You could say Robert E. Steele ’71 M.P.H., ’74 M.S., ’75 Ph.D. has shared his 50-plus-year devotion to African-American art with Yale 100 times over.
Since 2004, Steele and his wife, Jean, have given the Yale University Art Gallery 100 works from their collection of African-American art. The 97th, 98th, 99th and 100th gifts — a lithograph by Romare Bearden, a mixed-media piece by Sam Gilliam, and screenprints by Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence — arrived at the museum’s Department of Prints, Drawing, and Photographs in 2019, augmenting one of Yale’s richest resources for the study of African-American art and culture.
The 100 artworks, donated in installments since 2004, join a rich collection that was founded in 1832 with the 100 or so paintings Yale acquired from Revolutionary-era artist John Trumbull, whose work famously depicts crucial events during the founding of the United States, including “The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776” and “The Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775.” The Trumbull acquisitions established the art gallery’s collections, which now number more than 200,000 objects in all.
“It is my conviction that one cannot fully understand the nature of American art unless one understands the contribution of African-American artists,” said Steele, a retired professor of clinical psychology now living in Hawaii and a member of the art gallery’s Governing Board since 2004. “Given that the art gallery has its roots in those 100 pieces of Trumbull’s revolutionary art, we thought we’d give 100 pieces to lay the foundation for a greater presence of African-American art on campus.”
The Steeles’ gifts have greatly enhanced the art gallery’s collection of African-American art by expanding the museum’s holdings of renowned artists such as such as Martin Puryear ’71 M.F.A., Elizabeth Catlett, and Benny Andrews, while also introducing works by other important artists, including Faith Ringgold, David C. Driskell, and Michael B. Platt, said Elisabeth Hodermarsky, the Sutphin Family Curator of Prints and Drawings.
“Without their generosity and support, the gallery’s holdings of African-American art would not be nearly what they are today,” she said.
The Steeles have established an internship program at the art gallery that seeks to introduce students of color to potential careers in the museum profession — a field in which African Americans are underrepresented.
“Several of the interns have gone on to careers in the art or museum fields,” Steele said. “I’m very pleased by that.”
Steele spent 40 years on the faculty of the Department of Psychology at the University of Maryland College Park, where he was associate dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences. He then served nearly a decade as the director of the university’s David C. Driskell Center, which supports the promotion and study of African-American art and the art of the African diaspora.
For Steele, this late-career transition made a profession out of a longstanding interest in art, one that emerged while he was an undergraduate at Morehouse College in Atlanta during the early 1960s.
Pathway to Yale
Steele was born in Pritchard, Alabama, a small town located just north of Mobile. His dad worked as a janitor and operated a candy-making business on the side. His mom cleaned houses part time while caring for Steele and his four siblings. The couple prioritized education, investing all of their spare time and income into ensuring the five children succeeded in school, Steele said.
“My siblings and I all have master’s degrees or more,” he said.
In 1961, Steele was a freshman at Morehouse College when he joined a sit-in at Rich’s, a popular department store in downtown Atlanta that operated a segregated restaurant.
Steele considered taking a leave of absence from school to join the civil rights movement full time. The Rev. Warren Scott, who was the Episcopal chaplain at Atlanta University Center, advised him to stay in school and advance the cause through education, which is the path he ultimately chose.
“In hindsight, I think that was a wise decision,” he said.
On breaks from his student job at Morehouse’s Trevor Arnett Library, Steele would wander into the library’s art gallery and enjoy the works on view. His roommate, Barry Gaither, was double-majoring in art and English and schooled him on the artists represented. (Today, Gaither is a prominent scholar of African-American art and the founding director of the Museum at the National Center of Afro-American Artists in Boston.)
“Barry provided my informal art education,” he said.
After graduating, Steele attended the Episcopal Divinity School, a seminary in Cambridge, Mass., where he studied pastoral counseling, which addresses psychological and emotional conflict from a religious perspective. Afterward he received a fellowship to study the intersection of religion and psychology, completing a pair of six-month chaplaincy internships at Harlem Hospital and Belleview Hospital in New York City.
During his breaks at Harlem Hospital, he would explore local art galleries.
“Art always provided me a welcome reprieve from my primary work,” he said.
In 1968, Steele visited the Harlem Art Gallery and purchased the couple’s first artwork, “Three African Women in Profile,” a pastel on cardboard by artist Tony Northern.
“We consider that picture a treasure,” Robert said.
The purchase led to many others, and ultimately to a comprehensive collection of works on paper — drawings, lithographs, and prints — by African-American artists.
‘A volatile time’
Steele’s experiences during the two New York internships made him realize that he needed secular training to work in a medical setting. He applied to YSPH’s program in community mental health.
“That program was perfect for me because it approached mental health issues from a preventative perspective,” he said. “Yale was open to someone with my background, so it was a successful fit.”
(In addition to their support of the Yale Art Gallery, the Steeles have led efforts to establish several scholarships at the Yale School of Public Health (YSPH) to support students of color. In 2012, Steele received the Yale Medal, the Yale Alumni Association’s highest honor for outstanding individual service to the university.)
Steele arrived on campus in 1969 as Yale College initiated coeducation. In the spring of 1970, unrest erupted in New Haven when members of the Black Panther Party were tried in connection with the murder of 19-year-old Alex Rackley, suspected by Panthers of spying for the government.
“It was a volatile time,” he said.
Steele flourished academically amid the upheaval. After earning his master’s in public health, he pursued a Ph.D. in clinical community psychology, which emphasizes collaboration with community-based organizations.
Several years after completing his Ph.D., Steele attended an alumni event in Washington D.C. where he learned about the staggering debt that many YSPH students face.
“I found that disturbing,” said Steele, who had graduated debt free through a combination of federal and Yale-based financial aid. “People shouldn’t be saddled with debt just as they’re starting their careers.”
The Steeles committed themselves to easing students’ financial burden. They led efforts to endow several YSPH scholarships designed to increase support minority students.
‘An amazing collection’
Word about the Steeles’ art collection spread from YSPH development officers to their counterparts at the art gallery. In 2004, Hodermarsky visited the Steeles at their home, then in College Park, Md., where she saw firsthand the splendor of their art collection.
“They have amassed hundreds of works of very high quality, including historical and contemporary works,” she said. “They love color and are drawn to artists who use vivid colors.”
Soon afterward, Robert Steele joined the gallery’s Governing Board. Around the same time, he delayed his retirement to direct the newly founded Driskell Center, establishing it as a national hub for the study of African-American art, Hodermarsky said.
Steele sought collaborations between the Driskell Center and Yale, including “Embodied,” a 2010 exhibition of African-American art jointly organized by students from Yale and the University of Maryland.
Steele continues to attend bi-annual meetings of the gallery’s Governing Board despite having retired with his wife to Hawaii, where their daughter, Elisabeth Steele Hutchison ’03 J.D., is director of admissions at the University of Hawaii’s law school.
He views his service to Yale as a case of one good turn deserving another.
“I received a wonderful education at Yale,” he said. “This work is all about paying it forward.”