BAMPFA Receives Historic Bequest of Nearly Three Thousand Quilts by African American Artists


BAMPFA is excited to announce that it has received a transformative bequest from the late collector and art scholar Eli Leon, who has donated to the museum his renowned collection of African American quilts—believed to be the largest privately assembled collection of its kind. Comprising nearly three thousand works by African American quilt makers, including more than five hundred works by the internationally renowned artist Rosie Lee Tompkins, the Eli Leon Collection marks one of the largest bequests of African American art ever donated to a US museum.

“It’s hard to overestimate the importance and power of this gift,” BAMPFA director Lawrence Rinder told the New York Times. “The scale of it and the depth of it is mind blowing.”

An Oakland-based psychologist, collector, and art scholar, Eli Leon spent more than thirty years assembling his collection of African American quilts, which includes work by both little-known and established artists. He was a close friend and early champion of the work of Rosie Lee Tompkins (1936–2006), a Bay Area artist who first exhibited her quilts at the Richmond Art Center. Leon’s collection includes the large majority of Tompkins’s body of work, which will form the basis of a major retrospective that opens at BAMPFA on February 19, 2020, the largest that the artist has ever received. A subsequent exhibition showcasing the broader collection—with works by Tompkins as well as by many other important artists, including Sherry Byrd, Willia Ette Graham, and Arbie Williams—will open at BAMPFA in 2022.

BAMPFA learned of the bequest only after Leon passed away in 2018, having willed his African American quilt collection to the museum. Prior to his death, Leon had a long history with BAMPFA, having worked closely with Rinder to mount Rosie Lee Tompkins’s first solo exhibition in 1997. Rinder is co-organizing with BAMPFA’s Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow Elaine Yau the museum’s upcoming Tompkins retrospective, which will feature dozens of works that have never been exhibited until now. 

Encompassing more than four hundred works, the accession of the Eli Leon Collection will increase the size of BAMPFA’s encyclopedic holdings by more than 15 percent, establishing a new and unparalleled area of strength for the museum. As the San Francisco Chronicle noted, “[the gift] adds to the seemingly inexorable broadening of the horizons of art history, to include the culture and the stories of communities of color.”

“By selecting BAMPFA as the permanent home for his remarkable collection, Eli Leon has given UC Berkeley a magnificent gift that will advance our commitment to celebrating diverse voices and cultural traditions,” said Chancellor Carol Christ. “BAMPFA is uniquely suited to ensure that these wonderful works of art receive the exposure and attention they deserve through the museum’s outstanding exhibition program and the extensive scholarly resources of the university.”

From top: Rosie Lee Tompkins: Untitled, 1996; quilted by Irene Bankhead, 1996; cotton, cotton flannel, cotton feed sack, linen, rayon, flocked satin, velvet, cotton-synthetic blend, cotton-acrylic jersey, acrylic double-weave, cotton-polyester, polyester doubleknit, acrylic and cotton tapestry, silk batik, polyester velour, rayon or acrylic embroidery on cotton, wool, needlepoint, shisha-mirror embroidery; 88 x 146 in.; BAMPFA, Eli Leon Living Trust Bequest. Photo: Sharon Risedorph. Arbie Williams: Medallion, 1987; quilted by Willia Ette Graham, 1987; BAMPFA, Eli Leon Living Trust Bequest. Photo: Geoffry Johnson.