Photo from AVA Gallery / "Minister, Chicago 1950" by Gordon Parks

The Association for Visual Arts ventures into new territory with its first show of 2020. "Rooted in Color: The Art Collection of James McKissic," on view through Feb. 21, is the AVA Gallery's first exhibition by a collector.

Chief curator Kreneshia Whiteside says the decision gives AVA the chance to emphasize art collectors "as vital components in the artistic ecosystem." The works on loan from McKissic consist of African-American artists from the 20th century to the present.

Whiteside says she has wanted to curate McKissic's collection for some time after seeing some of his purchases on social media. "The takeaway, though, is that this exhibition is not only highlighting this great selection of black art, but also recognizing him as a prominent black collector in our community," she says.

some text
Photo from AVA Gallery / "Intercessory Deities" by Shanequa Gay

In December, McKissic assumed the role of president of ArtsBuild, the leading organization charged with funding and promoting the arts and cultural programming in the region. He previously was chief operating officer of the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga and before that was senior adviser to the mayor and director of the city of Chattanooga's Office of Multicultural Affairs.

Accompanying the artwork at AVA is information about McKissic's community involvement as well as an original piece he created.

The Times Free Press talked with McKissic about the show. Here are some edited excerpts from that conversation.

Q: In a 2018 Chatter feature, you mentioned that a 1953 untitled ink on paper by abstract expressionist Norman Lewis is your favorite piece in the collection. What makes it your favorite?

A: When I stand in front of one of his paintings, it's like I'm having an out-of-body experience. His work was so forward, and he was always true to his artistic vision, not influenced by other people's limited vision of what they thought a black artist should be doing.

some text
Photo from AVA Gallery / "American Domestic" by Willie Cole

Q: You've said you don't collect for investment or decorative purposes, but simply get what you like. Is there a common theme in the pieces you own?

A: I always collect things that I want to live with — selecting what brings me joy or reflects some aspect of my history and culture. That's how I make my decisions.

Q: Have you acquired any of the coveted Alma Woodsey Thomas or Beauford Delaney works yet?

A: I wish. They are still out of my budget. But I'm able to collect local and up-and-coming nationally recognized artists. Supporting local artists is super important. Many museums and high-level collectors are trying to fill in the gaps in their collections, feverishly buying works by women, African-American, Latino, Asian and indigenous artists, which makes it tougher for lots of everyday collectors to acquire works at reasonable prices.

Q: What was the first piece you acquired for your collection?

A: It was a 1972 Munich Olympics poster by Jacob Lawrence. I didn't know at that time I was beginning a collection, but I was.

Q: What was the most recent acquisition?

A: A piece of video art by Jacolby Satterwhite.

some text
Photo from AVA Gallery / "Brotherhood of Peace" by Jacob Lawrence

Q: Where do you shop for art?

A: Auctions,, galleries, dealers. Over time you gain a network of folks who feed your addiction.

Q: What is it about the pieces you have that brings you the most joy or satisfaction?

A: It is so comforting to come home each day and be surrounded by art. Bare walls are an abomination.

Q: Does the new job at ArtsBuild fulfill a desire to put yourself deeper into Chattanooga's art scene?

A: Yes. I'm so proud of the work that ArtsBuild does and honored to be part of the team. Last year, ArtsBuild funding helped facilitate almost 950,000 arts interactions across Hamilton County, many of them for children. I was one of those children who visited museums with teachers and my family and fell in love with the arts. I'm happy to get up every day knowing that we're helping to grow Chattanooga's next generation of art fans, philanthropists and collectors.

Contact Lisa Denton at or 423-757-6281.

If you go

* What: “Rooted in Color: The Art Collection of James McKissic”

* When: Through Friday, Feb. 21

* Where: AVA Gallery, 30 Frazier Ave.

* Phone: 423-265-4282

* Online:

Special programming
* Thursday, Feb. 6: Collector’s Tour for adults, in collaboration with The Chattery, 6-8 p.m. Walk through the gallery and hear the narrative behind each piece.

* Saturday, Feb. 15: A kids tour for ages 10-17, in partnership with RISE Chattanooga, 1-3 p.m.

Also on view
AVA’s Landis Education Gallery features the artwork of the Splash Youth Arts Workshop, a free after-school art program led by professional artists Charlie and Iantha Newton for low-income, at-risk youth ages 3-19.