David Alan Grier on Navigating the Art World as a Black Collector
David Alan Grier is riveted by jack rabbits.
“I saw one the other day in a grocery store parking lot,” he said in a recent phone conversation from Calgary, Canada, where he was wrapping up filming for the Spectrum TV mystery series “Joe Pickett.” “All the Canadians were like, ‘God, jack rabbits are everywhere, they’re like pigeons. But I took pictures and posted video, I was so excited — this thing was enormous!”
After five months north of the border playing a larger-than-life Wyoming game warden alongside Michael Dorman, Grier was looking forward to getting back to New York for the Tony Awards this week, where he’ll be up for his fourth nomination — and, he hopes, first win — for his role as a tyrannical technical sergeant in the 2020 Broadway production of “A Soldier’s Play.”
“But there’s no Barneys anymore!” said Grier, who admitted he was craving a shopping trip to the defunct department store. “I’m still adjusting.”
When we spoke, he discussed how his backyard grove of citrus trees got him through the pandemic, the comforts of all day Sunday cooking and the roots of his love of Black art. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
1. Citrus Trees During the pandemic, I planted about 14 citrus trees in my yard, and they became my obsession. I have kumquats, Valencia oranges, Ruby Red grapefruit, Cara Cara oranges that are deep red — they’re so sweet, they’re amazing. Whenever [expletive] got too crazy, I’d go water my trees. In fact, when the pomegranate one gave fruit last year, it was all split open, and I looked online and it said it was because I was overwatering the tree. My water bill was like $8,000 per month — it was like I was trying to wash Covid away.
2. Vintage Denim
With my hours of free time during the pandemic, I’d go through every item of clothing on eBay and started going deeper into denim — Lee, Levi’s Deadstock, All American stuff. People were much littler in the ’50s, so to get something vintage that actually fits is such a joy. I own about 40 pairs of overalls, 27 denim jackets. My teenage daughter will be like “Oh my God, you’re wearing overalls again?”
I went out to tea with my daughter in L.A. last year — she loves anime, so she was dressed as her favorite character, this Japanese fairy — and I had on these faded, vintage overalls. And this woman came up to us and goes, “I love your costumes — who are you supposed to be, a farmer?” My daughter was dying — she was like “No, that’s just what he wears.” Now I’ve weathered the tide, so I get compliments from young hipster people wherever I go. GQ called me a style god. For me, that’s bigger than a Tony.
3. My Dogs I’m a lifelong dog lover, and I have two: Mr. Pickles is a Bluetick Coonhound, which is a hunting dog, and he is the loudest dog I’ve ever owned. He bays so loud — like this: [BAYS] — and does it all the time. He’s a problem child but we love him. Buttercup is a big-boned gal — body positive! — just trying to live in her truth.
4. Playing the Guitar I’ve been playing — badly — since I was 12 years old. It’s a release and escape from politics, the virus, all that stuff. I wrote a list of tunes I wanted to learn — mostly blues, Rob Johnson, slide guitar. I used to write more songs, but now I mostly listen to old timey stuff — rhythm and blues, some musical theater. I used to always listen to Frank Sinatra in the car, and finally my daughter goes, “Oh, God, please don’t play that, I [expletive] hate it.” I was like, “What?” I was crushed.
5. Conversations With His Late Father My father was the smartest person I knew — he went to college at 16, then went to medical school and became a psychiatrist. He’s been dead for six years, and I miss being able to use him as an intellectual and spiritual sounding board. I find myself talking, or posing questions, trying to talk to my brother about what my dad would have thought about this or that. I wish I could still get on the phone and talk to him, or just have him call me up and say “Can we vent? Can I rant?” It’s not like we had this great relationship when I was younger, but we had this détente when he got older. That’s how life goes.
6. Being a Tourist in New York City I was living in an apartment in Times Square when I was doing “A Soldier’s Play,” and I can’t imagine how I’d have lived if I’d stayed in Manhattan during the pandemic. But I’m looking forward to getting back for the Tonys. I love walking around Central Park, going downtown and doing some shopping, getting dressed up and getting some fancy food. I really love the Armory Art Show and wish I could’ve been there for that. It’s all the super-touristy things I’ve been missing.
7. Slow and Low Sunday Meals I’m by myself now while I’m up here working, but still, on Sundays, it’s in my veins to put on a pot, low and slow. I do a seafood soup or stew, or chicken soup from scratch — it takes all day, just kind of gurgling on the stove. It fills the house with that smell that’s just like, oh my God. My nephew, when he was really little, came over to my house for Christmas and I remember he got up early in the morning and said, “Uncle Dave, your house smells good.” [Laughs] If I were at home, it’d be short ribs, or oxtail and cheesy polenta, anything that takes all day.
8. The Sermons of C.L. Franklin When Aretha Franklin came to see me on Broadway in “Porgy & Bess,” I remember telling her that I would listen to sermons that her dad gave in the 1950s. The cadence and rhythm of a Black preacher is in my bones, it’s in my soul — I love all of it. It’s just like being in church. He goes first to the announcements, like “We need this; we need that” or “We’re trying to raise more money here and there.” Then comes the sermon, the religious part. And he’d end with a story — usually a biblical story — that was perfectly crafted and choreographed so by the time he left the pulpit, it was a rock concert.
9. Stetson Silverbelly Open Road Cowboy Hat That’s my favorite hat, man! The profile of this hat is an old white guy from the South in the 1960s. I never thought I’d be wearing that, but I love it. It’s an off-white, almost bone color because there’s no dye — they don’t treat the felt or the fur, so it really shows its wear, all the blemishes and sweat marks. I wear it as much as I can, and it’s broken in enough now that it feels just like an old pair of shoes.
10. Collecting Black Artists I’ve been collecting for more than 20 years now. I really wanted to collect because I didn’t think I was able to — to even walk into a gallery and say, “I’m interested in that painting.” It’s like the art world does everything it can to repel you.
I started collecting vintage movie posters, of all-Black cast movies, and from there I slowly moved into art — mostly emerging and midcareer Black American artists. Those were the artists I could afford, and they were the artists that represented and were painting the world in which I lived right now. I love finding new young artists. I’ve been collecting Walter Price for the past two years. When I saw his images, I immediately loved them — the crude figures, his use of color. Usually, I buy a couple of pieces, and then that person gets hot and famous, and I can’t afford them anymore.