Photos: Heidi Schumann for The New York Times
L: George Preston at the Museum of Art and Origins, in his brownstone.
R: Kurt Thometz in Jumel Terrace Books, a room in his brownstone.
excerpted via NYTimes:
Home Is Where the Art Is (and the Bookstores, Too)
By JOHN STRAUSBAUGH
Published: November 28, 2005
Neighbors often cooperate to improve the quality of life in their neighborhood. George Preston and Kurt Thometz, who live two blocks from each other in Jumel Terrace at the top of Sugar Hill in Harlem, simply chose to do it in a slightly unusual way. On Nov. 10, they opened two new cultural institutions - in their homes.
Mr. Preston, 66, who grew up in the neighborhood and will retire at the end of this semester after teaching African art at City College for 32 years, turned three floors of his brownstone at 430 West 162nd Street into the Museum of Art and Origins, displaying his collection of African masks, figures and implements. Over at 426 West 160th Street, Mr. Thometz, 53, a dealer in rare and out-of-print books who moved to the neighborhood in 2004, converted a room of his brownstone into Jumel Terrace Books, featuring works on Africana, Harlem history, jazz, African-American literature and related topics. [see also our Nov 3rd post ]
Their dual opening night drew an array of literati, artists and intelligentsia, who made the two-minute stroll between the homes. The chain-smoking humorist Fran Lebowitz chatted with the Nigerian author Emmanuel Obiechina. Robert Farris Thompson, dean of African studies at Yale, signed a copy of his new book, "Tango: The Art History of Love," for the hip-hop legend Fab Five Freddy Braithwaite. The Harlem writer Playthell Benjamin, the soul music producer Billy Jackson (who co-wrote the Tymes' 1963 hit "So Much in Love") and Rachel Robinson, the widow of Jackie Robinson, mingled.
Mr. Thometz said he and Mr. Preston were following an old and recently revived Harlem tradition of holding art exhibitions, literary salons and musical soirees in the home. At least 30 art galleries are currently operating in homes throughout Harlem. A few blocks from Jumel Terrace, Sherman Edmiston, a premiere dealer in the works of Romare Bearden, has operated Essie Green Galleries in his Convent Avenue brownstone since 1987. Around the corner from Mr. Thometz, the jazz musician Marjorie Eliot is host to weekly concerts in her Edgecombe Avenue apartment.
Turning his home into a museum of African art (also open by appointment, with a $5 entrance fee) seems a natural step for Mr. Preston, who as a 21-year-old Beat poet opened the legendary Artist's Studio, a storefront on East Third Street. There, during its one year of existence in 1959, he was host to readings by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Frank O'Hara.
He made his first trip to Africa in 1968, doing fieldwork in Ghana toward his Ph.D. in art history from Columbia University, and built his collection during numerous visits since. In 2001, the Akan tribe of Ghana made him a chieftain, in a ceremony that involved holding dried herbs in his mouth for four hours. "That's because one of the first things for a chieftain to learn is how to keep his mouth shut," he explained.
The arts of many tribes and periods crowd the rooms of his brownstone in warm, intimate profusion. Massive ceremonial masks painted in bold geometric designs glare down from the walls above tiny ancestral figures with exquisitely expressive faces; an Egyptian mummified falcon guards a doorway; a Chokwe chief's tobacco pipe, 40 inches long, has been rubbed to a glistening patina by many years of use. This is a museum where the curator gives the tour, explaining the provenance and meaning of every object.
Mr. Preston and Mr. Thometz are now planning collaborative exhibitions, lectures and musical events with other brownstone cultural institutions in the area. Mr. Thometz was hesitant to declare it a new Harlem Renaissance, then added, "But I can't resist calling us the new Sugar Hill Gang."