Once Upon a Harlem Time

Once Upon a Harlem Time

Writer Quincy Troupe and art dealer Margaret Porter Troupe speak with Franklin Sirmans — Director of the Pérez Art Museum in Miami and curator of MoMA’s 2008 exhibition “NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith” — about their intimate art collection that includes work by Stanley Whitney, Alexander Boghossian, Mary Lovelace O’Neal, Ed Clark, and other seminal artists.
Writer Quincy Troupe and art dealer Margaret Porter Troupe speak with Franklin Sirmans — Director of the Pérez Art Museum in Miami and curator of MoMA’s 2008 exhibition “NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith” — about their intimate art collection that includes work by Stanley Whitney, Alexander Boghossian, Mary Lovelace O’Neal, Ed Clark, and other seminal artists.

Q uincy and Margaret Porter Troupe met in New York City in the 1970s, unsurprisingly at poetry reading. They are the quintessential NYC arts couple from Harlem, deeply steeped in the arts from all angles. With Quincy’s history as a poet and writer and Margaret’s history as the host of Harlem Arts Salon, The Gloster Arts Project, and as the gallerist of Porter Troupe Gallery, they have been a part of the arts in an expanded field for the last fifty years.

They are legendary hosts and connectors of people, often artists and writers, across generations, and their collection takes on the same eclectic and electric energy with which they live their life. Quincy is known for his autobiography of Miles Davis and he conducted the last interview with James Baldwin. He knew Toni Morrison and so many others, particularly those who hung out at Mikell’s, the famed spot for jazz in the Upper West Side for decades. Margaret showed emerging artists and friends like Elizabeth Murray at her gallery in San Diego.

With modernist works by the likes of Hale Woodruff and Jacob Lawrence, and works by peers like Joe Overstreet, Melvin Edwards, and Mary Lovelace O’Neal, the collection is a mirror of their lives. Built with love and passion, the collection is a marker of time from the Harlem Renaissance to the Black Arts Movement.

I have had the great pleasure of knowing Margaret and Quincy since the early 2000s, but certainly we have been in the room together at Studio Museum or Kenkeleba or Cinque or perhaps June Kelly Gallery way before that. They are legends and this selection of their collection should be treasured!

Franklin Sirmans
When did you first start collecting?

Quincy Troupe
I met Alexander “Skunder” Boghossian, the Ethiopian painter, at Howard University when I went down to read. He was teaching there. He gifted me the painting that’s in the auction now.

Margaret Porter Troupe
Quincy told me that he used to sleep under a painting in Skunder’s apartment. They had become like brothers. One day, he said to Skunder, “I love this painting, why don’t you give it to me?” And Skunder said, “That’s not what you’re supposed to say.”

Quincy Troupe
He said, “You’re supposed to say, ‘How much is it?’ ” It was something like four or five hundred dollars, but I couldn’t imagine spending that money at the time. Then he came up to New York and brought the painting with him. He gave it to me as a gift, but he said, “This is the last painting I’m gonna give you. You’re gonna have to buy them from now.” And that’s what got me into buying paintings.

Franklin Sirmans
This was in the early seventies, and you and Margaret met in 1977.

Images from left to right: Quincy Troupe with Alexander “Skunder” Boghossian. Quincy Troupe with Miles Davis at the Studio Museum in Harlem, April 15, 1989, the first time Davis ever sat and talked to a live audience in such a setting.
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Margaret Porter Troupe
Quincy traveled a lot, and everybody he knew was an artist — a painter or a musician or a writer. I had just graduated from college and come up from Mississippi five years earlier. I was working at the New York Times with a woman whose cousin was going out with a poet. She invited me to a reading. Even though I was an English major, I didn’t know that there were young, Black, active poets writing. I thought they all died in the 1920s, like Langston Hughes.

Quincy was on the program with Pedro Pietri and a lot of Lower East Side poets. When Quincy got up on the stage and started reading, I was stunned. He reads with a lot of body movement in rhythm with his poetry. I was so taken aback, like I was at a sporting event.

