Peggy Cooper Cafritz, Patron of Black Artists, Dies at 70
By PENELOPE GREENFEB. 23, 2018
Peggy Cooper Cafritz at her home in Washington in 2015. She was born into the most prosperous family in Mobile, Ala. Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
Peggy Cooper Cafritz, an arts patron, civil rights activist, educator and saloniste in Washington, died there on Feb. 18. She was 70.
Her daughter, Arcelie Reyes, said the cause was complications of pneumonia.
Ms. Cooper Cafritz was a voracious collector and champion of African and African-American artists, including Jacob Lawrence, Kara Walker, El Anatsui, Kerry James Marshall and Kehinde Wiley, whose unconventional portrait of President Barack Obama, as a seated figure amid greenery, was unveiled this month.
She amassed one of the country’s largest private collections of African-American art.
Just as voraciously, Ms. Cooper Cafritz collected people, encircling herself with politicians, artists, celebrities, potential donors for her many causes and, most particularly, children. She fostered and mentored countless young people, including one former gang member who needed $8,000 to pay her college tuition. (Ms. Cooper Cafritz had read about her in The Washington Post.)
“Peggy Cooper Cafritz was exemplary in her incredible support of art and the artists who make it,” said Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, “and in her commitment to truly exploring — and living with — adventurous contemporary work.”
She was born Pearl Alice Cooper in Mobile, Ala., on April 7, 1947, to Algernon Johnson Cooper Sr. and the former Gladys Mouton. At the time, the Coopers were the most prosperous black family in the city. Her grandmother had opened the first black school there, and her father owned a string of funeral and insurance companies all over the state.
But their stature could not insulate them from the realities of the Jim Crow South. When her father tried to integrate the city’s Roman Catholic schools by sending his eldest son to a Jesuit school in Mobile, the bishop expelled the young man, and the rest of the Cooper children were barred from attending high schools in the diocese. Ms. Cooper and three of her five siblings were sent to boarding schools.
Ms. Cooper Cafritz was a junior at George Washington University when she and the choreographer Mike Malone founded a summer program that is now the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, an incubator for generations of minority artists, among them the comedian Dave Chappelle. She was a founder of the Black Student Union at George Washington and pushed successfully for the Greek organizations there to prohibit racial discrimination.
After a fire destroyed her previous home, and with it more than 300 pieces of art, Ms. Cooper Cafritz moved to this duplex condominium on Dupont Circle in Washington and began rebuilding her collection. Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
She was in her first year of law school at George Washington when her father committed suicide — bedeviled, she said, by money troubles. Using her law books as collateral, she took out a loan so that her youngest brother could stay in boarding school.
Coming from the segregated South, said Rashida Bumbray, a New York-based curator and choreographer who was formerly artistic director at Duke Ellington, “Peggy understood the real political significance of training young black artists, and that political significance also extended to when those artists are beginning their careers.
“Her idea of what it meant to be a collector also meant investing in the artist as a human being,” Ms. Bumbray said. “She had a relationship with each individual. She didn’t take it lightly. She practiced a radical kind of love, and we see that love truly manifest in the success of the artists she collected and nurtured so deeply.”
Simone Leigh, a multimedia artist whose work exploring African-American tropes and female identity was also championed by Ms. Cooper Cafritz, said of her: “She had a lot of faith that we could do well. She made you feel like the most important artist in the world. She saw that’s what was needed.”
Ms. Cooper Cafritz turned her Washington home into a veritable gallery of African and African-American art. Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
In 2009, more than 300 pieces of art that she had spent years collecting were destroyed in a fire that ravaged the gabled and columned eight-bedroom estate Ms. Cooper Cafritz had built in 1986 with her husband at the time, Conrad Cafritz, a wealthy developer, in the Kent neighborhood of northwest Washington. Firefighters said there had not been adequate water pressure in the neighborhood’s hydrants. In 2014, Ms. Cooper Cafritz settled a lawsuit with Washington’s water authority for an undisclosed amount.
After months of investigation, fire officials classified the cause of the fire as “undetermined.”
The house had long been a vibrant social hub for Washington’s elites. There were political fund-raisers, including one for the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson’s presidential campaign in 1988. When John F. Kennedy Jr. was looking for a place for a party in the capital to introduce his new magazine, George, Ms. Cooper Cafritz opened her doors to him.
Resilient and gruffly beguiling, Ms. Cooper seemed to juggle fame and catastrophe, much of it health-related. She once had emergency gallbladder surgery in Croatia during a doctor’s strike, which put her in a coma; more recently there were two failed back surgeries and bouts of pneumonia, the last one putting her in Medstar Georgetown University Hospital, where she died.
Kristine Mays’s sculpture “The Entanglement of Black Men in America” was on display at the home of Ms. Cooper Cafritz in 2015. She amassed one of the country’s largest private collections of African-American art. Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
Ms. Cooper Cafritz had been a fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and president of the District of Columbia Board of Education.
Her marriage to Mr. Cafritz ended in divorce in 1998. Besides her daughter, Ms. Reyes, she is survived by two sons, Zach and Cooper Cafritz.
After the fire, Ms. Cooper Cafritz moved into and renovated a glass, concrete and steel duplex condominium on Dupont Circle and began rebuilding her art collection. “Collecting has now reached diseased levels in my being,” she said at the time.
Rizzoli has just published her first book, “Fired Up! Ready to Go! Finding Beauty, Demanding Equity: African American Life in Art.” The book includes essays by Mr. Marshall, Ms. Golden and others.
“She had two great goals for this year,” Zach Cafritz, her elder son, said. “One was to see the new campus of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts open, and the other was to see her book completed. I know it means the world to her that she made it to the finish line.”