Vivian Hewitt was easy to shop for. Not for her the old standards — flowers, perfume, perhaps a new television. No clothing or jewelry.
“I told my husband: ‘Don’t give me a sweeper or a dishwasher. Those are practical things. If you’re going to give me anything, give me a painting,’” she told The Washington Post in 2000.
When they were planning their wedding, in 1949, the Hewitts told their invited guests to forget the registry. Instead they requested cash for their honeymoon, in Manhattan, which was to double as an art spending spree.
The Hewitts were not wealthy: Vivian was a librarian, and her husband, John Hewitt Jr., was a professor turned medical journalist. But what they lacked in cash they made up for in focus, passion and connections in the postwar art world, especially in New York’s black art scene.
Over nearly 40 years they amassed one of the largest and most renowned private collections of African American paintings in the country, in the process becoming two of America’s most important Black art patrons.
Ms. Hewitt died on May 29 at 102 at her home in Manhattan, her granddaughter LeighAnn Easton said.
Among the 500 pieces in the Hewitts’ collection were works by luminaries like Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence and Henry Ossawa Tanneras well as extensive portfolios by Ernest Crichlow, Ann Tanksley and others. Their holdings also included a trove of Haitian art, which they bought on trips to Haiti in the early 1960s, before switching their focus to African American artists.
The Hewitts met while teaching at colleges in Atlanta and moved to Harlem in the early 1950s. They settled into the neighborhood’s rich cultural landscape, becoming friends with the likes of Bearden, Langston Hughes and Josephine Baker. Through them they began identifying and supporting emerging artists.
Ms. Hewitt also marked milestones as a librarian: She was the first Black person to hold that position in the Pittsburgh library system, and later the first Black president of the Special Libraries Association. She spent much of her career working as a librarian for foundations, including the Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Even as she climbed the career ladder, her success was primarily a way to support her love of art. But even during the height of the Hewitts’ collecting years, from the 1960s to the ’80s, before many Black artists were accepted by the mainstream, an Ernest Crichlow painting was no offhand purchase.
“It was a sacrifice,” Ms. Hewitt told The Washington Post. “But we just had a passion for art. We bought what we liked, instinctively, intuitively. And we knew what we liked. Nine times out of 10, we agreed on what to purchase. The other time we compromised.”
Vivian Ann Davidson was born on Feb. 17, 1920, in New Castle, Pa., north of Pittsburgh. Her father, Arthur Davidson, was a waiter and a butler, and her mother, Lela (Mauney) Davidson, was a teacher. Through her mother she traced her family history to an enslaved woman named Silvy, who was brought from Guinea.
Though she often lamented her lack of artistic skills, Vivian grew up surrounded by art and developed an appreciation for it. Her parents made sure to take her to touring exhibitions that passed through Pittsburgh. A reproduction of Jean-François Millet’s “The Gleaners” hung on their living room wall.
She studied psychology and French at Geneva College, in Beaver Falls, Pa., and graduated in 1943. A year later she received a master’s in library science from the Carnegie Institute of Technology, today a part of Carnegie Mellon University.
After spending five years with the Pittsburgh public library, she took a job as a teaching librarian at Atlanta University, today Clark Atlanta University. One day an English professor from nearby Morehouse College, John Hamilton Hewitt Jr., came to check out a book. They started talking about art, one thing led to another, and within a few months they were married.
Mr. Hewitt died in 2000. Their son, Dr. John H. Hewitt III, died in March at 70. Along with her granddaughter Ms. Easton, Ms. Hewitt is survived by another granddaughter, Maria Veronica Laschon, and 10 great-grandchildren.
The Hewitts began their art collection with high-quality reproductions; on their honeymoon they bought works by Paul Klee, José Clemente Orozco and Picasso. They bought their first original work by an African American artist, J. Eugene Grigsbyin 1960.
By then the Hewitts were ensconced in the Black art scene around Harlem. Mr. Hewitt’s sister, Adele Glasgow, had been Langston Hughes’s typist and later ran an art gallery, through which they bought several of their early paintings.
Their home became a studio and an occasional salon, showing work by up-and-coming artists who lacked the connections to get into established commercial galleries. As her influence as a collector grew, Ms. Hewitt used her prominence to promote new artists and to build a community among them.
“She said to me, ‘You need to meet Romare Bearden, call him up,’ and I did and I went down to his studio in Canal Street,” Ms. Tanksley said in a phone interview. “She brought us together. She made an asserted effort for us to know each other and know the work that we were doing.”
Ms. Hewitt retired from her last position, as a librarian for the Council on Foreign Relations, in 1988. Afterward she focused on preserving the couple’s collection, which by then included masterworks like Bearden’s “Morning Ritual” and Tanner’s “Gate in Tangiers.”
When Mr. Hewitt’s health declined in the mid-1990s, the couple started to think about their legacy. Above all, they wanted the core of their collection — 58 museum-quality paintings by established artists —to stay together, ideally at a public institution where future generations could enjoy them.
“Their vision was to use their art to educate and encourage people to collect,” Ms. Easton, their granddaughter, said.
The couple reached an arrangement with the philanthropic arm of NationsBank, today Bank of America, to buy all 58 works and place them in a museum. To raise funds, the collection went on a nationwide tour of more than two dozen museums. Ms. Hewitt often lectured at the openings, highlighting the work of lesser-known artists in her collection.
NationsBank acquired the collection in 2009 and gave it to the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts & Culture in Charlotte, NC
“Buy what grabs you,” Ms. Hewitt said at a 2017 reception in Pittsburgh. “Invest in your own heritage. Support local artists. And don’t let an interior decorator tell you what to buy.”