Community profile: Dr. Robert E. Steele

This Juneteenth, we sat down with Dr. Robert E. Steele, retired professor from the University of Maryland and former Executive Director of the David C. Driskell Center, which focuses on African American art and art from the African diaspora. A prolific collector of African American art, Steele works to unveil the contributions of African American artists. This summer, he is loaning three works for inclusion in Cross Pollination: Flowers Across the Collection—two prints by American artist David Driskell and one print by American artist Margo Humphrey.

In conversation about African American art, the power of inclusive museum displays, and Steele’s established career in the industry, we asked: How does your interest in art and collecting intersect with the importance of commemorating Juneteenth?


When I think about that interconnection, the theme of invisibility comes to mind. As you’re aware, it took almost 157 years for the nation to realize the importance of this event. If you think of the African American experience, the desire for freedom, for recognition, for justice, or for [acknowledgement] as human beings, have never from a national perspective been affirmed.

Similarly, if you look at the contributions of African American art to the American canon, the contributions of African American artists to have not been recognized—they’ve been invisible. It has been, I would say, almost 150 years for the museum world to realize the contribution of African American artists…and it’s amazing what has happened in this regard in the last five years.

Professionally, as a collector and a supporter of African American art, I’ve spent the last forty years trying to rectify that reality. One of the most delightful experiences that I’ve had here in Hawai’i with this museum was with the major exhibition, 30 Americans, which broke the veil of invisibility. And, in the process, African American art becomes visible.

Let me give you two examples: Take the contributions of Sam Gilliam to the American canon. Think about his risk of creativity in terms of taking artistic creation or production out of the canvas. He was a major contribution to the whole “drape painting” movement. Robert Rauschenberg tends to get the credit for that, but Gilliam’s work was innovative, and he was one of the pioneers in that whole direction. Thinking about Romare Bearden—many remember Picasso and Braque as developing the collage medium, but Bearden took the medium of collage to a whole new level. Working with Bob Blackburn, he took the notion of the collagraph and innovated the whole print medium with amazing universal creativity. A lot of those contributions are invisible; they have never been recognized. It’s really interesting that it took 100-plus years for the June 19th experience to be seen as a national movement, until just last year. Now, Sam Gilliam is in his eighties and finally—finally!—has begun to get the kind of official recognition in the canon to be recognized by the major museums.

I would like to share with this audience my twenty-year experience on the art gallery board of Yale University. Twenty years ago, when I joined the board, I naively thought, “I’m sure at Yale University that my colleagues are really aware of the major contributors [among African American artists].” You know, I assumed they knew who Romare [Bearden] was, that they would certainly know who Jacob Lawrence was, or Elizabeth Catlett, or Faith Ringgold. So, I thought that my mission would be to introduce my colleagues in the art gallery to the mid-career and emerging artists. But, I was just amazed that people did not know who Romare [Bearden] was! It was only when the National Gallery did that major retrospective of his work that people were saying, “Who are these people?” So, I had to change my whole mission.

In terms of the artworks that [my wife] and I have entered into that collection, we had to start with Romare Bearden; we had to start with Jacob Lawrence; we had to start with Faith Ringgold. Now, we’re working on the mid-career level and emerging artists. But here, again, is the invisibility: Can you imagine twenty years ago that these major artists were just not on people’s radar? So, being a member and a supporter of [HoMA] and the direction that we’re going in, including David Driskell and including Margo Humphrey in an upcoming exhibition—you know, it’s very heartwarming for us. What can I say? It’s just a good thing. It warms my heart.

Stay tuned for more information about Cross Pollination: Flowers Across the Collection opening at HoMA this August. And mahalo, Dr. Robert E. Steele, for your time, conversation, and important contributions to further the diversity of the museum’s exhibitions.