10 May 2019

Bringing Art to the People It Depicts

Musicians share collection of Gordon Parks photographs with Harvard community and beyond


Photo by Melissa Blackall/Courtesy of the Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art

Kasseem Dean (OPM 50, 2017), known in the music world as Swizz Beatz, was used to seeing Gordon Parks’ photographs in meetings with business partners and at the homes of friends who were not African American. It was far more unusual to see the artwork in front of the people Parks represented.

“Instead of overthinking it, I thought I could be a part of the change to start supporting our own,” the rapper and record producer told the Harvard Gazette. “We have a hard time supporting our own sometimes because it’s so close to us. We run from it when we should run to it.”

Over several years, Dean, and his wife, Grammy Award-winner Alicia Keys, have acquired the largest private collection of Parks’ works. They’ve loaned 80 pieces to the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Art, where “Gordon Parks: Selections from the Dean Collection” opened two weeks ago. The exhibition, which is free and open to the public, will be on view through July 19.

The Dean Collection showcases Parks’ work from his days taking portraits in early 1940s Chicago to his powerful images of the Civil Rights Movement and of poverty in the U.S. and Brazil. He shot for government agencies and Life magazine, taking intimate photos of regular people, such as families in the segregated South, and celebrities such as boxing great Muhammad Ali alike.

“Art is not meant to be in your personal space,” Dean told the Gazette. “I feel like it’s our responsibility as collectors to put many eyes on the artwork we collect because it helps the artist. This is where the Dean Collection and the Gordon Parks Foundation coming together makes sense. They have a plan where they see his legacy go, and we’re only a part of it. I don’t think this collection will ever come home. I plan on it being always on the road.”

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