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Collector Profile: Kenwood's Patric McCoy

By GINNY VAN ALYEA

When I arrived to meet Patric McCoy and see his collection in Kenwood, near Hyde Park on the South Side, I was totally unprepared for the volume of work I encountered in his modest condominium. Upon being buzzed inside I followed the friendly voice up the stairs, noticing the art along the way. Stepping into the entryway my eyes struggled to take in the dozens of works hanging all around me. Moving into the kitchen I just stopped and stared. Paintings were displayed on every kitchen cabinet, even behind the toaster oven. A 115 year-old bicycle that once belonged to artist Susan Clinard hung sideways from the ceiling, small tea lights suspended from the spokes. The proud collector beamed and welcomed me in - enjoying, for I’m sure not the first time, the look of surprise on his visitor’s face. -GV

McCoy is a native Chicagoan, recently retired as an environmental scientist with the EPA and the University of Chicago, though judging by his art-filled apartment, one would guess he’s spent his life traveling the world and buying art. While McCoy has ventured abroad, he’s spent most of his free time scouring Chicago meeting and supporting local artists. He’s been a first class flyer of a different sort, commuting to work by bicycle for 30 years, taking photos and stopping for conversation along the way. 

A collector for decades, McCoy laughs when he tells me how he began collecting art in 1967 while still in college at the University of Chicago. “The very first piece I bought is there by the front door - it’s by Scott Stapleton, who was my roommate in college. He was an Art major and I was a Chemistry major. He came in one day and said ‘I’ve done this lithograph.’” Though McCoy was unfamiliar with art terminology, he says he knew what Stapleton was talking about, “In Chemistry you have to learn a lot of Greek prefixes, so I knew ‘litho’ and I knew ‘graph.’ I said, ‘You’re writing with stone, but I don’t know what you’re doing. It was fascinating, so I asked him if it was for sale. I offered him $10, and I’ve had it with me ever since.” 

McCoy describes his home growing up as filled with art. His parents were highly creative - his father painted, built furniture, and was a photographer, while his mother was a seamstress. Though McCoy first wanted to emulate his parents and be an artist, eventually he found he belonged in the field of Chemistry. He explains, “I believe that my earlier interests and exposure to the arts actually set me up to be a good scientist.” He sees the two fields as inextricably linked, “I tell people with young children you should always expose them to the visual arts; instead of telling them, ask them what they see. That way you’ll trigger creative and critical thinking before they worry about seeing the wrong thing. There’s a lot of thinking and manipulating objects that comes out of the artistic realm. I really appreciate that it ended up giving me the framework to excel in Chemistry.”

“Psychologically and socially I didn’t begin to collect until the 1990s. Until then I was just acquiring work – I was doing a lot of it but I wouldn’t claim or admit I was a collector,” says McCoy. Eventually, he wanted to get others to collect, and in 2003 he co-founded Diasporal Rhythms, a group he says represents a different concept of collecting in Chicago, “Our organization is charged with how to redefine the term ‘collector.’ In America it has this meaning of being wealthy, private, academic - having the magic ability to know the future value of something. That’s what the majority of people in this country believe. We’re saying none of that has to be true. Particularly in our community on the South Side, we have to be the first voices.”

McCoy acknowledges why most collectors shy away from the term. He says it took him a long time to own his passion, and he’s seen the same behavior with others he’s met and introduced to Diasporal Rhythms: “They have bought into a top-down model, and we’re saying it’s from the bottom up, like every other aspect of the culture.” He sees a model for enjoying art evident in how people appreciate music in their daily lives: “No one asks you as a music collector – and almost everyone in this country is in one shape or form – did you get a degree in music? It is something we readily share with others because we share what we like. It’s not private or expensive. Despite not being academically trained to do so, they appreciate music and view the people who create it as important. The value of music for the buyer is what they personally put into it. Why can’t we do that with the visual arts?”  

When McCoy was invited to be on a panel at the South Side Community Art Center over a decade ago, with fellow collector Dan Parker, Joan Crisler, the principal of the Dixon Elementary School, and Carol Briggs, principal of DuSable High School, it was one of the first times McCoy heard others say the things he’d come to believe about the importance of art collecting in the African American Community. He says that on the south side, in what he calls “the area of Chicago that is underneath the larger art scene radar,” there is a group operating out of a long tradition of collecting that few know anything about. 

A particularly resonant consensus was on the importance of artists to the community and in schools. McCoy says, “The two principals on the panel talked about how powerful art was in socializing children. Dixon Elementary School, the only institutional member of Diasporal Rhythms, is where I went in the 7th grade back in the late ‘50s, and it was the most depressing place. At the time it was like a prison. Joan Crisler took overfor 17 years, and she collected art and put it in the school. Visiting there became, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing.’ It was a spiritual environment – now a place of learning and inspiration for young children.” Much of the work in the school was figurative and depicted African American subjects that resonated with children unfamiliar with seeing art they could relate to. Because the art is built into the curriculum of the school, McCoy says teachers would bring the children out into the hall and use the art in lessons. He points out that Dixon, located in the Chatham neighborhood on the south side, is not a selective enrollment or magnet or charter school, it’s a regular Chicago Public School. He says, “You see that original art can be in a public space and it will take care of itself. When I went to Dixon and recognized that these are kindergarten to eighth grade kids, at an age when usually they’re bouncing off the wall like little dynamos of destruction, and these priceless pieces are safe in the halls or above their lockers, I thought, ‘these kids have been socialized by the art!’ These works survive because the children value it.” Today many of Dixon’s students are collection docents. 

