chagrin and speak with him and his wife, and they gave unabridged versions of reality in the art world. From him, I learned you can be a phenomenal artist, but you also have to be a good person.
Heather Lemonedes Brown, Virginia N. and Randall J. Barbato Deputy Director and Chief Curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art
The Cleveland Museum of Art is deeply saddened by the death of Malcolm Brown, a pivotal member of the Cleveland arts community. A renowned artist in his own right, he also operated, along with his wife Ernestine, the Malcolm Brown Gallery in Shaker Heights for more than three decades, championing work by African American artists of local and national renown, including artists such as Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence, Hughie Lee-Smith, and Moe Brooker, among others. Brown was also a distinguished teacher whose knowledge and generosity of spirit impacted countless students. We mourn Malcolm Brown’s passing while celebrating his vital contributions to the cultural life of Northeast Ohio.
Rhonda Brown, Artist, Daughter of Malcolm and Ernestine Brown
My life as an artist began very early. As kids, my parents schlepped us to outdoor art shows across the country. I realized then that something was different about our family: wherever we went, there was art all around us. We met and spent time with really famous artists from all over the world. But for me, my dad was my favorite. Listening to him and their conversations about art—which was really the only thing my father talked about—shaped me into who I am.
I learned to paint by watching my dad. After dinner, I went into his studio to “help.” My job was to tape off paper on board for watercolors, place pigments in the proper amount on the palette, change the water, and clean off the palette once the paint dried. I was obsessed with how the color blended together. As I peeled it from the surface, I would place the dried hues into odd pairings—he would critique my little compositions—which fostered my love of color. Those were special moments.
I received a Bachelor of Fine Art with a double major in painting and drawing and art history from The Ohio State University, and I earned a Masters of Art degree in art history with a focus on African American art from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. There, I heard and re-learned what my father taught me long ago. A noted art historian said, “There is no such thing as the innocent eye.” This idea frames my experience as an artist. My dad is my source of inspiration. He taught me that everything you see, and experience, can and should become a part of your work; and thus, we both “paint what we know.” I am forever grateful for this gift he passed on to me and will continue to paint in his honor.
Love you always daddy. Your buttercup.