Overlooked No More; 5 Black Artists' Works Get First D.C. Exhibit

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The Penn Quarter's Zenith Gallery is being turned into a minimuseum this week. Displayed on its walls through September will be about 30 works, none for sale, by five black American artists. The works belong to the Freedom Place Collection amassed by Washington lawyer Stuart Marshall Bloch, chairman of Congressional Bank. "The whole purpose of the show is to share his collection with the public," gallery owner Margery Goldberg says.

During the past 35 years, Mr. Bloch has acquired scenes of cotton fields by Harlem artist Romare Bearden, portraits by Georgia-born Benny Andrews, abstractions by District artist Alma Thomas, and paintings of jazz musicians and partygoers by Boston painters Richard Yarde and Robert Freeman.

His 53-piece collection traces the rise of these talents, once overlooked in the mostly white art world, to recognition in gallery and museum shows. Strong in contemporary works, it doesn't have the depth or breadth of better-known historical collections of black American art amassed by such patrons as Walter O. Evans and David C. Driskell. Still, there is much to enjoy within Mr. Bloch's showing of figural and abstract works, particularly the dense, rhythmic collages created by the late Mr. Bearden.

Sitting in the solarium of his Kalorama mansion, the 64-year-old collector, who is white, explains why he was drawn initially to art by unknown black talents. "I'm a rebel," he says. "I grew up in Detroit and went to integrated public schools. There was never a sense of us and them."

After attending the University of Miami on a golf scholarship, Mr. Bloch went to Harvard Law School, where he was the founding editor of its Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review. In the early 1970s, he purchased his first work by Romare Bearden from the Wendell Street Gallery in Cambridge, Mass., co-founded by Constance Brown, the wife of a law school classmate.

"I did it to patronize Connie's gallery, and then I got hooked," the collector says. Mrs. Brown and her business partner, Jane Shapiro, would go on to sell Mr. Bloch many of the works by black artists now in his possession.

"Stuart has a very good eye, and he would often buy an artist's signature piece," Mrs. Brown says. "He was ahead of the curve in understanding the value of these works, which weren't appreciated at the time."

Earlier this week, several of the most striking creations from the Freedom Place Collection were still hanging in the restored 1904 residence Mr. Bloch shares with his wife, Julia Chang Bloch, who served as U.S. ambassador to Nepal under the first President Bush. The supposed existence of a tunnel under the site, used by escaping slaves during the Civil War, led him to name the house Freedom Place and extend the title to his collection.

During a tour of the large residence, he points out many of his favorite pieces: "Morning of the Red Bird," an exuberant Bearden collage; "Ribbon Dancer," a charming scene by Mr. …