Advocate for the Arts: Johanne Bryant-Reid

Johanne Bryant-Reid in front of Elizabeth Catlett linotype prints. Photograph by Grace Graupe-Pillard.


A most unusual woman, Johanne Bryant- Reid is neither an artist nor an art historian; she is not a professor or a curator. But in many ways her contribution to art is at least as significant. Her life-long support for artists and the arts is an important manifestation of her humanitarianism.


Bryant-Reid and I first met when we both went to the Payne Gallery of Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to see the exhibition of work by a mutual friend, Grace Graupe-Pillard. When a sudden massive snowstorm prevented us from returning home, we three calmly decided to share a room in a local hotel. We got along famously, and I became intrigued by the trajectory of Bryant-Reid’s career.


Johanne Bryant-Reid taking a photo of Grace Graupe-Pillard outside her show in November 2018.
Photograph by the author.


Today Bryant-Reid admits to being a collector, although she did not set out to be one. She currently possesses 250 to 300 works by artists she has known or with whom she has had a personal connection.

How has this all come about? What is it about this remarkable woman that drew her to so many artists, and they to her?

Born and raised in West Virginia, Bryant-Reid was only exposed to art, growing up, in the form of handmade objects she encountered at local fairs. She viewed her first “real” art after graduating from college, when she relocated to Cleveland, Ohio.

In 1983, a chance introduction to the artist and author Romare Bearden by a friend “opened my eyes to the world of art and artists,” she says. Having no idea who Bearden was (she reminded me that you couldn’t Google people in those days), she had lunch with him, and he asked her for a favor.  At that time, she was working in Human Resources at Merrill Lynch, and Bearden asked if she could find a job for his friend. Amazingly, although the friend in question was also an artist with no business background, she was able to help him find a job as well as necessary healthcare. In return, Bearden gave her a beautiful lithograph, Falling Star, which later became an image on the U.S. “Forever” stamp. Bryant-Reid described this lithograph as an extraordinarily colorful depiction of an ordinary woman with a laundry basket, drinking her coffee—something to which she could easily relate. But the lithograph also includes something magical: outside the window, a star is falling from the sky.


Romare Bearden. Falling Star. Lithograph. 23” x 18 1⁄4.” 1980
This work combines figuration and abstraction, in Bearden’s characteristic style.


As an employee of Merrill Lynch, Bryant-Reid became further involved with art and artists through the company’s community outreach initiatives. She employed art auctions when fundraising for the Women’s Center, an organization in New York City that worked with battered women. Those auctions introduced her to a number of artists, and were also win-win situations: artists were able to sell—and increase public awareness of their art, and funds from the auctions helped women in need relocate and support their children.

Bryant-Reid states that her friend, the Trinidadian artist Roy Crosse (1945-2014), was perhaps her greatest artistic influence. Before his tragic death from cancer, he taught her much about art. A prized item in her collection is Crosse’s amazing seven-foot-high totem-like work, Obatala (1992). Intended as home protectors, Crosse’s “Totems” are made out of found objects, such as nails, railroad ties, glass, and other material he picked up on the street. Obatala is the centerpiece of her home, and, she says, “people are drawn to it immediately.”


Roy Crosse, Home Protector, 58″ x 6″ x 2 1/2,”, wood, metal gold plate, 1992.


During the 1980s and ‘90s Bryant-Reid expanded her art collection—and her circle of artist friends. She both bought and was given work by such artists as Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence, Willie Cole, Bettye Saar, Emma Amos, Charles Alston, and Norman Lewis. The following reproductions illustrate only a small part of Bryant-Reid’s wide-ranging collection.


Jacob Lawrence. John Brown Series. silk screen on domestic etching paper 21” x 15” 1977.


Emilo Cruz. Untitled Floating Figures. oil on canvas. 16” x 20” 1962.


Fred Brown. Crazy Horse. oil on paper. 29 1⁄2” x 43 1⁄4.” 2007/2006.


Robert Carter. Laundry Woman. mixed media 30” x 25.” 2014.


S. Depas. Untitled. Mixed media 9” x 14” 1977.


Elizabeth Catlett. Special Houses. linoleum cut on woven paper. 9 1⁄2” x 10 1/2” 1946.


Elizabeth Catlett. Dancing. color lithograph on cream woven paper. 23” x 31” 2003.


In 1994 Bryant-Reid organized a Merrill Lynch event to show John Biggers’ illustrations for Maya Angelou’s poem Our Grandmothers.


After Bearden died in 1988, Bryant-Reid became first a member of the board, and then, upon retiring from Merrill Lynch, a co-director of the Romare Bearden Foundation, an organization that promotes new, emerging, and mid-career artists, in addition to perpetuating Bearden’s legacy. She is quick to point out that, even today, there is little African American people’s art in United States museums.

She has said that the major accomplishment of the Bearden Foundation has been its longevity—over thirty years. It is one of the few African-American foundations that has existed for so long. Her goal is to see the foundation endure and continue to bring other artists their due recognition, because that is what Romare Bearden would have done.


Grace Graupe-Pillard. “Johanne Bryant-Reid” 44” x 30” charcoal/paper. 2018


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Greta Berman received a B.A. from Antioch College, an M.A. from the University of Stockholm, and a Ph.D. from Columbia. She has recently retired from her position as Professor of Art History at Juilliard, where she taught for 46 years. In addition to writing a monthly column, “Focus on Art,” for the Juilliard Journal, she co-curated and co-edited Synesthesia: Art and the Mind.  She has published numerous articles, as well as lectured on synesthesia and other subjects.  

Current co-director of the Romare Bearden Foundation, Johanne Bryant-Reid, was born and educated in West Virginia. She received a BA fromWest Virginia University. As Manager of Merrill Lynch's Global Human Resources Department, she was able to involve the company in supporting the arts. After serving for seven years as primary fundraiser of the Bearden Foundation, she was named it's co-director. The foundation was created in 1990 as a non-profit, aimed at preserving and perpetuating the legacy of this pre-eminent African-American artist, as well as emerging and mid-career artists.


  1. Great article! It is so great to see Johanne recognized for her love and passion for the arts. She’s a great champion and a beautiful woman, inside and out.

  2. Bravo on this piece highlighting Johanne’s contributions. She has had a most interesting life and an unusual journey to art. Her dedication to Bearden’s legacy is inspiring!

    1. Thanks, Valerie! I’ve published several over the past few years, and shall continue. Did you see the previous one on Jae Jarrell? REALLY “up your alley.”

    1. Thank YOU, Grace, for your help, for introducing me to Johanne, and for your beautiful portrait of her!

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