A Private Collection for Public Good
“Who can say what ignites a passion? Was it those three red roses frozen in blue? An awakened connection to one's geographical roots? Perhaps the familiarity of the road to Nebo? The nucleus of what was to become our collection was formed by such seemingly unrelated catalysts. Looking back, it was always the sense of place that drew George and me to beautiful pictures—pictures that capture not only the glorious landscape of the South, but that also enliven its unique culture and dynamic history.”
What began as an interest in paintings by Carolina artists in 2002 has grown to encompass over one thousand objects with provenances that span the centuries and chronicle the cultural evolution of the American South. Today, the Johnson Collection counts iconic masterworks among its holdings, as well as representative pieces by a depth and breadth of artists, native and visiting, whose lives and legacies form the foundation of the field of Southern art history. From William D. Washington’s The Burial of Latané to Malvin Gray Johnson’s Roll Jordan Roll, the collection embraces the region’s rich history and confronts its complexities. The contributions of women artists, ranging from Helen Maria Turner—only the fourth woman elected to full membership in the National Academy of Design—to Alma Woodsey Thomas—the first African American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art—are accorded deserved attention, as are the landmark accomplishments of American artists of African descent such as Benny Andrews, Romare Bearden, William Henry Johnson, Leo Twiggs, and Hale Woodruff.
Credited by The Magazine Antiques with staging a "quiet art historical revolution" and expanding "the meaning of regional," the Johnson Collection actively seeks to advance interest in the pivotal role that art of the South plays in the larger context of American art. In 2012, the Johnson Collection’s first scholarly book, Romantic Spirits: Nineteenth Century Paintings of the South, was published; a companion exhibition is presently touring select museums across the South through 2016. Since that time, the collection has published a monograph on North Carolina artist Eugene Thomason, From New York to Nebo: The Artistic Journey of Eugene Thomason, and issued its third book, Scenic Impressions: Southern Interpretations from the Johnson Collection, in November 2015. These volumes are also complemented by traveling exhibitions. Works from the collection have been lent to critical exhibitions such as Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College, 1933-1957; Bold, Cautious, True: Walt Whitman and American Art of the Civil War Era; and Beyond Catfish Row: The Art of Porgy and Bess, and highlighted in important publications, including the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Art & Architecture and The Civil War and American Art. In 2016, the Johnson Collection received the Governor’s Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Award, South Carolina’s highest arts distinction. In its commendation, the state's Arts Commission paid tribute to the Johnson family's enduring contributions: "Equally dedicated to arts advancement and arts accessibility, the Johnsons generously share their vision, energy, passion and resources to benefit the arts in South Carolina."
In keeping with the Johnsons' commitment to education, collaboration with institutions of higher learning has been a hallmark of the collection’s development. The collection's curator serves as the Johnson Collection Visiting Scholar and teaches classes at both Converse College and Wofford College. Students from both institutions take part in competitive, comprehensive internships that culminate in an exhibition and catalogue. Selections from the collection are on display on these campuses, as well as the University of South Carolina Upstate’s George D. Johnson, Jr. College of Business and Economics. In addition, rotating exhibitions at the collection’s downtown Spartanburg gallery invite the public to regularly interact with inspiring works of art. An annual education symposium, Voices in American Art, is held to engage campus and community audiences alike on the subject of fine art in America.
George Dean Johnson, Jr. and Susan (Susu) Phifer Johnson are passionate philanthropists committed to enhancing the educational environment and cultural vibrancy of their hometown, state, and region. George Johnson is the founder and chairman of Johnson Development Associates, Inc., and was a founder and former executive of Extended Stay America, Blockbuster Entertainment, and Advance America. A former member of the South Carolina House of Representatives and past director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Mr. Johnson has also served as chair of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce and as a member of the Board of Trustees of Converse College. A life trustee at Converse College, Susu Johnson is a former member of Spartanburg City Council and has served on the boards of Brookgreen Gardens and Spoleto Festival USA. She is an active community advocate currently serving on the leadership board of Spartanburg Academic Movement (SAM). Most recently, she spearheaded the establishment of Meeting Street Academy-Spartanburg, an innovative school that aims to empower “young people from under-resourced neighborhoods to become confident, productive, and principled members of society through excellence in academics.” The Johnsons’ two adult children, Geordy and Susanna, are integrally involved in their family’s philanthropic initiatives, including the Phifer-Johnson Foundation. The recipient of a BA in art history from Washington & Lee University and a MS in Fundraising and Grantmaking from New York University, Susanna Johnson serves as a curatorial advisor to the Johnson Collection.