Every morning Peggy Cooper Cafritz steps outside and confronts the wreckage: the acrid smell of her incinerated walls and furnishings, the police tape clinging to a chain-link fence surrounding her property, the rumbling backhoe hauling away the charred remains of her longtime home.
She has been living in the house of a friend across the street from this scene, which she matter-of-factly calls “the ruins.” And for the moment, at least, she is all business, filling out insurance forms, talking to fire investigators and real estate brokers, replying to scores of e-mail messages and letters of sympathy. She has not had time, she says, to weep or grieve.
So, when asked about her loss, Ms. Cafritz hesitates. Her $5.2 million mansion here in the Kent neighborhood of northwest Washington held one of the largest private collections of African-American and African art in the country, more than 300 sculptures, paintings, photographs and other pieces that she painstakingly accumulated over the past two decades, often from artists whose careers she had personally nurtured.
The works of 19th- and 20th-century painters like Edward Mitchell Bannister, Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden hung amid contemporary work by artists like Hank Willis Thomas, Nick Cave, Kara Walker and Kerry James Marshall. Virtually everything was destroyed in the blaze that gutted the house on July 29, while she and her son were on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard.
“I had a wonderful picture,” Ms. Cafritz began, on the verge of a reverie about one of her favorites, and then she paused. “It’s gone. It’s gone. No more pictures, you know.”
“I’m hoping I can be strong enough not to be hit by that ton of bricks, not to become dysfunctionally sad,” said Ms. Cafritz, 62, as she sat on a couch in her temporary home this week. “Right now my emotions are submerged, like under water.”
The destruction of the collection is being mourned in museums and galleries too, particularly among connoisseurs of contemporary African-American and African art. Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, praising Ms. Cafritz’s “unique eye and incredibly refined aesthetic,” called it “a great loss.” Jack Shainman, the New York gallery owner, lamented the destruction of “a singular vision.”
Kinshasha Holman Conwill, the deputy director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, saw the collection for the first time a week before it burned. “It felt like a little bit of heaven,” Ms. Conwill said of the house, adding that the art “was visually exquisite, but it was also lived-with art,” art that was clearly part of a “committed life.”
Some of it was politically provocative. In addition to abstract paintings, nudes and more formally inventive pieces — an inflatable baby that looked as if it were breathing, stereo speakers bedecked in sequins — the collection included a slave ship fashioned from wood and African fabrics, by Yinka Shonibare; a painting of George W. Bush in a cowboy hat, firing pistols in a rain forest (“Bush Gardens,” it was called), by Thales Pereira; a photolithograph of a naked black woman titled “Not Manet’s Type,” by Carrie Mae Weems; and an ink-jet image of a black basketball player dangling from a noose, entitled “Hang Time Circa 1923,” by Mr. Thomas.
It was a collection that rarely left viewers unmoved, according to several artists and museum officials who saw it, though it certainly didn’t appeal to everyone, said Michael Chisolm, a New York art historian who completed an appraisal of the works last year for insurance purposes.
Traditionalists “would probably be appalled and horrified by Peggy’s collection,” said Mr. Chisolm, who, like Ms. Cafritz, declined to divulge the collection’s value. “But it was the kind of thing that a museum could take in its entirety and fill galleries with. It was really, in a sense, a monument to the place that artists of color, particular of African descent, have taken in the art world.” It also reflected the life and sensibilities of Ms. Cafritz, a wealthy African-American woman who is a prominent patron of the arts and a political fund-raiser, one who has long considered herself a bridge between the haves and have-nots in a city still polarized by race and class. Born in Mobile, Ala., she was for many years the wife of Conrad Cafritz, a white real estate developer from a prominent family. (They divorced in 1998.)
For 23 years her eight-bedroom mansion served as a meeting place for both the powerful and the unknown. She gave parties for John F. Kennedy Jr. and Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson and local Democrats. She raised thousands for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and was invited to the Stevie Wonder concert at the White House earlier this year.
But Ms. Cafritz — who in the 1970s had helped to found the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, a public high school here for talented and often underprivileged teenagers — also opened her home to foster children, poor students and struggling artists. And she regularly championed minority artists, buying their work, calling them with words of encouragement and haunting art galleries, art shows and auctions in Washington and New York to find young people with promise.
“When do artists need you the most?” asked Ms. Cafritz, who also collected some works by Latin American artists. “When they’re young. There is greater representation of African-American and Latino artists in these great art galleries and museums now, but it’s not enough. Too many people are unfamiliar with these young people’s work.”
Mr. Cave, 50, whose sculpture of a towering figure mummified in black fabric, from his “Soundsuit” series, stood outside Ms. Cafritz’s great hall, said she was like “my mother or my aunt.” Mr. Thomas, 33, whose photographs of African-Americans dominated a room in her home, said he might not have become an artist if she hadn’t helped create the Duke Ellington School, which he attended. (Other graduates include the comedian Dave Chappelle and the mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves.)
“The collecting of the art was definitely profound and important,” said Mr. Thomas, whose work questions assumptions about race and commercialism. “But giving young African-American kids an opportunity, that’s something that can never be burned away.”
Ms. Cafritz says she cannot bear to think about starting over with her collection. “I know I will, but it’s too soon,” she said. But as she waits for the fire department to complete its investigation, she is certainly thinking about the future.
She is planning a goodbye party on the grounds of her old home. She intends to move — first into a hotel and then into a semi-permanent home — so that she and her 17-year-old son, Cooper, no longer have to see the rubble of their old lives every day. And she wants to restore the few pieces that have been recovered: several sculptures that adorned her gardens, paintings by James Everett Stanley and Ghada Amer, and a mixed-media work by Bruce Onobrakpeya. She wants to move forward, she said, not dwell on what was lost.
But as Ms. Cafritz spoke, she remembered that someone had retrieved a waterlogged catalog of art from the remains of the fire. She searched out the plastic binder and was soon lost in her memories, slipping from past tense to present tense in one breath.
“These are in my bedroom,” Ms. Cafritz said, smiling as she pointed out the sculptures and paintings that once graced her home. “This was on the piano.”
Cooper prodded her gently, telling her that they needed to leave. A man was waiting in the driveway to show them a new house. But Ms. Cafritz did not stand up until she had lingered over nearly every page. “It’s all that’s left,” she said.