June 8, 2022
Life After Witt

Sharing the Joy of Black Art

Larry ’74 and Donna James Bequeath Black Art Collection to Columbus Museum of Art

When Larry James ’74 was approached in 1987 about assuming the role of board president of the King Arts Complex, a culture and arts center in Columbus, Ohio, devoted to preserving and promoting the cultural expressions of African Americans, the arts community joked that what the attorney knew about art could fit in a teaspoon. But they were confident he was “trainable.”

Strongly encouraged to accept the leadership role, Larry felt he couldn’t refuse, and over the course of 35 years, he not only grew to love and appreciate Black art, he and his spouse, Donna, amassed a significant collection, including more than 60 pieces now on display at the Columbus Museum of Art. Many of the pieces in the exhibit Forward Together: Promised Gifts from the Collection of Donna and Larry James will become part of the museum’s permanent collection through a bequest by the Jameses.

After marrying in 1989, the couple created an art budget, and various mentors in the art community helped them decide which pieces to purchase. Archie Listenbee Sr., co-owner of The Listenbee Collection in Chicago, has been a significant influence from the beginning. Listenbee would introduce him to a piece of art and “from there it just blossomed,” Larry says.

“The relationship with the arts community was such that the artist would come to you.”

A managing partner of Crabbe, Brown & James LLP in Columbus, Larry initially chose pieces that were “striking to the eye.” He began looking at oils on canvas, watercolors, then sculptures.

“Once your taste and your appetite gain a little bit of sophistication, your eye adjusts,” he says. “Then you reach that point of affordability, and your span is much more open.”

Forward Together features prominent Black artists such as Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence, and William Carter, as well as local artists Aminah Robinson, Smoky Brown, Levent Isik, and Omar Shaheed.

According to Nannette Maciejunes, executive director and CEO of the Columbus Museum of Art, the Jameses are promising nearly 60 works by 28 artists. Eighteen of those artists are currently not represented in the museum’s collection.

One of the priorities we have right now at the museum is to expand our collection in very thoughtful ways so that it reflects the lived experience of all of us. So, to diversify and enrich the collection is incredibly important, and this does something huge in one fell swoop.
Nannette Maciejunes, executive director and CEO of the Columbus Museum of Art, speaking at the member opening of the exhibit on March 3, 2022

Committed to expanding the reach of Black artists, Larry has encouraged Columbus art galleries to broaden their collections to be more diverse, which has both created new customer bases for the galleries while also sparking an interest among their current client base.

“I understand the importance of supporting artists, particularly Black artists, and having other people grow to appreciate it and see it and grow the group of people that are acquiring that art, [including] corporate America and other professionals,” says Larry, who has covered the walls of Crabbe, Brown & James’ downtown office with pieces from his collection.

“It’s like teaching. You’ve got to take the pupil/student where you find them and, [with education], they grow.”

Larry’s appreciation for the arts began at Wittenberg, with what he describes as “the full education of the being” that included exposure to theatre, literature, music, political science, and more, and created in him a “thirst and hunger for knowledge.”

“I don’t have that deep academic, intellectual appreciation,” he says. “[I’m] just someone who appreciates the importance of it and the joy of it.”

Photos courtesy of Columbus Museum of Art unless otherwise noted.

A dedicated supporter of the arts, he has served on the boards of the Lincoln Theatre Association, Greater Columbus Arts Council, Columbus Museum of Art, and Contemporary American Theater Company, as well as the Cleveland Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

He believes “mankind is incomplete without the arts.”

Spending much time at home during the coronavirus pandemic and Donna’s recent recovery from breast cancer has underscored just how important the art on their walls has become to them. The couple says it has been a ““wonderful, wonderful soothing experience being in the company of those pieces.”

“Art – and music, in a lot of ways – has an ability to take us places that in some instances we couldn’t have imagined,” Larry says. “What we see in art, what we hear in music, depending upon where we are in life, it is those moments that stay with us.

“We’ve been blessed. It’s just a joyous journey, and I couldn’t imagine life without it. I just couldn’t imagine life without it.”

About Larry H. James: A partner at Crabbe, Brown & James LLP, James earned his law degree from Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. In addition to supporting the arts, he has served on the boards of Guardianship Services, Kenyon College, Rickenbacker Port Authority, Greater Columbus Convention & Visitors Bureau, and Columbus Zoo, among many others. He is general counsel to the National Fraternal Order of Police and the Ohio FAIR Plan, and is a co-founder of the African American Leadership Academy. He and Donna received the American Red Cross of Greater Columbus’ Humanitarians of the Year Award in 2012.

Special Collection
Forward Together: Promised Gifts from the Collection of Donna and Larry James is on display at the Columbus Museum of Art until Oct. 2, 2022. Many of the pieces in the exhibit will become part of the museum’s permanent collection through a bequest by the Jameses. For more information, visit the link below.
Columbus Museum of Art
Debbie Ritter
Debbie Ritter
Writer and Content Editor

About Wittenberg

Wittenberg's curriculum has centered on the liberal arts as an education that develops the individual's capacity to think, read, and communicate with precision, understanding, and imagination. We are dedicated to active, engaged learning in the core disciplines of the arts and sciences and in pre-professional education grounded in the liberal arts. Known for the quality of our faculty and their teaching, Wittenberg has more Ohio Professors of the Year than any four-year institution in the state. The university has also been recognized nationally for excellence in community service, sustainability, and intercollegiate athletics. Located among the beautiful rolling hills and hollows of Springfield, Ohio, Wittenberg offers more than 100 majors, minors and special programs, enviable student-faculty research opportunities, a unique student success center, service and study options close to home and abroad, a stellar athletics tradition, and successful career preparation.

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