The work of a Columbia-born artist is now part of the collection at his hometown’s art museum thanks to the work of a dedicated group of Midlands art lovers.
Two pieces by Rodney McMillian, a Columbia native who now is based in Los Angeles, went on display at the Columbia Museum of Art in early August. They are now part of the Museum’s permanent collection and are on display alongside works by Andy Warhol and others in the museum’s Contemporary Art Gallery on its second level.
McMillian’s two works were unveiled at the museum in conjunction with his visit to Columbia in early August, which also included a special event where he discussed his work with members of the community, received a key to the city of Columbia from City Councilwoman Adita Bussells, and a resolution from State House Rep. Todd Rutherford
McMillian, who was born in Irmo, works across a broad range of media including painting, sculpture and film. The CMA is the first museum in the Carolinas to acquire his work, found in many museum collections worldwide including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art and The Studio Museum in Harlem.
The artworks are in Columbia thanks to the efforts of the Contemporaries, a nonprofit affinity group of the museum founded in 1994. Raising funds to acquire new artworks for the museum’s collection is one of the group’s main purposes, with their past successes include the Dale Chihuly glass chandelier that is considered one of the museum’s centerpieces.
“Our idea is not just to put something pretty on the wall, but to bring in art that is genuinely impactful for the community,” Contemporaries president Will Roberts told SC Biz News. “Our goal isn’t just collecting artwork, but bringing in artwork that moves the needle to get people to come to the museum and be excited about what the museum is doing.”
Discussions about the group’s next acquisition for the museum started in late 2021, and after a series of votes McMillian was chosen.
One requirement for this most recent set of acquisitions by the museum was to support and promote an artist of color, a woman artist or a member of another minority group. McMillian’s work especially fit the bill because of his Columbia roots and the themes of many of his artworks which address current social, political and cultural issues from his perspective and experience as an African American artist, Roberts said.
In August of 2022, about 30 people from Columbia, including members of the Contemporaries and museum staff, traveled to meet with McMillian at his Los Angeles studio and gallery. The scheduling was tight because the artist was about to travel to Switzerland at the time, but they managed to make it work.
“He was totally blown away when we arrived that all these people from Columbia came to see him,” said Joelle Ryan-Cook, deputy director and director of external affairs for the CMA. “The energy level was so high and there was so much positivity coming from our end and his end — it was a very special experience.”
The Contemporaries and McMillian settled on three artworks for consideration, and after rounds of voting two were selected. One, “Twice Painted,” is an unusual still life of dark vases on a table painted against a dark background. The other, “Untitled (For Dr. Raegun McDonald-Mosely)” is a multi-colored abstract piece that features script along the bottom addressing inequity in health care, especially as experienced by Black women.
Roberts said addressing topics such as racism in health care could be seen as controversial, but it’s part of the Contemporaries’ goal to bring in meaningful art.
“We knew there was a possibility to open an incredible conversation, and so far the reception we have seen has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic,” he said. “Visitors have really embraced both artworks.”
The works will be on display at least until the Contemporaries’ annual membership event in mid-October. McMillian also announced that he plans to do a solo exhibit in Columbia in 2025.
“I can’t emphasize how important it is for the museum to have an organization like the Contemporaries and the work of the board,” Ryan said. “We’re a small full-time staff of about 31 people and they bring such amazing enhancements to the museum through their energy, heart and enthusiasm. They work hard for us, and the end results are things like this. Museums are in the forever business and the Contemporaries are responsible for telling forever stories. This shows what volunteerism and philanthropic work can accomplish.”e