Warren M. Robbins, founder of the Museum of African Art, dies at 85

Warren M. Robbins, founder of the Museum of African Art, dies at 85
Warren M. Robbins founded the Museum of African Art after a trip to Germany as a cultural attache. (Harry Naltchayan / Washington Post)
Warren M. Robbins, founder of the Museum of African Art, forerunner to the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art, died Dec. 4 at George Washington University Hospital of complications from a fall at his home last month. He was 85.

When he started the Museum of African Art in 1964, Robbins had never been to Africa, never worked in a museum, never been involved with the arts and never raised money.

His vision of a museum of African art for Washington grew out of a trip he took in the early 1960s, when he was a cultural attache with the U.S. Embassy in Bonn, Germany. He and Sen. S.I. Hayakawa (R-Calif.) were visiting Hamburg one day and strolled into an antique shop where a collection of African sculptures caught Robbins' eye. He bought 32 pieces.

From that initial purchase, Robbins started his museum in the basement of his home, in part to promote cross-cultural communication at a time of civil rights ferment.

Six years later, he heard that a former Capitol Hill home of Frederick Douglass, the 19th-century abolitionist icon, was on the market. Robbins raised $13,000 -- his first foray into fundraising -- and took out a $35,000 mortgage to buy the house, where he put his pieces on display as the Museum of African Art. Later he purchased other houses on the block -- nine in all -- as his collection grew.

"With little money, through the largesse of friends and collectors, and an undeterred dream, Robbins established what would become one of the world's preeminent museums for exhibiting, collecting and preserving African art," said Sharon Patton, director of the National Museum of African Art, in a statement.

His museum survived through the force of his personality and his passion for cross-cultural understanding. Friends called him persistent and single-minded; others called him "pushy" and a "monomaniac."

He made phone calls, wrote letters, attended openings, flooded the media with news releases and solicited loans of art pieces from private collections and from African governments. He also made himself into something of a man about town, a well-known habitue of parties and art openings.

"He has a handsome facial structure, decorated with a Mephistophelean beard and enough black hair to show he's an artiste," Sarah Booth Conroy observed in the Washington Post in 1979. "He is a hunchback, not that it's kept him from piloting planes, skiing or collecting a number of 'longtime relationships' with women."

He stuffed his museum with whatever he found interesting: tropical plants to suggest the rain forests of Africa, masks with straw beards, drums carved into fantastic animal shapes, ceremonial stools, tapestries, paintings.

Initially, he had to confront resentment against a white man running a black museum. He had a ready answer: "I make no apologies for being white. You don't have to be Chinese to appreciate ancient ceramics, and you don't have to be a fish to be an ichthyologist."

When the museum had expanded to more than 5,000 works, Robbins began petitioning Congress to make it a part of the Smithsonian Institution, which happened in 1979. In 1987, it moved to the Mall and was renamed the National Museum of African Art.

Robbins remained director until 1983, when he was replaced by Sylvia Williams.

Robbins was born Sept. 4, 1923, in Worcester, Mass., the youngest of 11 children of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants. Being the youngest, he told the Post, accounted for his aggressive spirit.

"That was worse than being a hunchback," he said.

He received his undergraduate degree in English from the University of New Hampshire in 1945 and a master's degree in history from the University of Michigan in 1949.

He taught secondary school to American dependents in Europe before becoming a cultural affairs officer with the U.S. Information Agency and the State Department. He left the Foreign Service in 1963.

In February, he married Lydia Puccinelli Robbins. She is his only immediate survivor.

Holley is a writer for the Washington Post, where this report first appeared.