McCoy sees the success at Dixon as more than just a nice story – it’s evidence that by holding the arts in a place of honor, while also making them accessible, you are able to teach children other subjects too, because you have gained their attention and interest. Because of Diasporal Rhythms’s relationships with many artists from the community, the group has adopted the Advanced Placement class at King College Prep, regularly inviting artists to come to the school to do workshops for students. McCoy says that for students, the power of having professional artists work with them cannot be understated. The students are always hungry for more.

Diasporal Rhythms was founded in 2003 following a museum panel discussion that was part of A Century of Collecting: African American Art in The Art Institute of Chicago. McCoy remembers, “The Art Institute at that time was, in my mind, perpetrating a fraud – I didn’t think they had been collecting for 100 years. Maybe they had a [Henry Ossawa] Tanner 100 years ago, but then there seemed to be a big gap and then more recent stuff. I was mostly struck by how the artists at the panel, who were in this show, shared my view and criticized AIC, saying ‘you have not done what you are presenting with this show.’” It wasn’t long after when McCoy and his fellow collectors created Diasporal Rhythms in an effort to unite their collective opinions and perspectives. 

McCoy sees another museum in the future now, “Whenever collectors organize, a museum is created at that particular moment. It’s true of the Art Institute and the Museum of Contemporary Art, and others. Though Diasporal Rhythms doesn’t have a brick and mortar space now, we know that’s what will happen down the road. When a collector recognizes that these works of art have a value that is bigger than they are, they want to pass the experience on to other generations.”

McCoy undoubtedly spends a great deal of time on his bicycle, traveling to art openings, visiting studios or meeting up with fellow collectors. But his home is where his art experience is concentrated on a daily basis. Having lost count of the total number of pieces in his collection, McCoy says he estimates today that he has between 1,200 and 1,300 works. Nearly all of them are on display in his five-room home. Within the collection 350 artists are represented, including Theaster Gates, Joyce Owens, Luis DeLaTorre, Ed Paschke and many, many more. 90% are African American, and 90% are Chicago artists. McCoy says he also has a strong interest in acquiring work by female artists. Trying to summarize his collection, he points out its most identifiable characteristics, “I believe the face and the figure can tell all of the stories of human beings. We read body language and facial expressions. Color is also important - the use and play of color, and using color for expression. I also enjoy variety and try not to get stuck on any one thing.” 

When McCoy moved to his current home over a decade ago, he had to reinstall his expansive collection all at once. It was then that he recognized his collecting themes. For instance, in an area near his stereo, he’s assembled works relating to music – small linocut portraits of famous African American soul singers, like Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles, are arranged in what McCoy refers to as a sort of musical frieze.  When McCoy decided he did not want any blinds or drapes in his living room, in their place he put up stained glass portraits to capture the abundant eastern sunlight. McCoy remembers when he first moved in, “It was quite a colorful neighborhood then. When I’d look out I’d see lots of people going by, so in the windows I put up these sort of masks to remind myself that people wear their own disguises, you just have to look below the surface.” 

While McCoy enjoys observing people day-to-day, his collection has focused on historical themes, such as the struggle for Africans in the Americas. One room alone acknowledges challenges for black men. The space is divided in half on a diagonal, “One part of the room deals with problems that black men have suffered or created, and the other side represents solutions. A piece I commissioned by artist Brian Ellison for Hyde ParkArt Center’s portrait commission program, Not Just Another Pretty Face, is done here as an African adinkra symbol for the supremacy of God, because philosophically both the problems and solutions are under one God. All of these issues that have tripped up black men in America – drugs, gangs, abandonment, whatever you can imagine as the problem and its solution, there should be an image that reflects that here.” McCoy says the balance of the room helped him avoid the depression that would otherwise result from focusing on only the sad side of things. To him, “I’m a proponent that all people on the planet have had a struggle, so you can’t dwell on it because everyone’s been dogged out at some time.” Opposite another area devoted to struggle is a space devoted to meditation and peace, where McCoy says ultimately he wants to be. In this section is a portrait by artist Mary Qian of McCoy smiling in Jackson Park by the Museum of Science and Industry. As he points out the piece, McCoy reminds me that the Museum began as the Fine Arts building for the White City during the World’s Fair in 1893. He enjoys the significance that the building underwent a transformation from art to science, while McCoy himself eventually went from science to art.  

McCoy tells a story throughout his home with each step. The works of art are in conversation with him and with each other in powerful ways. More than anything else McCoy is an observer who is keenly interested in people, their struggles, passions and origins. Despite already having so many works in his collection, McCoy says he’s waiting on new pieces to arrive. His collection even overflows into the stairway in his building, so art is the first thing a guest sees. He’s pleased when others enjoy the art he’s acquired, “I think it says something to a visitor when you have a welcoming environment.”

Note: for info about the Dixon Elementary School, McCoy recommends a documentary, The Curators of the Dixon School, by Pamela Sherrod Anderson. The film will be screened this fall as part of Diasporal Rhythm’s 10-year anniversary at the Logan Center at University of Chicago.