Before he ascended to the heights of Hollywood stardom as an actor and activist, Jesse Williams grew up in a household where art took center stage. His mother is an artist, and his wider family network included “boatbuilders, sculptors, painters, dancers,” he said. “I was surrounded by a lot of hands-on craftsmanship. Creativity was central to our home. We didn’t collect because we didn’t have any money, but art was valuable—essential, really.”
Around the time he landed starring roles in the TV series Grey’s Anatomy and movies like The Cabin in the Woods, Williams was guided to begin collecting by another family member he called his “art godmother”: Cheryl R. Riley, an artist who taught him and his then wife about the finer points of appreciation and support. “Once I started making a little bit of money, she started pushing us to be educated on the role that being a patron of young emerging Black artists could play, not only in their lives but in our lives,” Williams said. “She taught me how that would be an interesting and creative way to use your resources.”
After a decade or so of active collecting, Williams, 40, ranks among the most notable young collectors of art from the African diaspora, holding some 250 works. (He had a hard time settling on an estimate: “I’ve added six this week,” he said during a chat in August.)
Williams sees the figures in paintings, like Peter Uka’s 2020 canvas Front yard things, as part of his family.
Courtesy the artist, Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, and Jesse Williams
He tends toward figurative painting, in part for the kinds of stories the form can tell. “I primarily collect emerging Black artists, though not always—I have Charles White, Kerry James Marshall, a lot of OGs,” he said. “But what gets me is work that I can’t figure out right away, that grows and changes with time. Paintings become part of my family. These are figures in my home, on my walls, in my intimate space. I sit and have a glass of wine and commune with them. They’re movies to me. They’re scenes and roles and characters in my life.”
Williams also likes to build relationships with artists that evolve beyond the confines of a canvas. “I have a relationship with probably 94 percent of the artists whose work I own,” he said. “I FaceTime with them in the studio. We talk at length about their practice. We’re part of each other’s lives, with a collective human connection we’re exploring together.”
One of those artists was Noah Davis, the late, great painter who founded the Underground Museum in L.A. “He was my brother—a very good friend of mine,” Williams said. “Being able to live with his work and have it right by my doorway when everybody comes in and out—and gets washed over by it—is critical for me.”
Williams has a long list of artists whose work he owns and also clearly reveres, among them Ferrari Shepherd (“It’s moving to watch somebody’s work evolve right before your eyes so quickly”), Jerrell Gibbs (“When I talked about sitting with work and a glass of wine and just kind of disappearing into another world”), and Janiva Ellis (“a fucking titan—so creative, so cool, so unmistakable in a very crowded field”), to name just a few.
And he takes pride in the kind of patronage he’s able to provide. “It’s an interesting thing for Black creators who often come from struggle to make work that has historically primarily only gone to the wealthy, rich, white upper class,” Williams said. “That’s a bizarre exchange, to make work that’s deeply personal and deeply African and have it all go to generational wealth-builders who have nothing to do with the spiritual stewardship of their community. Some meaningful percentage of Black art, I believe, should go to Black collectors. It would be nice if it was treated like a legacy.”
A version of this article appears in the October/November 2021 issue of ARTnews.