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Diasporal Rhythms: 10 Years of Collecting

During a summer visit to South Side, North Washington Park home of collector D.E. Simmons, his thoughts were decidedly on the fall and the 10-year anniversary of Diasporal Rhythms, a Chicago collecting group devoted to art of the African Diaspora. Having heard about the group’s mission and collecting initiatives from co-founder Patric McCoy, Simmons, who works closely with the group and is their fall event chair, told me about this season’s home-tour series as well as the changes the group has undergone in the past decade. When DR started in 2003 there were four founding members; today they number 60-strong; the ambitious group now has its sights on what to accomplish next in the collecting community. -GV

Simmons describes Diasporal Rhythms’ fall home tours as having a uniqueness that comes out of the spirit of the South Side art community and its desire to express to the larger population that there are talented artists doing wonderful works worthy of notoriety, and more important, of being added to other collections. Simmons says, “I always talk about us as the little organization that could, and can, and does. We’ve offered eight versions of the tour in 10 years, and we’ve focused on expanding and making them creative.” Simmons says that tour-goers can get a little overwhelmed at first, but ultimately the sensory overload is productive. “If you’ve never been on the tour and you don’t live with this much art in your home, it’s a lot to drink in,” he explains. “You have several houses to go through and so many ideas can come to you. That pollination effect is powerful - not that we hope to wear people out but we want them to think about what’s possible for themselves.” Simmons acknowledges, “The last couple of years some of thesame homes have been on the tour, and since we’re trying to make a new experience we have to look at different communities. This year the combination of four homes in South Shore and South Chicago, plus our Logan Center exhibition is going to be really powerful.”

Getting people to interact at home is more unusual than one might think. Simmons says there is some reluctance to opening up one’s home, “There’s something about not letting people into your space. Socially, I think in Chicago people tend to say, ‘Oh I’ll meet you here,’ but I’ve noticed that many people won’t invite you over. This home tour is special. It’s not only on the South Side, but it makes people open doors - to everyone who has a ticket of course - so others can experience passion in a personal space. It’s a rare opportunity.” Homeowners quickly find it to be a very positive experience. They enjoy seeing guests inspired by the abundance of artwork. To Simmons, “It is a wonderful exchange - you get to talk about your passion for your collection and answer questions. We’re asking people to join the conversation and explore the possibilities. That openness has made many people want to support our organization.”

Simmons has received almost shocked personal feedback from participants: “Some of the notes I get say, ‘I didn’t know we lived like this culturally,’ or ‘I didn’t know I could be a collector - I thought it was only high-brow.’ I say it’s about what you like. We want you to join this madcap adventure called collecting because it is enjoyable. We learn quite a bit about certain artists, their techniques, styles, what they’re capturing and then transferring, and we react to it. We buy a piece and bring it into our own environment and thatsays something about what’s resonating within ourselves.”

Diasporal Rhythms will stage an anniversary exhibition in October at the Logan Art Center at the University of Chicago. The chance to show member works in an academic setting is a new way to come together, and the time is right to exhibit in a major art center. To Simmons, “Having pieces taken out of collections and shown together as a part of this show allows others to see the progression from when we started buying work and where we are today. Additionally a catalogue will be published for the exhibition, which is a way of documenting this moment and setting the standard for us and others. This has been our first real test, and I think we’ve passed - we have lasted 10 years. So, the next challenge is ‘what are we going to do next?’”

Reflecting on the economic difficulties that have been hard on everyone in recent years, Simmons says that many Diasporal Rhythms members have still managed to add to their collections and support artists, and they continue to be interested in art despite less-than-ideal-conditions. Three years ago, in the midst of the global financial tumult, the group reviewed and revamped their mission. “By taking a hard look at ourselves as an organization,” Simmons says, “we had to decide whether we were going to do more concrete things. Being more adroit and focused about how to grow this organization and keep it interesting spurred us to pursue more activities like studio visits to find out what artists are doing. Diasporal Rhythms aims to emphasize that you don’t have to be a multi-millionaire to be a collector. The key is that you don’t have to leave Chicago to find great artists - they’re probably living right next door to you and you just don’t know it.”

Simmons led me on a tour of his home and collection the day I visited. From the entryway to the upstairs bedrooms of his vintage home, colorful, figurative works of art cover most of the available wall space. When he acquires something new, it starts out in his office, almost visible from the sidewalk out front through the picture window. Simmons explains, “When I get a new piece it stays here for me to commune with. Ultimately it will go where it’s supposed to be in the house.” He points to the painting that is there now, “This is the only piece that’s come in and stayed and basically said, ‘This is my spot.’ This is my daughter’s work. I saw her finish this and I paid her for it, and she goes, ‘Are you serious?’ I told her yes, but she just thought I was being a dad. When I got it here I just kept looking at it and looking at it. She came over for her birthday, and when she walked in and saw I had it framed, she said, ‘Oh my God, I love it.’ I couldn’t convince her how much I really respected her work, so when she saw it was in this space, she understood that it was for real.”

Each piece, says Simmons, tends to have its own voice, and he’s not the only Diasporal Rhythms member who feels this way, “That’s a common theme when you get to know us - we say the artwork speaks to us.” Works by Joyce Owens, Alonzo Evans, Emmett McBain and Theodore Feaster populate the downstairs of Simmons’s home, demonstrating the range of work he’s collected, from large-scale paintings like Owens’s to Evans’s works on corrugated cardboard, to Feaster’s contemporary stained glass. Each piece tells a story, whether through its placement in the house, the materials used, or in the case of Feaster’s stained glass, the tough scene that inspired it. Simmons says that for a while the economy limited his collecting abilities; since he wasn’t able to buy art, he bought frames. To him, as is the case at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum where empty frames represent dozens of major works stolen in the 90s, “Everyone was asking, ‘Why are you buying frames?’ and I said, “If you buy the frame, the artwork will come.’” Simmons was eventually able to buy art once again and seek out new artists. The Diasporal Rhythms 10-year anniversary has energized Simmons and the group as a whole, and it is clear that the next 10 years will bring new relationships betweenartists, collectors and their homes.