Tribute For James Powers, Brooklyn Gallerist Who Nurtured Black Artists, Dies at 80

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

James Powers, a medical supply salesman, had always loved art, and when he was laid off in his early 40s he realized that he could focus on that passion and teach others about it, too. So he opened the Spiral Gallery in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn.

He named his gallery in honor of the Spiral Group, the short-lived collective of Black artists formed in the early 1960s by Charles Alston, Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis and Hale Woodruff to tackle issues both political and aesthetic. His gallery wasn’t a political space, but in the late 1980s and early ’90s it became a community for Black artists and art-lovers, a rollicking festival of culture with monthly openings that spilled out onto Vanderbilt Avenue.

Up and coming artists like Ronald Walton, Verna Hart and Lamerol Gatewood showed there, and their openings were invigorated by jazz music played by young musicians like Geri Allen (who died in 2017), Rodney Kendrick and Cassandra Wilson, who would go on to find their own fame. (Mr. Powers had made sure that a piano was part of the gallery’s décor.)

“We were young Black college graduates and professionals seeking to buy art that reflected our culture and aspirations,” said Len Walker, a longtime collector and Spiral regular.

Mr. Walton called it a “happening, a place you’d want to be. It was beautiful.”

James Edward Powers Jr. died of complications of Covid-19 on April 4 at a Manhattan hospital, his daughter, Retha Powers, said. He was 80.

Mr. Powers was born on Feb. 28, 1940, in Brooklyn. His mother, Mary Virginia (Murchison) Powers worked as a domestic until her marriage; James Sr. was a truck driver. James Jr. attended Wagner College on Staten Island on a partial baseball scholarship and graduated with a degree in liberal arts. There, he met Beverly Phipps, and they married in 1965. His wife became a social worker while James worked for Frigidaire and later as a salesman of medical supplies.

The couple enthusiastically collected the works of Black artists. After James was laid off, he took a job at Dorsey’s, a well-known Black-owned gallery and framer in Brooklyn, and then set out to open a place just like it. His wife took care of the books and other details, and sometimes cooked for the openings.

The family’s brownstone apartment on Berkeley Place spilled over with artwork, which lined the walls, the staircases and even their children’s rooms. Marc — named for Marc Chagall — said his Def Leppard and Prince posters often had to share wall space with a Verna Hart painting, or maybe a work by James Denmark or Lamerol Gatewood.

“The gallery helped me establish my career, but it was like a family,” Mr. Gatewood said. “It was a fantastic experience for a young artist trying to find your way. Jim was so kind, he helped me get the house I’m still living in. But you can’t speak of Jim without Beverly. He was in front, but she managed the gallery.”

Though the gallery closed in the early 1990s, Mr. Powers continued to present work under Spiral’s name at other galleries. His wife died in 2003, and a half brother, Norman Murchison, died in 1988. His son and daughter are his only immediate survivors.

About a decade ago, Mr. Powers moved into Isabella House, an independent living facility that is part of the Isabella Center, a nursing home that to date has had more than 100 Covid-19 deaths. His daughter said he had sold most of his collection to pay for his care.

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