Collector Sharon Milligan: Finding Identity and Comfort in Art
Although she grew up viewing African and African American art in her parents’ and grandparents’ homes, Sharon Milligan, PhD, refined her appreciation for both as a student at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia.
As one of America’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Spelman’s Museum of Fine Art has long been devoted to showcasing the work of African American artists, particularly women, whom they were able to support when white-managed galleries or institutions did not. The young student also experienced a diverse variety of artists’ works in the homes of Spelman’s faculty at various events. In her grandparent’s home, she learned that art can also serve utility, because they had artfully-crafted quilts.
“This notion of either art for comfort or art for images that are important in terms of African American history or in the collections of family and friends has been a part of my life, my reality,” she says. “What you see on walls, whether university walls or homes or public spaces, forms a lot of your identity, how you see yourself and situate yourself in the world. It is both a public and a personal experience, and my collection reflects that.”
Sharon believes that most of the work she has collected situates her firmly in the twentieth century. “Born in 1949, I am affected a lot by the world that preceded me in terms of my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents and following into the generation where I thought I knew everything about the world,” she says with a laugh. “Whether it was World War II or the Civil Rights Movement, things that impacted those previous generations, I am drawn to those works and seek them out to have some representation in my collection.”
She’s also drawn to collecting ancient-looking African masks from the Ivory Coast that may appear to be a Benin statue, Sharon says. However, she knows many of them may have been created in the twentieth century to represent an earlier era, since a lot of the masks come out of Nigeria and were made for the consumption of the Western population in Europe and the US.
Currently the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Interim Dean in Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University, Sharon graduated from high school near Miami, Florida, before moving on to Spelman. After graduating in 1971, she attended the University of Illinois at Chicago to become a social worker engaged in community practice. In her office today, you will see an early part of her art collection: photo silkscreens done by students at the Chicago Art Institute that she met in the community. She continued her studies at the University of Pittsburgh and earned her doctorate in public health and social work. She moved to Cleveland in 1982 to become a junior professor chairing the health specialization and community development area for CWRU.
Shortly after relocating to the North Coast, Sharon befriended Malcolm and Ernestine Brown, who had opened the Malcolm Brown Gallery in Shaker Heights two years earlier. After discovering that it was a place where she could find African American art, she frequented their gallery and got to know them well. “I became a hanger-outer!” she says. “I bought several pieces from them, including a work by Joseph Norman, an artist and professor at the University of Georgia; three pieces by Malcolm; and Moe Brooker, a contemporary abstract painter now at the Philadelphia Art Institute who graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art.”
When the Browns delivered the Brooker piece to her home, they surprised her by bringing the artist with them for the installation. As a magnet for art and artists in the Midwest, the Malcolm Brown Gallery played an important role for Sharon, until it closed in 2011. They represented a continuation of the experience she had at Spelman, because they actually knew the artists she had learned about in college.
“I was a history and sociology major at Spelman, but I would ask about artists at the museum there,” she recalls. “I would say, ‘Jacob who?’ Jacob Lawrence. ‘Romare Bearden who?’ They would know the artist and tell me about them, so I learned a lot about the established and emerging African American artists. When I came to Cleveland, the Browns were introducing the Midwest to these major artists, mainly from New York, who came in to speak at the gallery or have a show.”
Two of Sharon’s more recent acquisitions are by Lloyd Harrison Stevens, one of the first artists in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1974-75. Both are sizable pieces: one of the canvases is 48 x 60 inches and the other is 48 by 48 inches. “These works are really important in this moment,” Sharon says. “But they have been important to me all of my life regarding art history and people of the African diaspora.”
In 2003, Sharon became one of the founding members of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Friends of African and African American Art, one of nine affinity groups. “We are a group that celebrates, stimulates, and encourages the study of works that are created by African and African American artists,” she explains. “We have worked to include young people, providing informational programs about the museum’s work in terms of African American artists, but we also go wherever we can find the art that we are interested in viewing.”
For example, the group has traveled to see shows in Oberlin, Toledo, and Cincinnati, and as far as Cuba to study Afro-Cuban art. The members seek places where they can expose themselves to what is happening with artists of the African diaspora.
“A valued member of the CMA community, Sharon has been a longstanding proponent of the museum’s Friends of African and African American Art affinity group and has served as its president for nearly a decade,” informs Heather Lemonedes Brown, Virginia N. and Randall J. Barbato Deputy Director and Chief Curator. “Under her leadership, the group organizes numerous programs throughout Northeast Ohio. Her knowledge and enthusiasm are inspirational, and her exemplary commitment to education and outreach helps further the museum’s mission. Her activist passion for racial and social justice helps make the CMA a better place. We are truly fortunate to have such an important ally in Sharon.”
Sharon credits her close friend, Helen Forbes Fields, as being the “foremother” of the Friends of African and African American Art group at CMA, where Helen is a longtime board of trustees member.
“It’s always a delight to see Sharon’s collection of primarily African American artists,” says Helen, executive vice president and general counsel, United Way of Greater Cleveland. “In her work with the museum, she has been very generous with her time and advice to sustain interest in African American and African art in the community and ensure that artists of color are introduced and focused on so they can be enjoyed and audiences can get a good glimpse of the museum’s collection.”
Sharon also serves as co-chair, with Bellamy Printz, for the Print Club of Cleveland’s Reserve Print Committee, which oversees the archive of the Print Club’s publication prints and their distribution and sale.
Her advice for neophyte collectors? Check out the new galleries beginning to emerge in Cleveland, such as Deep Roots Experience in the Fairfax neighborhood. While there, check out the art and chat with the gallery owner and the artists when possible, especially at show openings.
“If you see something you like, whether it’s an original or a reproduction, don’t be afraid to get close to those images that are important to you,” she adds. “Even if it’s on a postcard, frame it in a cheap frame and put it in your bathroom or wherever you want to put it so that you can enjoy and appreciate it.”
Don’t be afraid to give them as gifts to young people, too, to help foster their love of art. One Christmas, for example, she bought fiber artist Bisa Butler posters, framed them, and gave them to her grandson and one of his friends. “People may go to a museum or gallery and think there’s nothing accessible to them, but they can always find reproductions,” she says.