Later, after that reading, I went to his apartment. He was living on the Upper West Side. He opens the door, and it was very sparsely decorated. Except he had a Leroy Clark on the wall, some Al Lovings, and he had a Skunder that’s in the show. And he had a beautiful chocolate-brown velvet sofa.

Franklin Sirmans
It’s funny, I think of y’all as being from uptown Harlem and La Jolla. But of course, there are prior places. It almost seems too perfect that you met on the Lower East Side at a function with a bunch of artists and writers in the room. What was the first piece you bought together?

Quincy Troupe with Hugh Masekela in Lesotho

Margaret Porter Troupe
I bought my first piece from Hervé Méhu, who had a gallery on 100th Street. Hervé was a Haitian guy. Maybe three or four years after Quincy and I met, he became Hugh Masekela’s manager, the South African trumpeter. Quincy took Hugh and Miriam, his wife, back to Lesotho after twenty-some years of being in exile. On that trip, we met Monique Clesca, who was working at the United Nations. We became friends and she invited us to Haiti around 1980, ’81. We became friends with Hervé and used to go to his gallery all the time.

One day I was in his gallery looking at the paintings and I became attracted to this tiny little thing. It was a very colorful, floral jungle scene. But it was $30, which was a lot of money for me at the time. But I bought it. Walking home with that painting was like walking on air. I was so happy. I had such a feeling of elation with that one little piece. That got me into the habit.

Franklin Sirmans
Indeed, indeed. Incredible. There are many Haitian artists in your collection. We’re only now beginning to talk about some of the contemporary artists who are coming out of Haiti. How did that develop? Was it something where you said, “Okay, we want to do more in this space?” Or was it just a natural organic fit within your whole collection?

Margaret Porter Troupe
It was all organic. The moment Quincy’s feet touched the ground in Port-au-Prince, he was in love with Haiti. I grew up on a farm in Mississippi with no electricity and no running water; to me it wasn’t romantic, okay? [Laughter] But he was stoked.

Quincy Troupe
It seemed like everybody there was an artist, you know? Everybody was painting, and the paintings were so cheap. We started meeting some of the leading painters and I was buying them by the boat load.

Margaret Porter Troupe
We met Jacques Gabriel, who became a good friend of ours, and bought a lot of his work. We met some of the dealers there — Toni Monnin, Issa, Carlos Jarra — and artists like Edouard Duval Carrié, who was just starting out. We met Liautaud and we became big Wilson Bigaud fans. We bought a lot of Vodou flags and works from the Saint-Soleil School. We got all the way into it.

Dorothy and Quincy Troupe, Sr.

Franklin Sirmans
I want to talk about a few memorable works, but first I want to let people know how you both came to the arts. Can you tell us, in a nutshell?

Quincy Troupe
I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. None of my relatives were into the arts. My father was a great baseball player, and the only thing he wanted me to be was a great baseball player. I played baseball and basketball at Grambling College on an athletic scholarship, but I was so crazy they sent me home. My mother was so hurt, she kicked me out of the house. I went into the army and when I got out, I went to Los Angeles, California, to live with my father. Then he kicked me out.

So after I got out of the army, I was living in Watts, where I started meeting all these poets and painters, this artistic community called the Watts Writers’ Workshop. My life started to change. I was looking at all these paintings and going by painters’ houses, and then I met Ojenke, K. Curtis Lyle, and Louise Meriwether. When I got a little job, I started buying paintings.

By this time, I really started to get into reading poetry; Ojenke was a great reciter. I started hanging out in Hollywood and meeting actors. I knew right then that that was the life I wanted for myself. I wanted to be a writer, I wanted to publish books. I started publishing poems in different magazines and went back to school to study journalism so I could become an editor.

Franklin Sirmans
The spark was really about being around those folks at Watts in LA, I imagine.

