A couple years ago, Forbes Library received a $10,000 donation from a donor who wanted to remain anonymous but also wanted the money used for a very specific purpose: to broaden the Northampton library’s permanent art collection.
More specifically, says Lisa Downing, the library’s director, the donor wanted to see work from local and regional BIPOC artists in Forbes, where pastoral landscapes and portraits of white men have tended to dominate the walls and niches of a building that dates to the 1890s.
Now, after committing $10,000 of its own funding to match the gift it received and conducting an extended search, the library has acquired 10 new works from BIPOC artists.
Among the new holdings are paintings, drawings, digital art and more, and the work is drawn from some notable artists in the region such as children’s book author and illustrator Grace Lin, Smith College Professor of Art Alex Callender, the late writer and photographer Julius Lester, and Indigenous artist Anthony Melting Tallow.
Not only that: At a recent reception, an additional portrait, of famed abolitionist Sojourner Truth, was unveiled, a work by the late Richard Yarde. Yarde, a painter and University of Massachusetts Amherst professor who died in 2011, was acclaimed for his mosaic-like watercolors depicting many scenes from African American life, including the Harlem Renaissance.
Yarde’s painting, which he originally donated to the Sojourner Truth Memorial Statue Committee to help the group’s scholarship fund, has in turn been donated to the library by the Truth Committee, Downing said: “We’re really grateful.”
The library donor — the person lives in the area, according to Downing — told Forbes officials that the library “ideally should reflect the more diverse community we have today, as it’s a community space itself, and we agree,” Downing said.
She and Faith Kaufman, who manages the library’s Music and Art Department, note that the library has been committed for some time to bringing diverse artists to its monthly exhibits in Hosmer Gallery and offering a range of other library programming.
“But the permanent (art) collection says something important about the library’s values,” Downing added. “It’s something people see every day.”
After receiving the $10,000 gift, library officials formed a committee including staff, trustee members and two local artists of color, Downing said, and began canvassing people and organizations, such as R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, in the Valley art community for suggestions on purchasing work from regional BIPOC artists.
In an email, Kaufman says Forbes also looked for pieces that reflected gender diversity and for work from Asian American artists. Selecting art that could appeal to children, teens and adults, and from different mediums, was important as well, Kaufman noted.
“We also had to consider space requirements and physical permanence, so we didn’t choose works that were, for example, ephemeral or extremely large,” she said.
All told, the committee looked at work from 30 different artists, Kaufman added.
Some existing artwork in the library has been moved to accommodate the new pieces, some of which are now in the Reading Room on the first floor; others are in the lobby and the Reference Room, and three are in the Children’s Department.
Two of the latter are illustrations by Lin, who lives in Florence. Lin, who is Taiwanese-American, told the Gazette in some past interviews that she was raised in upstate New York, where she rarely saw an Asian face; nor did she recall seeing them in the stories she read as a child, she said.
She’s made Asian children and families a big focus of her stories. One of her works now in Forbes, for instance — a colorful portrait of a dragon flying past a mountain — is from her book “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon,” a fantasy inspired by Chinese folklore.
A drawing by another Northampton children’s book writer and artist, Mike Curato, is also part of the new collection.
Callender, the Smith College professor, has contributed “All the light begins and is borrowed,” a mixed work on paper of ink, graphite and acrylic paint. It’s an abstract image that includes the outline of what seems to be a human torso, its interior made up of white lines that suggest trajectories of light, like shooting stars.
On her website, Callender says her work explores “intersections between myth, colonial legacies, and material culture” by using “historical narrative, repurposed archival imagery, and speculative fictions.”
Downing said Callender’s piece was purchased from a gallery in New York City.
Lester, the children’s book writer who taught for years at UMass Amherst — he died in 2018 — was also a noted photographer, and Forbes has purchased two striking images by him: towering layers of clouds floating above rolling hills, a picture he took from his UMass office, and a digital collage of film photographs he made of Black women in the U.S. South in the mid 1960s.
Other new works of art include “The Transition,” a spray painting by Springfield-based artist Ryan Murray that offers a mixed image of a teenager standing in front of a building that appears to be Northampton High School; abstract elements include a strange, striped sky and what might be tiny balloons floating there.
Downing said it was tough to whittle down the library’s choices to 10 “but we’re pretty happy with the pieces we’ve chosen.”
She also hopes the library can continue to collect diverse art, including some three-dimensional work. “We want to have work that really represents the community.”
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.