As a child growing up in Kingston, Jamaica, Suzanne McFayden loved poring over two volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica that her father had purchased from a traveling salesman: one covering foreign countries, and the other covering artists such as Picasso, Matisse, Cézanne, and J.M.W. Turner. “In my mind, that was what ‘real’ art was,” McFayden said, though she identified more closely with family photographs and work by local Jamaican artists around her.
Later, as a student at Cornell University, the philanthropist studied art history and, throughout her 20s, purchased prints from Wassily Kandinsky’s Blue Rider period. While living in Switzerland in 2010, McFayden attended her first Art Basel, the art world’s marquee fair. “There, a light bulb went off, because I was able to get up close and personal with works by Basquiat and Glenn Ligon. All of a sudden, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is also art, and it’s fantastic.’”
By the time she moved to Austin, Texas, with her three children in 2011, McFayden finally had the “head space” to devote to building a collection. She considers I Have Peg Leg Nightmares (2003), a haunting collage by Wangechi Mutu, to be her first purchase as a serious collector. “It started me on the journey that I’m on today,” she said.
As a collector, she gravitates toward work that reflects her various identities. “How do I collect these different pieces of myself? I am an immigrant, I am a Black woman, I’m a mother, I have three kids, I’m also divorced,” she said. “But the overarching theme of my collection is joy.” Work by artists like Alma Thomas, Frank Bowling, Sheila Hicks, Genevieve Gaignard, and Deborah Roberts are cornerstones in her collection.
McFayden is the new board chair of the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas, Austin; serves on the board at the Studio Museum in Harlem in New York; and provided support for Julie Mehretu’s mid-career solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art earlier this year. Recently, she has become interested in helping support artist-led initiatives such as Titus Kaphar’s NXTHVN arts incubator in New Haven, Connecticut, and Lauren Halsey’s Summaeverythang Community Center program, which during the pandemic started delivering organic produce to families in and around South Los Angeles.
When deciding whether to acquire new work, McFayden often has conversations with artists to understand what they’re thinking about, looking at, reading, and engaging with in their research. She wants to see intellectual rigor. “There’s a rush today to collect Black artists, but that’s not necessarily what I’m looking at,” she said. “I’m looking for artists who are really interested in their craft, who want to push themselves and want to go beyond their boundaries.”
Though she feels a kinship with Black artists, she is more concerned with the ideas that undergird work. “It’s not necessarily about being a Black artist; it’s about being an artist who happens to be Black,” she said. “Just like I’m an art collector who happens to be Black and who happens to be a woman.”