Eugene Lawrence Foney (1950-2020)
Eugene Lawrence Foney, 69 passed away on April 7, 2020 in Chicago. He was born to Eugene and Ruth Foney in the windy city on October 6, 1950. Eugene was affectionately known as Dad, Brother, Gene, Uncle Eugene, Sporty, Jr. and ELF -for his initials – by his close family, friends, and colleagues. He is better known as a celebrated art consultant, publisher, entrepreneur, and businessman who championed African American artists and culture. He was also known as the ‘art dealers’ dealer’ throughout the United States, with Houston, Texas as his base.
Eugene’s foray into the art world was nothing short of Divine providence. After graduating from Southern Illinois University and working odd jobs, he was in the process of deciding to pursue an MBA at Texas Southern University. One day while contemplating his future he took a walk. He paused and was moved by a print he saw displayed in the window of a neighborhood cabinet maker’s storefront gallery called the Wood Shop. With a limited budget he purchased the piece on a lay away plan. After developing a relationship, the owner suggested that he sell prints of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and other Black leaders to help him pay for his schoolbooks after giving him a catalogue he produced on African American art.
Eager to introduce people to prints by Black artists he successfully sold many of the prints for the Wood Shop. He soon became the person in Texas to ask about art and artists, resulting in him developing the fine art market for American artists of African descent through his business, artcetera, which he developed and expanded for over 40 years. During this time Eugene was exposed to a diverse range of people who became lifelong clients and friends. Eugene was a staunch advocate for artists. He was also actively involved in the development of the Houston African American Art and Culture Museum and was a member of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts African American support group.
The catalyst for the expansion of artcetera was when he was asked by a dear friend, to curate and fulfil a wish list for the George Cleveland Hall Branch of the Chicago Public Library system. Their interest in African American art enabled him to include art by: Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Charles White, John Biggers, Eldzier Cortor, Charles Alston, Samella Lewis, Camille Billops, Aaron Douglass, Benny Andrews, Joseph Delaney, Robert Blackburn, Fred Jones, James Denmark, Margaret Burroughs, Claude Clark, Vincent Smith, William Carter, Ellsworth Ausby and Ademola Olugebefola.
After putting this distinctive collection together, he focused on building individual and institutional fine art collections throughout the United States and the Caribbean for more than four decades. He sourced masterworks for many historic and renowned art dealers and galleries, including but not limited to, Terry Dintenfass, Sid Deutsch, Leo Castelli, Martha Henry, Beverly Saks, Peg Alston, June Kelly, the Tony Shrafazi Gallery, ACA Gallery, Pace Gallery, Wilmer Jennings Gallery, Stella Jones Gallery, Woodshop Gallery, Black Heritage Gallery, Isobel Neal Gallery, Black Art in America and Hauser & Wirth.
No matter where he traveled Eugene had lots of what they called themselves, “his Best Friend”. Elders loved his old fashion respect for them. The younger generation looked up to him and valued him for his opinion and knowledge. Throughout his life Eugene was a voracious reader and studied the art market with great tenacity and a demeanor that combined the bold excitement of bebop and the ease of cool jazz. He lived by his own rules, social protocols, and the lack thereof, which either endeared people or at times caused many collectors and dealers to lose out on great opportunities. He was always eager to ‘make a deal’ but believed that “fools rushed in where angels dare to tread.” It was always about making the best deal, which for Eugene was a well-choreographed process of thoughtful research, timing, judgement, integrity, and presentation- an art form he made his own. A hallmark of every sale was a ‘Eugene style’ art lesson combined with wonderful stories about the artist and the purchase, accompanied with a genuine and generous life long friendship. One of Eugene’s most accomplished deals that he was extremely proud of involved facilitating and helping to bring the papers and archives of Houston based artist John T. Biggers to Emory University in 2011 which is currently a permanent display.
Eugene made indelible impressions on all who met him. He had an infectious smile, sardonic sense of humor, a love for hats and an appreciation for Black cowboys at the rodeo and BBQ. He also had an uncanny ability to find the hippest, out of the way, food, and music spots wherever he traveled. Eugene had an active inquisitive mind for art, adventure, and fun in everything he did. Perhaps one of the most endearing things was his pleasure in a range of music from the blues, jazz, rock, r & b to hip hop.
Eugene is survived by his daughter Ariel E. Dale in Los Angeles, CA and his sister Jennifer Foney in Powder Springs, GA. He is also survived and loved by aunts, uncles, more than 100 cousins, countless friends, and his beloved brothers of the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Incorporated. A memorial tribute will be scheduled later. If you so desire, at this time the family suggests donations in Eugene L. Foney’s name be made to a favorite art organization that features and supports African American artists or the American Cancer Society.
A sincere thank you to everyone who provided input.
Photo Credit: Tony Smith, Photographer
Written by: Halima Taha, arts & culture strategist, corporate & academic speaker, and author of Collecting African American Art: Works on Paper and Canvas.