Collector Reba White Williams finds Mystery in the Art World
by Janis Gibson
Reba White Williams of Greenwich recently published her first novel, Restrike, a mystery set in the New York City art world. Featuring Coleman Greene, the editor of an influential arts magazine, and her cousin Dinah, who owns a print gallery in Greenwich Village, the book has been well received — a New York Times reviewer called it “a captivating debut” — and is a fulfillment of a lifelong goal for Ms. White Williams. Restrike is also the first of a planned series; the second Coleman and Diana Greene mystery will be published next year and the third and fourth mysteries are under way. The latter is set in an art colony.
Being a mystery writer is just the latest career for Ms. White Williams, who says that she “loves books; I always have. I am proud to be a bookworm.”
After growing up in Mississippi, Tennessee and North Carolina, then earning her bachelor’s degree in English from Duke University, an ambitious 21-year-old Reba White took a train to New York City with dreams of fame and fortune as a novelist. Then reality set in.
She worked a variety of part-time jobs, continued her education and used her skills as a researcher and writer as she climbed the career ladder from library assistant to researcher at a management consulting firm to Wall Street securities analyst. She wrote about art, and business and finance, “because that’s what I could get into print, and what paid the rent.” A lifelong learner, she earned an M.B.A. at Harvard, an M.A. in art history at Hunter, and a Ph.D. in art history at the Graduate Center, CUNY.
During a nine-year stint as a researcher at McKinsey & Company, Inc., a global management consultant firm, she met and married Dave Williams and they began collecting prints. “We wanted something we could do together that wasn’t business-related,” she explained, and they developed a passion for it. The couple eventually amassed one of the largest private American artist print collections, about 5,000, most of which have been donated to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in 2008
Making her mark in the art world through collecting, Ms. White Williams served on the Print Committees of The Boston Museum of Fine Arts, The Metropolitan Museum, The Museum of Modern Art and The Whitney Museum, was a member of the editorial board of Print Quarterly and is an Honorary Keeper of American Prints at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge University. She also served as president of the New York City Art Commission and vice chairman of the New York State Council on the Arts.
Since 2001, she has devoted herself to research and writing material of her own choice, earning another master’s degree, this one in fiction writing from at Antioch University.
Reba White Williams, with her Maltese, Muffin, part of the inspiration for a canine character in Restrike, Ms. White Williams’ new mystery.
In describing her fiction style, Ms. White Williams says, “Dame Agatha Christie is a model for me; I think a whole lot of the things she did are worth emulating. Some things are black and white, there is good and evil. The bad guys will get caught — and nothing will happen to the dog!” she added with a laugh. A Maltese named Dolly, Coleman’s pet companion and canine heroine in the books, is an amalgam of four Malteses that have graced the author’s life.
Another influence in developing her mystery series, despite some publishers’ aversion to the idea, was the TV series Cagney & Lacey. “I saw two women solving crimes, who came at it from different perspectives, and I enjoyed that. I also like the idea of taking readers into a world with which they may not be familiar, providing them with the opportunity to learn about an occupation.”
Having come to know the New York art world during her time as a collector and on the New York City Art Commission, it was a natural career choice when she was developing her characters, and Coleman and Diana do share some similarities in background and experience with the author. When it comes the art in the book, Ms. White Williams said it is both real and made up, noting, “Only print experts will know the difference.”
The title for Restrike has a double meaning, to hit again and as a print term for a fine art print made later than the first edition, usually inferior and often made after the artist’s death.
A proud daughter of the South, Ms. White Williams and her husband Dave (from Texas) launched the Willie Morris Award For Southern Fiction in 2007 to help promote novels set in the region. The award was inspired when Ms. White Williams learned that high school relatives in North Carolina were unfamiliar with To Kill A Mockingbird. Willie Morris was a fraternity brother of Mr. Williams; his seminal book, North Toward Home, was a huge influence on Mr. Williams’ life. The 2011 award winner, If Jack’s in Love by Stephen Wetta, has been optioned for Broadway. (For more information on the award, visit williemorrisaward.org.)
As for her own work, Ms. White Williams says, “I really like to write, I enjoy the process and get deeply immersed in it; I find it a lot of fun and look forward to doing much more of it.”
Restrike is available in print and as an e-book. For “reading, writing, reviews and revelations” by and about Ms. White Williams, visit rebawhitewilliams.com.