When Ronald Ollie was an engineering student at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in the early 1970s, he would take dates to the St. Louis Art Museum. “The other engineers would say, ‘Why are you taking that woman to the art museum?”’ he recalled.
He would respond devilishly to his fraternity brothers, “You just don’t know!”
Today, Mr. Ollie, a retired mechanical engineer, and his wife, Monique, who has a doctorate in biomedical engineering, talked about their collection in their Newark apartment, which has a spectacular view of Manhattan and walls covered with abstract work by black artists.
The collecting compulsion was a pre-existing condition when Mr. Ollie met his future wife in 2003 at the National Black Fine Art Show. “I have picked out a few pieces, but mine are in the back,” Ms. Ollie, who is a project manager at Johnson & Johnson, said good-naturedly.
Mr. Ollie, who was raised in St. Louis, visited the museum as a child with his mother, who also enrolled him in art classes. “I had no talent for drawing figuratively,” he said. But, as a sixth grader, he took the advice of a friend in class, who leaned over and suggested he try abstract art. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is free!’ That’s where I gravitated.”
By the late 1980s, when Mr. Ollie was living in New York, a love of looking at abstract art had evolved into a passion for acquiring it. An auction dealer who sold him a Terry Adkins pastel drawing and a lithograph by Herbert Gentry suggested he visit the Chelsea Hotel, where Mr. Gentry lived, to introduce himself.
“Herb became one of my great mentors and friends, and he opened the art world up to me,” said Mr. Ollie, who then met and began collecting the work of artists including Ed Clark, Al Loving, Frank Bowling, James Little and Stanley Whitney. “Word got around among black artists that I bought abstract art,” Mr. Ollie said. “At that time, there were not a lot of people buying.”
He would regularly meet with many black abstract artists at the Chelsea Square restaurant. “We used to say this was our Cedar Bar,” he said, referring to what became the Cedar Tavern (now defunct) in Greenwich Village, made famous by the Abstract Expressionists in the 1950s.
Last year, the Ollies gave 81 of their 225 works to the St. Louis Art Museum in honor of Mr. Ollie’s parents. The Thelma and Bert Ollie Memorial Art Collection, including pieces by Norman Lewis, William T. Williams, Sam Gilliam and Jack Whitten, will go on view there next September.
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
I imagine when you started, these artists were pretty affordable.
RONALD OLLIE Very affordable. I started buying directly from the artists, and I could negotiate with them. Ed Clark would take me to various studios, like Stanley Whitney’s or Frank Bowling’s. I was going to buy a piece, and Frank said, “I’m going to give you my landlord’s address and I want you to pay the rent every month.” I didn’t have to pay the painting all right off and I was helping him pay his rent in Dumbo.
The relationships seem as important to you as the artworks.
MR. OLLIE: These artists trusted that I could talk to them about the art they did in a critical way. Ed would say: “I’m working on a piece. Go take a look and tell me what you think.” It did something to me in terms of my confidence in developing my eye and starting to know that this is something that is real for me.
How did the gift to the museum come about?
MR. OLLIE: I was interested in making a donation. The curators came and said, “If we take anything, it may just be a few pieces.” I said, “Anything you want.”
MONIQUE OLLIE: The one exception was a piece by Richard Mayhew. It’s one of my favorites.
MR. OLLIE: When they came back and said, “We want 81 pieces,” it was shocking, to say the least. They did not have a representative sampling of abstract art by black artists.
MS. OLLIE: When we were in St. Louis and saw the art up, I just started bawling. These are pieces that now will be available to broad audiences.
Do you have a favorite piece in the apartment?
MR. OLLIE: This Ed Clark was on loan to the Newark Museum when the curators came. I told them, “You missed out on a great painting.”
Are you glad it was held back?
MR. OLLIE: Kind of. This is one of my favorites.
– Hilarie M. Sheets