When wintering in Naples, Lyn and E.T. Williams cherish their Pelican Bay condo that overlooks a peaceful lake and is only minutes away from Artis—Naples. In addition to impressive stacks of well-read fiction, nonfiction, cookbooks, and coffee-table art books, each room features its own collection of colorful paintings. Framed family photos of their beautiful daughters and adorable grandchildren compete for space on shelves and desktops. Now 82 (E.T.) and 80 (Lyn), they are working to ensure that all the art they have collected over their long careers ends up in good homes. They want people to see it and, perhaps, learn about an African American artist they didn’t know before.
If it weren’t for the Williamses, works by such lauded African American artists as Romare Bearden and Hale Woodruff might not be drawing crowds at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Whitney Museum. Without their efforts to collect and connect African American artists with institutions, Bearden’s vibrant abstract expressionist paintings and Woodruff’s muscular murals might be languishing in a dark storage unit somewhere or lost entirely. Instead, the Williamses have helped to not only bring academic attention to these artists, but to introduce them to an entirely new generation of art enthusiasts.
“We didn’t start out with the idea of amassing an art collection,” says Lyn, whose jobs have included teaching and interior design. She had started her own training to be a sculptor but realized she didn’t have the “real commitment” to it that was necessary. As newlyweds, the couple lived in her hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, where she participated in the women’s committee at the Baltimore Museum of Art. She worked in the loan gallery, an innovative program that allowed private patrons to rent paintings. Then, if they chose to buy them, they could deduct the rent from the cost. Seeing all the paintings coming in and out of that collection exposed her to many types of artists she otherwise would never have known, she says.
It was also during this time that she became familiar with the Cone Collection, an important group of paintings that includes such masters as Picasso, Matisse, and Degas. Sisters Claribel and Etta Cone began accumulating the works in the early 1900s, and they now are a critical foundation of the museum’s holdings. Lyn admired the collecting the sisters had done and how they befriended the artists they collected. The Williamses, for their part, had some friends who were artists and, as they educated themselves, would buy pieces from them here and there.
“Once you start looking at different types of art, you start paying attention, and another door opens, and you’re led into further exploring,” says Lyn. “We would meet someone who would tell us about another artist. Then that person would lead us to yet another, and so on. And whenever we travel, we make a point to go to as many museums as possible to see what’s on display.”
Her husband, E.T., shares her curiosity and love of art. Raised in Brooklyn, New York, he would often go with his sisters and mother to the Brooklyn Museum when they were young. “That’s how I first started getting interested,” he says.
Years later, things came full circle when E.T. and his sister Joanne became the first African American brother-and-sister duo to serve on the board of a major American art museum: the Brooklyn Museum. Over the years, Lyn and E.T. gradually began collecting works of African American artists, including Hale Woodruff, Thornton Dial, and Romare Bearden. After Hale Woodruff died in 1980, they bought the contents of his studio from his widow, giving some works to museums and keeping others. They saw how carefully placed gifts and sales could boost an artist’s career and help art lovers get to know their work on a wider scale.
E.T., whose career had been in finance and real estate in New York, went on to sit on the board of the Museum of Modern Art in addition to the Brooklyn Museum. Although he and Lyn had noticed a lack of African American artists in the museum collections, E.T. felt it was particularly significant that this same demographic was underrepresented in the personal collections of the trustees.
He and Lyn worked to help his fellow board members appreciate the work of African American artists and start collecting it. As E.T. notes, “When trustees eventually die, they may give a portion of their collection to the museum.” And because very few of the trustees were African American or owned any African American work, the lack of representation continued in a perpetual cycle.
Their observations are certainly reflected in the data. A 2019 study published by the Public Library of Science showed that, in 18 major American museums, a whopping 85 percent of the artists were white and 87 percent were men.
“Our goal from the beginning was to give exposure to African American artists who weren’t getting it,” says E.T.
Late in the Williamses’ careers, when they had built a solid collection and placed works in the top museums in the country, one more opportunity presented itself.
It started modestly, in line at the post office in Sag Harbor, New York, where they spend their summers. There, E.T. ran into the former girlfriend of painter Claude Lawrence. The Williamses knew his vivid, jazz-infused paintings, having bought one years before. The woman explained that Lawrence was very sick with cancer and doctors had given him six weeks to live. His meager Social Security payments were supporting him, she said, but he had a lifetime’s worth of paintings sitting in storage.
E.T. and Lyn decided to buy Lawrence’s entire collection. They then set about getting it the attention—and spots on the walls of major museums—they thought it deserved. They showed the works to their contacts in the art world, and curators and museum staffers were as excited about the pieces as they were. In 2014, the Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired some of Lawrence’s paintings. Then the Brooklyn Museum came calling—and the National Gallery of Art, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and many more. Before they were finished, Lawrence’s work was in 34 museums across the U.S., including The Baker Museum here in Naples. And the painter had what he wanted: a legacy. (Interestingly, Lawrence survived his cancer scare. Now 76, he’s still producing work and able to enjoy this exciting turn of events late in his career.)
E.T. is pleased to see that things are starting to change and that some African American artists’ work is on an equal footing in the marketplace. “Artists like Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas, David Hammons, their art is selling for multimillion dollars,” he says. “I think a lot of it started when Laura Bush bought a Jacob Lawrence for the White House for $2.5 million. That gave a lot of impetus to people. They thought, if Laura Bush likes it, maybe we could [look into it too].”
The Williamses recognize that they are in the final chapter of their art-collecting careers. “We’ve done what we wanted to do,” says E.T. Now they want to be sure they have the appropriate help to care for their collection and are currently looking for a dealer who will take over for them. “Then we will be out of the picture,” says E.T. with a smile.
But don’t look for their name to be emblazoned in foot-high letters on a wing at the Brooklyn Museum or the MoMA. “Our names are associated with the artwork itself,” says E.T. “We’re not particularly interested in anything else.” Lyn agrees. “This is an educational project for us,” she says. Their goal was to spread the work all over the country. “That’s most important,” she adds. “That’s fine for us.”
To talk to them, you would never know what a difference their work has made in the art world. They seem happy to stay behind the scenes and let the paintings speak for themselves. Still, others have noticed.
Anne Pasternak, director of the Brooklyn Museum, says, “Lyn and E.T. Williams are trailblazers in the arts who have made history in a number of critical ways. I have the deepest admiration for their inspirational work in championing and disseminating African American art, their dedication and generosity to the Brooklyn Museum and to so many institutions across the United States.”
In keeping with that generosity, they have advice for the next generation who may want to become art collectors. Mostly, they’d like to debunk the myth that the art world is impenetrable. “Understand that you don’t have to have mass amounts of wealth,” says Lyn. “Just meet as many people as you can who are doing what you want to do. Educate yourself. Talk to gallerists, who love to talk about the work they have. Get to know as many artists as possible.”
And now that they’re not collecting anymore, what is next for them? Lyn smiles warmly and thinks for a minute. “Sharing,” she says.