Though born and raised in small towns in Alabama, the late gay artist Roger Brown's greatest fame came through his association with the Chicago Imagists, an informal band of artists who grew out of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the late 1960s and whose work often had a surrealist bent to it, filtered through lenses of pop culture and social commentary.
Now the Terra Foundation for American Artwhich has emphasized collecting Chicago artists in recent yearshas acquired Brown's painting The Big Jolt, a 1972 canvas created as part of his Disasters series. It was in a private collection until Terra bought it at auction this fall. The foundation also recently bought Top Cat Boy, a piece by Brown's fellow Imagist Ed Paschke, and Beauford Delaney's Untitled ( Village Street Scene ). All three paintings reflect Terra's more recent focus on collecting American art of the post-World War II era.
The Terra Foundation Collection represents around 800 works, including paintings, works on paper, and sculptures ranging from the late 18th century to the mid-20th. Founded in 1978 by the late Daniel J. Terra, who also established the former Terra Museum of American Art ( first in Evanston, then on Michigan Avenue, where it operated from 1987 to 2004 ), the Foundation now focuses on partnering with institutions around the world in sharing the work of American artists. But as curator Peter John ( PJ ) Brownlee noted, there is increasing interest in exhibiting post-1945 American art, especially in foreign museums.
"We have a collection plan and we revise and update that every few years," said Brownlee. "We try to be generous lenders to exhibitions organized by other museums. So we see what kinds of requests are coming in, and if you've been paying attention to the art world at all, you'll see that it's swung firmly to the 20th century." Through the Terra Collection Initiative, the foundation sends work to exhibitions around the world. Terra president and CEO Elizabeth Glassman noted that over the last 15 years, about 89 percent of the collection has been shared with other cultural institutions. Locally, the Art Institute also maintains a rotating collection of around 30 paintings from the Terra Foundation.
Brown's work holds special resonance for Chicago's LGBTQ community. In 1997, the year Brown died of AIDS-related complications ( he was inducted posthumously into the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame in 2004 ), he unveiled his glass mosaic mural Hull House, Cook County, Howard Brown: A Tradition of Helping at what was known as the Howard Brown Health Center ( now Howard Brown Health ) on North Sheridan Road. Figures representing Hull House founder Jane Addams and Howard Brown flank buildings representing Cook County Hospital, Hull House and the Howard Brown Health. It's a decidedly more positive spin on the urban landscape than that of Brown's Disasters series, which, as in The Big Jolt, often feature buildings on the verge of collapse.
Brown's longtime personal and creative partner, George Veronda, was an architect. Their shared studio at 1926 N. Halsted St., containing Brown's extensive collection of art and artifacts ( which included everything from his fellow Imagists to folk and Indigenous art, Art Deco and travel souvenirs ) was styled by Brown as "The Artists' Museum of Chicago" and is now maintained as the Roger Brown Study Collection through the Art Institute.
The special significance of The Big Jolt, according to Terra assistant curator Taylor Poulin, is that Brown and his fellow Imagists were "picking up on things that were happening in the moment. If you think about where they drew their imagery or their interests, Roger Brown would open up the newspaper and see a disaster happening." Poulin added "What they touch on is this anxiety about these things. It's humorous, but he's also kind of making a point about how fearful the world can be to a lot of people."
Brownlee noted that many of the issues artists such as Brown and others represented by the Terra delved into have relevance today for places like Brazil ( the Terra has partnered with the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sao Paulo ), where LGBTQ rights and environmental activists have both been under attack in recent years. Putting work by American artists in conversation with each other and with artists from other nations remains a high priority for the Terra. In that way, Brown's wide-ranging interests as a collector as well as a creator of work reflecting a broad and eclectic array of styles and media also echo Terra's mission.
But as Glassman notes, the foundation's interest in expanding its collection of work by Chicago artists also remains a priority. The foundation's 2018 Art Design Chicago initiative helped cement Terra's desire to showcase work by artists such as Brown. But Glassman said, "We don't buy them only because they're Chicago artists. We buy them because they're great works of art and because we do feel that they speak to other works in our collection." She noted that the Paschke painting, which features a masked and top-hatted man holding a woman in a leopard-print bikini, can work in conversation with other Terra pieces emphasizing "the performative," such as a Reginald Marsh painting depicting the backstage of a burlesque show and a Walt Kuhn painting of a clown.
Building connections between works of art and spectators also remained important to Brown throughout his life. In a letter Brown sent months before he died to Lisa Stone, curator of the Roger Brown Study Collection, he wrote "I feel the things in the collection are of universal appeal to all artists and people with a sense of the spiritual and mystical nature that material things can evoke."