Margaret Porter Troupe
I was always in the arts — band and theater, that sort of thing — but I didn’t know anything about art per se. When I came to New York, I thought I was going to become an actress. When I met Quincy, he was at the center of all these cultural things. We couldn’t walk down the street without somebody stopping him to say hello. He also was the artistic director for the Frederick Douglass Creative Art Center, and he would mount these shows every year where he’d pair up emerging writers with well-known writers in the Black Roots Festival. For me, it was being in that environment and meeting all these people.

IMAGES FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: QUINCY TROUPE WITH TONI MORRISON. GIANT TALK: AN ANTHOLOGY OF THIRD WORLD WRITINGS, EDITED BY QUINCY TROUPE AND RAINER SCHULTE. MARGARET PORTER TROUPE AND QUINCY TROUPE WITH DEREK WALCOTT IN SAINT LUCIA.

Franklin Sirmans
Y’all are trailblazers yourselves, but you’ve been surrounded by very notable folks in terms of the creation of our culture and our art. What are some of those experiences?

Margaret Porter Troupe
When I met Quincy, his Rolodex was thick, and all these people were just emerging writers. The Frederick Douglass Center had a little magazine for a while called the American Rag, and he would put everybody in there. He interviewed all the actors from the “Roots” television series for his book The Inside Story of TV’s “Roots” that he wrote with David Wolper. Derek Walcott was a good friend of his. Toni Morrison decided to do this Giant Talk anthology that Quincy co-edited, a major publication of quote-unquote “third-world writers.” Chinua Achebe was in it.

Quincy Troupe
That was a great anthology. Rainer Schulte was at Ohio University with me, and he was the editor of Mundus Artium, an international literary journal. They had a translation center there. I was the editor of this other magazine, and so we all got together and did this huge anthology. I got to know Toni Morrison really well. We stayed friends until she died.

Franklin Sirmans
I know, of course, that you had a relationship with James Baldwin and Beauford Delaney, who is probably another generation in some ways. How did you meet James Baldwin? And did Beauford ever talk about his art?

Quincy Troupe
I lived on 97th Street and Central Park West when I first came to New York — a high-rise at 382 Central Park West.

Franklin Sirmans
I know exactly where that is.

Quincy Troupe
I used to go down to the club Mikell’s on the corner and there’d be all kinds of musicians there. I was a bachelor, and there were parties all around. Jimmy’s brother was the bartender and I met him there. Jimmy used to go to these nice little parties on 97th Street when he came down from Paris. We had a group of people — we called ourselves the 97th Street Gang. By that time, I knew Ishmael Reed and all these people. I met Delaney because of Jimmy but didn’t know him well.

James Baldwin with Quincy Troupe

Franklin Sirmans
You’ve mentioned so many amazing people. What about Al Loving? What is the work that’s coming up about?

Quincy Troupe
I just love Al Loving’s work. When I met Al, he was a big guy like me. When I saw his painting, it was so beautiful.

Margaret Porter Troupe
In the seventies, Peg Alston was one of the main dealers who Quincy bought from.

Quincy Troupe
She used to have shows at her apartment.

Franklin Sirmans
I remember! Right down the street from Mikell’s, right?

Quincy Troupe
Yeah, she lived on Central Park West. I’d go there and buy paintings on the layaway plan.

Margaret Porter Troupe
She was a great salesperson. She would talk to you about the work in such soft tones, non-aggressive language, and such a casual way — but always very focused.

But Quincy has had the Al Loving piece that’s on auction for a long time. I just saw it in some old photos. He had another one, but the woman he was seeing at the time ripped it apart because they were having disagreements. We still have the parts of that artwork.

Quincy Troupe
I didn’t have no disagreement! She got mad. [Laughter]

The Troupes with Melvin Edwards

Margaret Porter Troupe
In any case, eventually I ended up leaving the New York Times and opening a gallery in La Jolla. I gave Al a show during that period, but he was also a good friend. We were all part of a circle. I remember Barbara Masekela, Hugh’s sister and Quincy’s student, lived in same building as Quincy on the second floor with her roommate, Elaine Simpson. They started showing artists in a little home gallery, including Al, who was a big friend of theirs.

