Creating connections through the arts and across cultures

Robert Powell: community leader, founder and executive director of Portfolio Gallery & Education Center, St. Louis–“Maybe easy isn’t what’s important.”

You read about the current Portfolio Gallery show "Visual Language" earlier on Riehlife. Today you'll meet the man who founded Portfolio Gallery and Education Center 18 years ago in 1989: Robert Powell.

Robert Powell of Portfolio Gallery, St. Louis

I first met Robert Powell at the Urban League's Black Fine Art show. I walked into his booth and felt swept-up in his warmth and charm. Before I knew it we were laughing our heads off, nodding, and repeating the phrase, "Maybe easy isn't what's important." Upon our next meeting I stepped across the threshold of the venerably gorgeous building lovingly restored to house Portfolio Gallery on 3514 Delmar (part of the Grand Center Arts District).

Robert gave me a private tour of the current show on the way up to his modest office. Before I knew it, we were looking at Tom Feelings' marvelous book "The Middle Passage: White Ships; Black Cargo" and the illustrations, so understated and poignant, were bringing tears to my eyes. Tom Feelings (whom Robert met in 1985) is just one of many outstanding artists whom Robert has known and hosted over the years. Portfolio presented Gordon Parks in the summer of 1998.

To me Robert felt like village leaders I've known in Ghana, particularly. He is like a hearth to warm your hands around with his deep rolling voice and simultaneous loose-tight properties. He is contained and elegant on the one hand, and profoundly relaxed on the other. But, don't get too relaxed. This is a man to stay on your toes around with a feast of show and tell punctuated with pauses to book a wedding in the Portfolio Gallery space.

We speak of dignity...presenting African-American artists in a positive light...presenting the artist and artwork on its own terms without referencing anybody or anything else.

We speak of his life running a gallery, reaching out to the community, running an organization, producing art, and how it feels like one thing to him. He jokes that "Robert cuts the grass so Mr. Powell won't get mad."

Robert created Portfolio out of a need. "You got your start at the Vaughn Cultural Center, and then what? Why not go to a place you feel at home, like 'Cheers'"? The art programs at the Portfolio focus on art process---how you take nothing to something---how you transform clay or a blank sheet of paper into a work of art. The outreach provides cultural enrichment, providing classes for schools and other organizations.

The Portfolio has hosted children's youth-related shows, and MRDD (developmentally disabled) shows. Congressman Clay sponsors an exhibition and the top winners are displayed in the Rotunda of Washington, D.C. and in his office.

Over the years, Portfolio Gallery has become Robert's creation leaving less time for producing his own art. He still manages time to carve two pieces per year rather than the five or six he used to make. He does commissions and designs awards.

His next exciting project is to expand the gallery facility with a restaurant and education center. In June he received a $50K challenge grant for matching funds from MRDD. This is the beginning of the $600K projected funding required. "It's not hard," says Robert. "Meet the right person and that one perosn can change your life." He sees his job as changing "no" to "know."

We speak of the future of Portfolio and how African-American organizations in general will survive into the future. Robert is on the board of the Zoo-Museum District so he encounters vastly different economies of scale when he moves between his office to a board meeting. We speak of the difference between grants and a true income stream, "A grant is just a program...then what?"

It's important to find entreprenuers. He has eight pottery wheels and a kiln in storage. He has easels in storage. He needs people who can use some of the things he has to generate their income. He is looking for Doers. (Enough of the Little Red Hen, all ready.) He can provide supplies, equipment, insurance. That way people can pay themselves.

L. Ron Hubbard says, "It doesn't really come down to a test of what does a person know, but it comes down to a test of what can a person do?"

This fall Robert plans to shift Portfolio hours so he can be free to be out more telling the gallery and education center story to gain the support he needs to keep his doors not just open, but swinging.

After all, though, Robert Powell understands, all too well, that "maybe easy isn't what's important."


Portfolio Gallery and Education Center presents and educates in the area of visual arts, focusing on the African-American visual artists at the local, regional and national level.

Hours: Monday, Wednesday and Friday 9am-5pm, Tuesday and Thursday by appointment,
Saturday 1pm-4pm
Address: 3514 Delmar Blvd., St. Louis MO 63103
Phone: 314-533-3323

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3 Responses »

  1. It's people like Robert, working for the community, and for art, and in spite of all the odds that give us hope.


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