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Fire Destroys Priceless Afro-centric Art Collection

Michael P. Moss | 8/5/2009, 7:08 p.m.

Fire gutted the Northwest mansion of Peggy Cooper Cafritz, a noted arts collector and patron in the District on Wed., July 29. Cooper Cafritz, 62, a former President of the D.C. Board of Education and founder of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Northwest, was vacationing in Martha€s Vineyard in Massachusetts, at the time of the fire. She is said to have returned to the District the following day.

Approximately 100 firefighters battled the two-alarm blaze on Chain Bridge Road which started about 8 p.m. and burned until midnight. Fire officials said their efforts to control the fire were hampered by low water pressure and inoperative hydrants in the immediate area.

€We really struggled initially with water pressure in the area,€ said D.C. Fire and EMS spokesman Pete Pringle. €Firefighters did the best they could under the circumstances. We€ll have to investigate the issue of the water supply.€

Firefighters searched as far as five blocks from the house to locate hydrants to provide sufficient water supply.

The news of Cafritz€s loss resonated throughout the arts community in the District as administrators and artists alike talked about her devotion to the arts and to aspiring artists.

Akili Ron Anderson, a noted sculptor, painter and stained glass artist, met Cafritz in the 1970s. He said that she hired him to be a part of a six-month DCPS sponsored program designed for students who wanted to become artists. The successful program would serve as the precursor to the District€s Duke Ellington School of the Arts.

€In 1995, Peggy Cooper Cafritz commissioned me to do a stained glass window for her church, St. Augustine Catholic Church in Northwest, to commemorate St. Monica and Saint Augustine, two patron saints of the church and two patron saints of color,€ Anderson recalled.

€That piece of art was saved because it was not in her home. That kind of exemplifies her patronage to the arts,€ he said.
Mustafa Maluka€s €You Think I€m on Your Side€ was hung near Cafritz€s living room window.Courtesy Photo
Anderson also noted that Cafritz€s collection consisted of artwork that struck a chord within her and that she connected with strongly.

€She was very clear to collect artists of color, artists that she culturally and politically identified with in terms of the statement. It was a dual effort to support the under-supported, or under-exposed, or artists in need of a support mechanism as well as artists of great talent,€ the Northwest artist said.

€The tragedy of course is the work that€s lost, particularly work that can never be duplicated, and for the collector and the artists that is a tremendous loss. But, she will no doubt continue to collect, and I would suppose she will go back to many of the same artists and get a work that she likes. But [the original] work will never be replaced, so historically, it€s a tragedy in that regard,€ Anderson said.

Despite the devastating loss of her home and her art collection; Anderson said that Cafritz exhibits true resilience.

€She has charged herself with supporting the arts in every way possible. You build a school, you collect, you become the School Board President in order to bring your expertise in education to the entire system, and that€s quite a legacy. She is far from finished, I€m sure,€ he said.

Although Cafrtiz is known for hosting salons with guest lists that read like a Who€s Who in political, social and art circles, she has always remained true to aspiring artists. Recently, Cafrtiz invited a group of students who attend Duke Ellington School of the Arts to her home for an art-filled afternoon.

€Peggy Cooper Cafritz is not only a collector, but a constant contributor to the growth of the next generation of artists and curators,€ said Marta Reid Stewart, chair of the Museum Studies Department at Duke Ellington School of the Arts.

Stewart said that Cafritz had recently extended an invitation to the students of the visual arts and museum studies departments to visit her home to view and discuss her art collection. The meeting was scheduled for this September.

€What an opportunity for aspiring artists and curators to see an assemblage by Renee Stout in a collection with a painting of Paul Robeson by visual arts graduate Chinedu Felix Osuchukwu, class of 1997 or to see a strategically placed golden sculpture on the piano of a slave narrative of freedom by museum studies graduate Hank Thomas, class of 1994 in the same collection as a photograph by James Van der Zee,€ Stewart said.

€I believe the time at her home would have been a major inspiration for the students to strive to make their mark. For many, a time for them to feel special enough to think about, to imagine that they too can be successful and to work towards that goal,€ Stewart said.
€After Kings,€ by El Anatsui hung on the wall in Cafritz€s dining room.Courtesy Photo

Like Anderson, Stewart shares his sentiment about Cafritz€s resilience and steadfastness.

€My thoughts and prayers are with her as she and her family come back from this tragic experience. The students will receive another invitation to study her collection,€ Stewart said.

Cafritz€s home, in the upscale neighborhood of Palisades, near American University, contained a priceless collection of African and African American art and recently was featured in Oprah Winfrey€s €O€ Magazine. The article, titled €ART HOUSE,€ features Cafritz, photographed with various pieces from her collection that include works by Kara Walker, El Anatsui, Carrie Mae Weems, and Kerry James Marshall€"all of whom are considered important living artists. While the value of the collection is unknown, experts familiar with Cafritz€s holdings consider it a major loss.

€Going inside that house was a delight and a privilege €" it was so alive and filled with meaning. Peggy didn€t just collect those pieces; she loved every one of them. It is a terrible loss for her. My heart breaks for her,€ said €O€ Magazine contributing writer and editor Cathleen Medwick.

On Fri., Jul. 31, fire officials began their investigation of the blaze using large cranes and heavy equipment to dig out an area of the basement that was deemed salvageable.

€I really think they€re going to find some jewels in the burned out debris,€ Pringle said.