Franklin Sirmans
How did you develop the artists that you showed? Was it based off artists that you had already known?

Margaret Porter Troupe
Sometimes. For example, I had a great deal of respect for Oliver Lee Jackson, who was a good friend of Quincy’s. When we went to California and I decided that I was going to have an art gallery, Oliver was one of the first people I showed. I didn’t know anything about art dealing, art collecting, art making — all I knew is I loved living with art, and I loved being in the company of people who made it. I’d often ask Oliver who I should show, and he’d recommend people. He had excellent taste because he had really, really high standards of art making.

Franklin Sirmans
How long were you in San Diego with the gallery?

Margaret Porter Troupe
Thirteen years.

Margaret Porter Troupe with Italo Scanga in San Diego

Franklin Sirmans
Amazing. What a history. And who were some of the other artists you showed?

Margaret Porter Troupe
I gave Jose Bédia his first show on the West Coast. I did a group of artists from Cuba in the eighties, like Tomás Esson and Arturo Cuenca. I gave these young brothers, Einar and Jamex de la Torre, from Baja California their first show. And I showed these artists who were living in Tijuana in a cross-border show — that was the first time that had been done. I was looking for something fresh, something multiracial, multiethnic, and multicultural. San Diego is a very segregated community, not only because of social, racial, and economic issues, but also because California is a car culture.

Quincy was running the literary series at the Museum of Contemporary Art. They had invited him to be the Creative Director for the Artists on the Cutting Edge series, which he hosted for eleven years, bringing all kinds of Nobel laureates and musicians and writers from diverse backgrounds. That’s how we did the gallery too.

Advertisements for two exhibitions at the Porter Troupe Gallery and the Porter Randall Gallery

I didn’t have any barriers, so I showed artists from everywhere alongside the slew of artists we knew from the Midwest, from New York, from California. Everybody needed a place to show. I learned from Quincy and this whole concept of Giant Talk that it’s all art, right? It shouldn’t be pigeonholed, and you should judge it based on what kind of resonance you have with it. I used that principle to mix up everybody. For example, Elizabeth Murray was a good friend of ours through Quincy’s relationship with Bob Holman, who’s a poet.

Franklin Sirmans
Of course, at the Nuyorican Poets Café.

Margaret Porter Troupe
Yeah. Our kids are the same age, so we used to have birthday parties. When our son Porter was two or three years old, she came to his birthday party with Sophia and Daisy, and I asked to show her. She was a little taken aback because she was with Paula Cooper. But I don’t think she had had a show out West, which was kind of surprising. Paula was so forthcoming and supportive and wonderful. We had the show and Elizabeth made the little casein painting that’s in the auction. She made like seven of those and we showed some prints. We had people around the block coming to meet Elizabeth Murray and get her autograph.

Franklin Sirmans
What about the Ed Clark? The work at auction is an ellipse, I believe. Of course, we all know and love Ed and got to see each other at his memorial. How did that come about?

Elizabeth Murray and Bob Holman, with their daughters Daisy and Sophie, at the Troupes’s home in Harlem for a celebration of their son Porter’s birthday.
Ed Clark with Quincy Troupe

Quincy Troupe
Well, I met Ed probably through Peg, and I bought some of his paintings. Ed was there when I bought them, and he was shocked. I walked into that show and I looked around real quick. I said, “Peg, I want that one and that one and that one and that one.” I heard people saying, “That’s the one I wanted!” I said, “Too late, too late.”

Margaret Porter Troupe
He used to love to do that. He would do that in my gallery, and I’d be losing money, frankly. I’d be like, “Dude, let me sell it to the other people because I gotta give you a big discount.”

