Thelma Harris is a passionate educator at heart. When this gallery owner speaks to you, her considerable expertise envelops you like a warm hug and a torrent of well-considered words and mischievous smile usher you in to the intricacies of the African American art world. 

When Thelma first started her business in 1987, far from her hometown of Monroe, Louisiana, she was driven by a need to fill a dearth in the market: galleries that proudly specialized in original artworks made by African American artists. From the first day she opened her gallery in Oakland, she concentrated on what she knew best: identifying works of art that she loved, getting to know the artist who created those works, and sharing that knowledge with all who visited.        

Her discerning eye led those who stopped by the gallery to be introduced to the early works of some of the art world’s most important contemporary painters, sculptors and fiber artists. Bisa Butler, Jonathan Green, Dana King and Richard Mayhew were just a few of the artists Thelma sought out and tirelessly championed before their work was snapped up by big name collectors, and whose work can now be found on the walls of major museums. 

For those who are unsure of how to begin collecting art, Thelma shares thoughtful suggestions and slices of art history, nudging collectors- to- be to trust their instincts and to follow their heart to select pieces that resonate personally. Armed with the knowledge she has provided future patrons with the background they need to make their own selection, she confidently urges, “Buy what you love. If it appreciates in value, you’ll like it even more!”

Not limited to those with enormous budgets, Thelma has taken her role as a cultural beacon seriously, and sees her role as one of community service, educating potential art collectors of all ages. In addition to warmly welcoming children into the gallery (where her grandchildren grew up, enjoying work by local and international artists), Thelma has also partnered with local schools to provide access to art and insight into art curation and appreciation.          

We have all learned something about the importance of home this past year, and its ability to provide comfort as well as protection. For Thelma, that is nothing new. For years now, she has tapped not only into her encyclopedic knowledge of art and her formidable talents as an interior designer when assisting clients in selecting and placing art in their homes, but also draws upon her pre-med background to explore the therapeutic benefits that art engenders.                 

Ever resourceful, Thelma has used the past year not only to strengthen her relationships with her artists and patrons by reaching out to reconnect while others turned inward, but also by planning the next iteration of the gallery, and examining what it means to provide a much-needed platform for up and coming and established African American artists.

I am eagerly awaiting the opening of the newly renovated Thelma Harris Art Gallery in June, and the opportunity to learn more about artists like Karla Reid, who works in mixed media, and whom Thelma is introducing this summer. I know the art will be inspiring, the historical context conveyed compelling, and it will be accompanied by Thelma’s infectious laugh.

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