Clayton, who died last month, the first woman and African American to lead the Philadelphia School District, was an avid collector of African American art.
It was a typical weekend at Barry Slosberg’s auction house in Port Richmond, browsing through hundreds of lots in a crowded warehouse, searching for African American art.
On this Saturday, I saw a piece, by whom I can’t remember. It was blue hued and abstract, and I wanted it. When Slosberg, the auctioneer, called the lot, I bid on it several times, but eventually, the price was out of my reach. One of the other bidders won out – Dr. Constance Clayton, of Mt. Airy.
The former Philadelphia School District superintendent wanted it, and she got it, motioning to an auction worker to wrap it up. Clayton, who died last month, the first woman and African American to lead the district, was an avid collector of African American art. She was determined and relentless in the bidding process. Once, she, perhaps unknowingly, outbid the two neices of artist Henry Bozeman Jones, who were trying to acquire one of their father’s oil landscapes. Clayton won again.
Attending auctions was one way that Clayton added to her exceptional collection. She amassed a collection so notable that, several years ago, she donated more than 70 works to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Center City (PAFA) and others to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York.
I mentioned my own auction encounter with Clayton in 2015 when I interviewed her for a story published in The Philadelphia Inquirer about an exhibit of 75 selected works from the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s collection of African American Artists.
As a founder of the museum’s African American Collections Committee and a then board member at the museum, Clayton was instrumental in lobbying for the exhibit, called "Represent: 200 Years of African American Art." Clayton coupled her fervent collecting with a dogged advocacy for Black artists and African Americans in curatorial and other museum executive positions.
"The (Philadelphia Museum of Art) has an articulated policy of diversity and community outreach," Clayton said in the Inquirer interview. "What better way to do it than to have an exhibit of the works of a significant part of the Philadelphia community and invite all communities to see it?"
Clayton chatted about the exhibit and her love of art during an interview in the library of her Mt. Airy home where she served me tea in a delicate cup and saucer.
That affinity for art goes back to growing up in North Philadelphia where she lived with her grandmother, Clayton said then. The home was filled with art, fine china and antiques, she said. Clayton’s beloved mother Willabell regularly took Clayton to museums, further developing a burgeoning interest.
Clayton recalled that the first painting she remembered seeing was at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner. The artist’s niece, Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, the first Black woman to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania law school and among the first to earn a doctorate in the U.S., eventually became a mentor to Clayton. The Mt. Airy home Alexander shared with husband, celebrated attorney Raymond Pace Alexander, was filled with “magnificent Tanners,” Clayton recalled.
Clayton and her mother would go on to travel the world, visiting museums and scouring antique shops. The Claytons later opened an antiques consignment shop in the Chestnut Hill strip shopping center near Germantown Avenue and Cresheim Valley Drive.
In the “Represent,” exhibit, works by artists including Tanner, Jacob Lawrence, and West Chester’s Horace Pippin and Carrie Mae Weems lined the walls. Years later, in 2020, Clayton’s own collection would be the subject of an exhibit, “Awakened in You: The Collection of Constance E. Clayton.” The exhibit, at PAFA, included works Clayton had gifted to the Academy such as pieces by Laura Wheeler Waring, Dox Thrash, and Barkley Hendricks. By then, the Schomburg in Harlem had also mounted an exhibit of works donated by the former superintendent.
At Clayton’s funeral last week, friends recalled Clayton as a “no-nonsense visionary,”and a dedicated educator, unfailingly committed to children.. Eric Pryor, president of PAFA said that Clayton had left an impressive legacy not only in education, but in the arts as well.
“Dr. Clayton stated that when museums incorporate artists of color, they say to African American children, “Somebody like you did this,” Pryor recalled, “and you can do it too.’”