Quincy Troupe
But you know what? They all started to buy right away. Peg said, “Can you come to all my shows and do that?”

Quincy Troupe with Mary Lovelace O’Neal in Mérida, Mexico, February 2022

Franklin Sirmans
Was Mary Lovelace O’Neal somebody you met on the West Coast, or did you already know Mary before?

Margaret Porter Troupe
We met Mary through Joe Overstreet and Corrine Jennings at Kenkeleba House in New York. They used to have these big conferences and all kinds of events down there. Mary and Joe were very good friends because they’re both from Mississippi. Mary painted these gigantic, gorgeous, colorful canvases. She was a woman and she was kicking butt with that artwork. I mean, she was just as dazzling as those guys who were her contemporaries.

Franklin Sirmans
There was a time when you were collecting these works as they were freshly made. Folks knew these artists — we went to Kenkeleba, we went to Peg Alston’s, we went to June Kelly — but they were obviously not as well-known as they are right now in the mainstream. How do feel about that trajectory of change over the last thirty years or so?

Quincy Troupe with Amiri Baraka and Steve Cannon

Quincy Troupe
I feel like we had great tastes and we picked a lot of great people. I was not a professional. I didn’t go by who was in Art in America — I went by what I liked. When I saw Jose Bédia’s paintings, I said, “Look at that guy!” When I saw Al Loving’s, it was the same thing. Raymond Saunders, the same thing.

I remember when I met Romare Bearden, I knew who he was. I knew who Jacob Lawrence was by that point. Romare held up a book of mine and I was overwhelmed.

Margaret Porter Troupe
I gave him your book at his birthday party. He told Quincy, “Come down to the studio and pick something.”

A copy of Jacob Lawrence’s Aesop’s Fables signed to Quincy and Margaret from Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight

Franklin Sirmans
Wow.

Margaret Porter Troupe
Do you think we had the sense to go pick it up?

Quincy Troupe
Yeah, people say anything, you know? But he was serious. Most painters aren’t like that. Romare was a beautiful spirit.

Margaret Porter Troupe
Extraordinarily generous. But to answer your question, when I had a gallery, I did see the upside with artists who were making work during the seventies. I kept telling people, “Dude, this is going to be the next wave of art. There’s so much upside here. Black artists are going to go through the roof. Get it now, get it now, get it now.” I only had maybe three people who were consistently buying from me, one of whom was Terry McMillan, the novelist. Another was a woman in San Diego named Lucy Goldman and a guy named Peter Schwartz. They kept me in business.

But it is difficult to know that the artists themselves don’t necessarily benefit from that increase in sales. They’ve sacrificed so much and worked so hard. That part is sad.

Quincy Troupe with Tom Feelings and Maya Angelou

Franklin Sirmans
I know that there are some things that obviously you must hold on to. Now, imagine if y’all had to go move to a deserted island tomorrow or something and you could only bring one piece, what would you do?

Quincy Troupe
Oh, no, no, no. I don’t know what that would be.

The Troupes with Jack Whitten

Margaret Porter Troupe
You know what Corrine Jennings once said to me? “Margaret, we don’t own this work. We are just guardians of it.” I’m thinking about that now as we’ve decided to put some of our work on auction. It’s a very emotional experience. I went to see the show and I broke down in tears. It felt like I was going to a funeral.

But we have a finite time on this planet, right? We’ve enjoyed our paintings. We didn’t invest in stocks and bonds, and we didn’t invest in art as a commercial exchange. We want to be able to live with it. I used to come home after all the tension of being in a corporate environment and sit in my living room and look at the paintings on the wall. My spirit would become elevated.

Now that we’re seniors in the last part of our lives, we want to enjoy that aspect of living just as intensely as we had in previous years. All these wonderful friendships and memories are embedded in all of these pieces that are on view. All this treasure, this love and camaraderie and history-making — that’s all embedded in there. And now someone else can guard it for us.

Contemporary Art Collectors

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