For 23 years, Thelma Harris Gallery has been a burst of color on College Avenue. It’s a gleaming trove of both historical and contemporary works by artists of color from around the world. Imported African masks and sculptures reign over the space, while bold, colorful paintings cover the walls. The gallery’s eponymous owner and curator specializes in contemporary painting and sculpture by Black artists and deals sought after pieces by WPA artists and Harlem Renaissance icons, including Palmer Hayden and Aaron Douglas. While Oakland’s largely DIY art scene tends to favor local emerging artists, Thelma Harris Gallery has matured into an anomalous destination for international collectors.
Much like their gallery, Thelma and her husband Terry Harris are vibrant and loaded with art world insights. They both speak with a speed that hits you like a jolt of caffeine, and they interrupt each other constantly to digress into nostalgic anecdotal tangents. The couple said they started the gallery simply because they’ve always been “art addicts.” Of course, the full story was slightly more complicated than that.
When she moved to Oakland in the mid-Seventies, Thelma Harris wanted to collect art by Black artists, but couldn’t find it anywhere, she said. After searching for years, in 1987 she finally decided that she should fill that void herself by becoming an art dealer. She hoped to become a platform for artists of color to sell their work, and a resource for local people like her who wanted to buy it. So, she took out a loan for $5,000 and started to collect imported African art.
Harris, who was working an office job at the time, wasn’t yet an expert on contemporary Black art. In school, Black history had basically been omitted, she said. “I think one time they mentioned, maybe, Jacob Lawrence. But if you blinked, you would have missed it.” But, throughout the late Eighties, Harris became intimately familiar with the scene by travelling to see shows specifically focused on showcasing Black artists.
Then one Thursday in 1990, Harris’ framer suggested that she start a gallery. That Sunday, Harris drove to a vacant storefront on Grand Avenue that had caught her eye. At nine the next morning, she called the owner from work in San Ramon and by her lunch break she was sitting in his office, showing off her paintings and artist roster. That evening, she returned to seal the deal. She offered him what money she could and paid for the rest in artwork. Not long after, in November of 1990, the gallery had its first show.
Despite having a gorgeous 45,000-square-foot storefront and a well-attended opening, Harris didn’t sell a single piece for the first few months. At that point, she and her husband considered giving up — maybe there just wasn’t a local market for original art by Black artists. But, based on advice from Terry’s uncle — “You just gotta be there when they’re ready” — they decided to wait it out a few more months. Business picked up a bit, and two years later, they moved into their current Rockridge location. “Here we are 25 years later,” said Thelma Harris. “You just gotta stick in there.”
That motto has repeatedly worked out for Thelma Harris over the years. For the first four years that she brought Bay Area artwork to a New York art fair, she didn’t sell a thing. People want to buy work by artists they recognize, she explained, even if they only recognize them because their work was at the booth the year before. Simply re-presenting the artists proved crucial. Many of the artists that Harris has worked with closely were still somewhat neglected by a white-washed art world when she began collecting their work. Now, their work is being bought by museums.
By continuously promoting artists like Claude Clark, Jonathan Green, Artis Lane, and Ed Dwight, the couple has played a crucial role in garnering recognition of and appreciation for their work. “Appreciation does not just mean money,” said Thelma Harris, “but appreciation of a culture.”