Harmon Kelley

Harmon Kelley's private collection of African American art was the first to be exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Funeral services were held last week for Harmon Kelley, one of the nation’s most highly regarded collectors of African American art.

Kelley, a San Antonio, Texas-based obstetrician, died of a heart attack last month at age 77.

During Kelley's lifetime, he became a leading authority on African American art. He and his wife founded the Harmon and Harriet Kelley Collection of African American Art, which in 1995 became the first private African American art collection exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

In a Facebook post, the Houston-based Museum of African American Culture compared the Kelleys’ home to an art mecca, with rooms full of paintings by such highly regarded African American artists as Henry Ossawa Tanner and Grafton Tyler Brown, the San Antonio Express-News reported.

“The Kelleys shifted the cultural dynamic for art by African Americans,” the web post stated. “Indeed, Harmon and Harriet began to fill a void in the art world, establishing the power of the individual black collector to increase the value and influence of art by African Americans; a power that is under tremendous attack today.”

Kelley and his wife’s appreciation of African American art grew after they viewed a traveling exhibition of African American artists at the San Antonio Museum of Art in 1986, the newspaper reported.

“We became completely fascinated,” Harmon Kelley said in the San Antonio Public Library Foundation’s video series “Voices of San Antonio.” “We had never seen any art by Black Americans that looked like that.”

That experience sparked their quest to learn more about and acquire African American art.

John Guess, CEO of the Houston Museum of African American Art, said Kelley and his wife represented one of the museum’s first sources of identity through artwork, the newspaper reported.

“They connected you historically to art pieces and artists like no one else,” Guess said. “What they did opened a lot of people’s eyes and inspired you to get into art and artists. They were in a lot of ways responsible for a lot of American artists entering the mainstream museums. They could establish value.”

“[Harmon Kelley] never stopped being in awe of the artists,” Guess added. “His personality was so engaging and he always made you feel at home.”