Been a Long Time Comin'

Almost 15 years after Robert A. Lewis decided to bequest his collection of modern-era outsider/folk and contemporary art to a museum, it finally makes its debut at one firmly committed to keeping it: the Cincinnati Art Museum, starting Saturday. And, bef

Almost 15 years after Robert A. Lewis decided to bequest his collection of modern-era outsider/folk and contemporary art to a museum, it finally makes its debut at one firmly committed to keeping it. And, befitting the evolution of popularity of outsider art, what a strange trip it has been for Lewis.

Isn’t It Great To Be An Artist? Insider/Outsider Art From the Robert A. Lewis Collection, featuring some 114 works, opens at the Cincinnati Art Museum on Saturday and continues through April 26. Among the outsider — also known as self-taught or visionary — folk artists displayed are the Rev. Howard Finster (whose work has graced album covers by R.E.M. and Talking Heads), Mose Tolliver and Minnie Evans, who drew dream-like visions based on imagined communications with God. This represents a new area of collecting for Cincinnati.

There will also be work by more “traditional” contemporary artists like Roy De Forest (pictured) and Roger Brown. It is all part of an approximately 500-piece collection that is part of Lewis’ bequest and is mostly already in storage here.

Lewis, an 82-year-old retired Chicago investment broker who now lives in West Palm Beach, said last week he plans to attend the opening. Last year, I talked with him about the history of his art. I’ve been saving much of what he said until now.

In the mid-1990s, he promised to bequest it to Washington’s Corcoran Gallery. At the time, its director was Jack Howard, and he and Lewis became friendly.

“My relationship with that museum was totally with Jack,” Lewis said. “I lived in Naples (Fla.) at the time and he and his family would come down and visit Robert Rauschenberg’s facilities at Captiva Island. Jack would visit me and have lunch. By 1996, we formally agreed they (Corcoran) would take possession. They brought their curators down, their wagons and box builders, took the inventory and took the stuff back to Washington.”

But when Howard left to head a foundation, it was the start of a series of changes in leadership and direction at the Corcoran. Lewis’ art sat unheralded for years, before finally getting its own relatively small show, From Folk to Funk, in 2004. But a new director then asked Lewis — and others — to take back his collection.

“He decided all promised gifts should be returned to the givers because they didn’t want to pay storage expenses,” Lewis said. “So I had to proceed again.

“I called museums like Cincinnati, the Smithsonian, Denver, Philadelphia, Boston, Yale and maybe a couple more. I had visits from the Smithsonian, Philadelphia, Denver and Cincinnati, which sent three curators.”

Most of the museums only wanted to cherry-pick Lewis’ collection — either the folk art or the contemporary. He wanted to keep it all together, after being advised by a museum director to do so.

“I had very few people willing to step up on that basis,” he said. “Telfair in Savannah was one; they had just built a new museum. Cincinnati also committed to the collection in its entirety.” Lewis went with the CAM because of its quality and longevity.

In the past year, Julie Aronson, CAM’s curator of American art and painting, has been researching histories of artists in the collection. And Lewis has been busy, too.

“I’ve been investing in photography, which I’ve never done before,” he said.

It will be become part of Cincinnati’s holdings when he “expires,” he said.

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: [email protected]

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