PAFA gets 278 John Rhoden sculptures and a new role as keeper of his legacy

John Rhoden, who passed away in 2001 and is best known in Philly for the landmark sculpture outside the African American Museum, will have a new presence at PAFA thanks to a gift from the sculptor’s estate of 278 works. PAFA plans to keep about 20 pieces and finding home for the rest.

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is acquiring a major cache of work by the American sculptor John Rhoden and will become the primary steward for raising his artistic profile.

PAFA is taking responsibility for a total of 278 works gifted to it from Rhoden’s estate — all sculptures. It plans to keep about 20 pieces and has taken on the role of finding homes for the rest. As part of the gift, PAFA also expects to receive about $5 million, which it will use to fund a curator of the Rhoden Collection, a full scholarship for a PAFA student, a major book about the artist, and other activities.

“We feel that the best thing we can do for John is not to create a museum, but to get his work into lots of collections where it can be appreciated by audiences around the country,” said PAFA president and CEO David R. Brigham.

PAFA curatorial fellow Kelli Morgan called Rhoden “very much a world-class sculptor,” with a lot of visibility in Europe generally, particularly in Italy and Russia, who “just never really established a market for himself in the States. A lot of that had to do with the times. It was hard for African Americans to get into museum shows, let alone gallery shows.”

Camera icon JESSICA GRIFFIN
PAFA CEO David R. Brigham with some of John Rhoden’s works.

His presence will be felt anew both temporarily and permanently at PAFA. The museum aims to mount a show on him tentatively slated for 2020. About 10 of the sculptures will be displayed in alcoves being built into PAFA’s new performing arts center, under construction and slated to open in about a year. The space, in the basement of the Hamilton Building, will be funded in part by the Rhoden estate gift and named for the artist and his wife as the John and Richanda Rhoden Arts Center.

Rhoden, based in Brooklyn, N.Y., died in 2001 at the age of 82 and is best known locally perhaps for Nesaika, the nine-foot-high bronze at Seventh and Arch Streets in front of the African American Museum in Philadelphia. He had no particular connection to PAFA, though a work of his, Contentment, did appear there once — in 1950, in PAFA’s annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting and Sculpture.

Camera icon Rhoden Estate
John and Richanda Rhoden in 1956.

His wife died in 2016, a few months shy of age 100, and they had no children. She left a will designating no specific beneficiary, but a wish that the estate go to an institution that would care for his sculptures as well as her pieces, said Robert T. Anker, the executor. (Richanda Rhoden was a painter, but PAFA has no plans to collect her work.)

Anker had read about a few museums nationally, including PAFA, that were building a strength in work by African American artists, and wrote to several museums to gauge their interest in taking Rhoden’s work. Some museums said they would take a few pieces, and some did not respond.

PAFA did respond, and Brigham and Morgan went to Brooklyn to meet Anker and choose a few works. “We had a lovely day, and selected some pieces that we were going to have brought in front of the collections committee and board of trustees,” Brigham says. “And we thought that was the whole story.”

Then he woke up the next morning and a light bulb went off. “I called Robert and said, what if we came in as a bigger partner? What if we took on full representation, with a book, exhibited his work here and sent it on tour, and we could help give John the credit he deserved?”

Anker bit. It was PAFA’s ability to take on the entire collection and give it exposure that appealed to him, he said. “They’ve been forthright in telling us how they intend to proceed. That is reassuring — not just, ‘Give us the money and we’ll see you around.’”

The exact amount of the cash portion of the gift hinges on the sale of the Rhodens’ house in Brooklyn.

Born in Birmingham, Ala., Rhoden was not considered enough of a major artist at the time of his death to get more than a 205-word obituary in the New York Times that read like a terse rundown of career notches. He attended Talladega College, served in the Army in World War II, and studied at Columbia University with William Zorach. He was a Fulbright Fellow and studied at the American Academy in Rome.

Camera icon Jessica Griffin
Works by John Rhoden. The bronze sculpture “Nesaika” outside the African American Museum in Philadelphia is also a Rhoden sculpture. 

He was a prolific sculptor, working in metal, stone, and wood in the stylistic realm of modernist figuration. His work fits broadly into cubism and surrealism, said Brigham, “and also references global art, particularly African and Indonesian sculptural traditions.”

Race and history were occasionally referenced; “Frederick Douglass is a theme that recurs in his work,” he said.

Rhoden’s sculpture has been shown at some major venues, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the Art Institute of Chicago. His work, which ranges from miniature to monumental, might be well suited to a number of different types of venues, from museums and sculpture parks to college campuses.

“He really had earned a lot of the kind of accolades that mark a distinguished career,” said Brigham. “We felt what was missing, what we are hoping to do, is to help him to get to the next level of recognition he deserves.”