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Shining A Beacon On African American Artists

By ANNE M. HAMILTON | Special to The Courant

April 06, 2008

Deirdre L. Bibby, 56, of Hartford, died March 6.

Deirdre Bibby was a pioneer who dedicated most of her professional life to the emerging field of museums dedicated to exhibiting the work of African-American artists.

"She had a lot of energy and liked to make things happen and brought a lot of fresh creativity to every project," said Barry Gaither, now the director of the National Center of Afro-American Artists in Boston. "When she came into the field, the field was still young. She brought with her a really vigorous engagement with artists."

Bibby might have become an artist herself — a fellow art student called her the best painter in their group — but her father had warned her about the financial perils artists faced. She became a curator instead. Her career took off as she worked in museums and other venues from Philadelphia, New York, Tampa and Hartford, where she was director of the Amistad Foundation and curator of African American art at the Wadsworth Atheneum from 1995 to 2004.

"Most of her career was dedicated to African American art," said Dolly McLean, founding director of the Artists Collective in Hartford. "She understood the legacy and the importance of maintaining that legacy."

Bibby was one of seven children born to Edwin and Mary Alice Bibby. Her father was a steamfitter, and the family left Pittsburgh in the late 1950s for Pawcatuck, Conn., where Edwin Bibby had a job with Electric Boat in Groton.

As a child, Bibby shared her father's interests. Like him, she loved to draw and to make things. Early on, she developed her own sense of style. While some teenagers wore jeans to a party, she might appear in an "I Dream of Jeannie" harem pants and a leotard, or ignore the iron in favor of wrinkled clothes, many of which she sewed herself.

She attended the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston, where her artistic talents were quickly recognized. She was also instrumental in forming a black artists' union and worked to increase the number of black students and black faculty.

"She was quite the go-getter, quite feisty," said Paul Goodnight, a visual artist in Boston who was a college classmate. The group affiliated itself with the National Conference of Artists and organized shows of their work at other Boston area colleges. "Deirdre was a consensus builder," Goodnight said. "You come up with an idea, she would build on it. … She was the organizer."

After college, Bibby worked in Philadelphia with Ile-Ife, a museum of Yoruba art from Nigeria. She moved on to New York, working for the Studio Museum of Harlem. She led the art and artifacts division of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library. She also worked on a master's degree at City College in art history and museum studies.

Next stop was Tampa, where Bibby was executive director of the Museum of African American Art. She increased the museum's visibility with a popular series of street-art fairs.

In 1995, the Wadsworth Atheneum hired her as curator of African American art, with a joint appointment as executive director of the Amistad Foundation at the museum (now the Amistad Center for Art and Culture.)

In Hartford, Bibby's broad knowledge of the field and her personal connections with many black artists helped her enlarge the museum's collections and organize significant shows. She was the Atheneum's second curator of African American art, and one of a small number of black professionals at the museum.

"We were very impressed by her," said Joyce Willis, who was on the Atheneum's board when Bibby was hired.

Bibby excelled at giving gallery talks to young people or the uninitiated. "One could easily slip into lofty language, but she talked in terms the average museum-goer could understand," Willis said. "You could see how much she loved what she did, as well as her respect for the people who made art."

Bibby was diplomatic, a good listener and "had a gentle way of moving through the world," said Andrea Miller-Keller, a former curator of contemporary art at the Atheneum who admired her work. But Bibby could also be direct. She had a classic rejoinder to people who remarked that their kindergarten child could have produced some piece of contemporary art.

"Maybe," Bibby would retort, "but he didn't."

Bibby left the Atheneum in 2004 and was a free-lance curator and arts consultant who continued to work for the Schomburg Center, where she curated several shows, including "Hairitage," which depicted the way various black artists viewed hair and included a video camera so visitors could talk about their views on hair. One show she curated of various objects from the Schomburg collection was taken down shortly before she died of Graves disease, a hyperthyroid condition.

In her leisure time, Bibby loved woodworking, and she spent part of a summer in a class in Maine learning about boat-building to polish her carpentry skills. She renovated her home in Hartford's West End, where she tore down walls and installed new tile and kitchen cabinets herself, and she was known to be a perfectionist. At the time of her death, she was involved in building a wooden boat. "Every shopping trip always ended at Home Depot," said Willis, a close friend. "She loved wood and tools."

"She was eccentric," said Willis. "She loved to laugh and challenge your opinion and pepper you with 50 questions. You couldn't get away with a general comment."

A pioneer in her field, Bibby was the bridge between black artists and the institutions that promote and show them. She formed many connections with writers, singers and actors as well as painters, sculptors and other artists and helped them get their works published or shown or performed.

"She brought us together," said Sana Musasama, a ceramics artist in New York, "and encouraged us to make a community. …She expanded people's vision about art."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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