Phillip Collins on Curating for the African American Museum, and a Life Well Lived

By Jeremy Hallock Throughout his career, Phillip Collins has focused on giving African-American artists exposure. An accomplished art historian and curator, he established himself as an important voice in the Dallas arts community and then used his position to re-cast the spotlight. In his 60s, he retired from his Chief Curator position at the African American Museum of Dallas. But for Collins, retirement means getting even busier with other endeavors. Now in his 70s, he is "rolling off" from his position as Commissioner-at-Large for the City of Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs. But it is unlikely that he will be resting on his laurels.

Collins, a Dallas native, could easily be mistaken for a man in his 50s. His great aunt, Princella Hartman, received honors from George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and the city of Dallas for her extensive volunteer efforts and was Dallas' oldest resident when she passed away in 2013 at 107. It is not hard to imagine him living just as long. After talking about curating shows all over the planet, knowing Nina Simone, walking his dog with James Baldwin, and partying with Jimi Hendrix, he modestly wonders how his life could warrant a story.

Collins attended Booker T. Washington Technical High School, as it was called in the 1950s. "It was a black school," he says. Indeed, one of the Dallas landmark's names prior to that was Dallas Colored High School and DISD high schools were not desegregated until 1967. He remembers a quiet segregation that was quietly desegregated. From there he attended Howard University in Washington D.C. before doing his graduate work in Berlin. His expertise is in German Expressionism, "that almost savage type of interesting stuff."

After living in Europe for 25 years, Collins returned to Dallas. He recalls leading the "Go van Gogh" program at the Dallas of Museum of Art, which is still active 37 years and counting. He trained volunteers to go to public schools, talk to students about artwork, and do art projects. The name of the program still makes him chuckle. "We had a van and we would go," he laughs.

Sitting in the AAM, Collins tells the institution's colorful history. "It's the phoenix from the ashes," he says. The museum as we know it may be 40 years old, but the story actually began when Fair Park was developed for the 1936 Texas Centennial Exhibition and Celebration. African Americans wanted their culture in the exhibition, but faced opposition at the local and state levels. But a businessman named Antonio Maceo Smith had allies in Washington DC. He secured funding not only for an exhibit, but also for an entire building called The Hall of Negro Life.

"There were exhibition galleries," says Collins. "But they were all on African American university campuses in their fine arts departments. African American culture as an art form did not reach the general public's eye. We did not have a wide distribution for exposure." In 1936, it was nothing less than historic for The Hall of Negro Life to be open in Fair Park. Those who visited the museum received pamphlets like W.E.B. Dubois' What the Negro Has Done for the United States and Texas.

The Hall of Negro Life had an exhibit in six parts: Education, progress in curtailing diseases among African Americans, agriculture, mechanic arts, business and industry, and art. The building also had a collection of African American books and music. But the hall was demolished after the exhibition and a swimming pool was put in its place.

However, when segregation ended there were some who were no longer keen on a swimming pool in a public park. The swimming pool was replaced with an expansion of the parking lot for the State Fair Music Hall. But in the 1980s, the AAM started the long process of relocating. Its current spot was chosen because it is where The Hall of Negro Life once stood. The new building finally opened in 1993.

If you enter the museum through its parking lot entrance, there is a sculpture, a column leaning towards the building. The name of this structure is "Nommo." Nommo is an African deity, specifically from Mali, where agriculture is a prime economic structure. Nommo is a god of water. "Nommo is demanding that it rains on the building so that it flourishes and grows," says Collins. "Here's the best part of the story," Collins continues. "In the process of installation we had to dig deep in the earth. Well, Nommo is anchored in the swimming pool that they covered."

Upon learning of his retirement from AAM, Mary Ann Thompson-Frenk, one of the students he visited for "Go van Gogh," invited Collins to join the local non-profit organization she co-founded. Collins agreed and is now Executive Director of The Memnosyne Institute.

"It works on a global scale," Collins explains. The institute empowers indigenous cultures by empowering them to build their cultural centers. In Dallas, the non-profit has a Hunger Task Force called FoodSourceDFW. Another component of The Memnosyne Institute is Green Source DFW, which galvanizes the local green community. Faiths in Conversation brings interfaith community together with bi-monthly panels to discuss common problems. Collins says the mission of the organization is to empower individuals to be "conscious cultural creators."

Looking back at his career thus far, Phillip Collins is most proud of giving unsung African-American artist a chance to display their work. His current exhibition at the AAM, "Bayou Sculptures," is a perfect example of that work. It features sculptors from mostly Fulbright Scholars from bayou regions of Louisiana and Houston.

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