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Robert Steele
Robert Steele's journey from buying his first work of art as a student in Harlem to directing the Driskell Center.

By Monette Austin Bailey, UMD Newsdesk

Forty years ago, Robert Steele was a young ordained minister with a doctorate in community psychology and a finely honed appreciation for African-American art. He thought Maryland was the kind of place he could find a home. He was right.

Following a successful career teaching psychology, he's served since 2004 as executive director for the university's David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora. There, Steele champions the contributions of oft-overlooked artists and nurtures new talent. It's something Steele and his wife, Jean, have also done privately for three decades.

The couple, who met at an Episcopal divinity school, has amassed more than 1,000 works of art by African Americans. Most are drawings, paintings and silk-screened prints or serigraphs. Jazz is a dominant theme, as is religion.

Steele bought his first piece in New York while in clinical training at Harlem Hospital. A photo of him holding the work—three women in profile rendered in vivid colors—is displayed on his desk. The ability of a second-year graduate student to make this purchase, he adds, demonstrates how underappreciated the field was at the time.

"That was some of the advantage of starting early," he says. "We were lucky if there were five black exhibitions in the country. It gave us a chance to develop our understanding."

The son of an Alabama Baptist deacon, Steele was expected to go into the ministry after earning a bachelor's in English from Morehouse College in 1965.

"But [that idea] didn't sit quite straight with me," says Steele.

He #was# impressed, however, with the sophistication and cosmopolitan nature of an Episcopalian school chaplain in whom he found a mentor. Steele went on to get a master's in divinity from Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., before heading to the School of Public Health at Yale, where he discovered a penchant for pastoral counseling and mental health and shifted his career path.

Maryland's College of Behavioral and Social Sciences then hired him as an assistant professor. While there, he created a summer research institute for students of color and helped recruit minority doctoral candidates. He retired as associate dean of its graduate program after three decades.

One month later, he was asked to lead the Driskell Center.

"My background has come in very handy here," he says with a grin. "Artists and collectors have some huge egos, and I've had to deal with all sorts of personalities."

Steele's peers say his personality is one reason for the Driskell center's prominence in the art world. Named for the professor emeritus, scholar and collector, the center is a rarity on university campuses because of its specialized focus.

"It is an important and really dynamic presence on campus and in the field of American art," says Pamela Franks, deputy director for collections and education at the Yale University Art Gallery. "The service Dr. Steele's given is truly extraordinary. He gave [the center] a public face."

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