Paul R. Jones: Collector, Activist and Huge Fan of Black Art

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When Leo Twiggs tried to sell his art in the late 1960s, rarely would an African American buy it. Back then, shows of the South Carolina artist's batiks generally garnered more oohs and aahs than sales.

Than came Paul R. Jones. The charming young government worker had heard about a Twiggs show in Gainesville, Ga., and drove up from Atlanta to check it out.

Jones chatted with Twiggs as he examined his art. Sunddenly, he pointed out five pieces that he wanted, wrote a check and asked the artist to ship his purchases. Twiggs was taken aback.

"He came in at a time when African Americans weren't buying my work. The buyers were young white professionals," recalls Twiggs, today a distinguished artist-in-residence at Claflin University in Orangeburg, S.C. "But Paul was so decisive. He was one of the first Black professionals to purchase my work. It just struck me."

What Twiggs didn't realize then was that Paul Jones was on a mission.

Since Jones, 74, began his quest for Black art almost 35 years ago, he has amassed one of the world's largest private collections of African American art. What's amazing to many is how Jones, a man of modest means, has been able to acquire at least 1,500 pieces of art.

"It was something I sacrificed for. I would always buy used cars," Jones says. "I sometimes sold art to buy other art. It was also a matter of good timing and having ready cash when something came along I wanted to buy."

Jones' collection includes work by renowned artists like Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Charles White, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Elizabeth Catlett, noted photographer P.H. Polk and Selma Burke, who created the Franklin Delano Roosevelt image that appears on the dime. Mediums range from paintings, sculpture, drawings and watercolors to quilts, photography and fine art prints.

But this collection is built more on the works of emerging and mid-career artists, some who have gone on to gain recognition. The collection's prized more for the life story it tells of a man who grew and matured as a collector along with the artists he supported.

"He started off as a social worker, then became a collector. He has a great teaching collection," says art appraiser Ben Apfelbaum, director of exhibitions at the Spruill Center for the Arts in the Atlanta suburb of Dunwoody, Ga.

"True, he has few of what others would consider treasures in his collection. But if you consider the entire collection, that is the treasure," says Apfelbaum, who curated an exhibit called "Paul Jones Collects" at the Tubman African American Museum in Macon, Ga. "Some collectors buy big names, some buy what someone else tells them to buy. They aren't collectors, they just bought a lot of art. Paul's smart; he's a tough bargainer and he buys what he likes, which is the way you should buy art anyway."

Many of Jones' purchases and loans for exhibits were motivated by his desire to encourage young artists to continue painting, to inspire other African Americans to collect or to help a struggling artist to buy supplies or pay rent. Whether prodding museum boards today to hire Black curators or stage more Black art exhibits and acquire Black art for their permanent collections, Jones turned his passion for art collecting into a force for social change.

Jones' journey to become one of the nation's leading collectors of African American art started in an Alabama mining camp. Paul Raymond Jones was born June 1, 1928, in the Muscoda community of Bessemer, Ala., a mining camp owned by Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Co., a subsidiary of U.S. Steel. His father, Will Jones, was an outgoing, down-to-earth man who had a way of getting along with everyone and defusing conflict between the races, Jones recalls. He was tapped to be a community relations worker, a liaison between Black workers and mining camp management.

By fourth or fifth grade, Jones was sent north to live with relatives in New York City, where his mother and sisters felt he would receive a better education. …