Salisbury native, spouse donate African-American artwork to Georgia museum

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 9, 2012

By Shavonne Potts
Brenda Thompson and her husband, Larry, are always on the hunt for the right kind of art to add to their vast collection of more than 600 pieces of African-American art.
The couple has one of the country’s largest collections of African-American art and have recently donated 100 of those pieces to the Georgia Museum of Art.
Brenda Thompson is a Salisbury native. She grew up on Partee Street and attended Price High School.
Larry Thompson grew up in the small town of Hannibal, Missouri.
The couple now divide their time between Georgia and Connecticut.
As a young married couple, the two would rent posters and paintings from the local library.
“It may be hard to buy a (Romare) Bearden, but we could buy a print,” she said.
They soon discovered they could buy good art that was really affordable.
Their contemporary art collection includes some known artists and lesser known artists. Some pieces in the collection date to the 1800s, some are historical, many are paintings, but some are sculptures and drawings.
Some collectors accumulate a few of the most prominent works by a known artists, Brenda said, she and her husband make a conscious effort to include significant art in their collection by artists who may not be widely known.
The two weren’t always surrounded by significant art. In fact, they both had very little art growing up.
Brenda Thompson’s parents, her father a tailor and mother a nurse, had very little art in the home.
Her parents had two works of art — the Last Supper and a landscape piece.
“My parents had this real sense of trying to make their home humble, but better,” Thompson said.
Larry Thompson, a native of Hannibal, Missouri, grew up the son of a railroad switchman and a cook. His parents didn’t have money for art.
Brenda’s love of art, she believes, stemmed from the sense of culture she found as a student at Price High School.
She recalled portraits of African Americans displayed on the walls of the school.
It was at Price High School that she found a “sense of culture, respect and dignity,” Thompson said.
“Having gone to these segregated schools, we learned a respect for our history and had that responsibility to contribute to that history,” she said.
Brenda Thompson began collecting art after being introduced to galleries at Clark Atlanta University.
In 1942, Clark Atlanta University Galleries began its inaugural art exhibitions.
“There was no other place for blacks to show their work. We spent a lot of time in those galleries,” Thompson said.
• Georgia ties
In the fall Larry Thompson joined UGA as a professor where he teaches corporate and business law.
He is a former deputy attorney general for the United States and former senior vice president of government affairs, general counsel and secretary for PepsiCo.
Larry Thompson has previously been a visiting professor and speaker at the university for more than 10 years.
Brenda Thompson is a retired clinical school psychologist with the Atlanta Public Schools.
She was an assistant professor at Morehouse College in the department of psychology before focusing on child and adolescent mental health.
Brenda Thompson currently serves on the Board of Trustees for the Barnes Foundation, a Pennsylvania educational institution that houses collections of fine art and plants.
She also sits on the Board of the Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries. Brenda joined the Georgia Museum of Art’s Board of Advisors in late 2011.
• The Collection
Once Brenda and Larry began collecting, they realized they had a passion for it.
The two immersed themselves into art. They attended museums, read books and met artists.
Acclaimed artist and art historian David Driskell attended an art viewing at the couple’s home and asked who advised them on their collection.
“We said we had been reading books by him. We felt we had something special,” Thompson said.
Early in their collecting, the Thompsons had no idea they would one day have so many art pieces.
When most people look for a home that has open space, the Thompsons look to see how much wall space it has.
“We learned to look for certain kinds of places. I want a house with walls,” Thompson said with a laugh.
The couple acquire pieces from art dealers, museums and sometimes the artists themselves.
“We buy a lot of art from deceased artists, but we do try to support living artists as well,” Thompson said.
• The donation
The donation is estimated to be worth at least $1.5 million.
The couple will also fund an endowment to support a new curatorial position at the museum known as the Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson Curator of the African Diaspora.
The exhibit will travel next to Houton, Texas and Knoxville, Tennessee in 2013.
When the museum took the first 50 pieces for the David Driskell Tour, it was hard parting with them, Thompson said.
“The house felt empty,” she said.
She would always wake up with a cup of coffee and see those pieces on the walls and throughout their home.
Many of the donated pieces were some of the couple’s best pieces.
“It was hard to see them go,” Thompson said.
But, when Thompson saw the pieces were on display at the Driskell Center, they felt as if they belonged, she said.
Thompson said it made she and her husband feel good to know people enjoyed the artwork and the artists were pleased their work was being seen.
“We want to make sure people are exposed to African American art,” she said.
It is the Thompsons hope that people get exposed to artist who they think are special.
“Also that people change and expand their perception of African American artists,” Thompson said.
She believes the perception is that all African American artists paint folk art or that they are untrained.
Many artists in the couple’s collection were and are trained at known institutions.
Atlanta may be the place she calls home as an adult, but Salisbury will always be home.
“Salisbury is a part of who I am,” she said.
“Price High School was about helping to develop this sense of culture. It wasn’t about collecting, but having a sense of who you were,” Thompson said.
For more about the couple’s donation and traveling exhibit, visit
Contact reporter Shavonne Potts at 704-797-4253.