The Gold Rush to Collect Black Art

The New York Times acknowledged, after decades of spotty acquisitions and token exhibitions, American museums are rewriting the history of 20th century art to include black artists. 

(Above: Eldzier Cortor (1916-2015), a painter and printmaker, was part of a generation of black artists whose work was overlooked by many institutions but is now being recognized.)

Among the blacks attending Art Basel this December in Miami, the consensus was that they were not sure what this turn of events meant to them. Make no mistake -- this is a very important development. This article was on the front page of the Sunday New York Times, Black Art is Museum-worthy. We have much to say about this turn of events.

But let's not get confused about which blacks the article is referring to . . .

The New York Times spoke of post-black euro-centric artists such as Glenn Ligon, Mark Bradford and Kara Walker in the same context with black American artists, Norman Lewis, Beauford Delaney,Bob Thompson, Aaron Douglas, Alma Thomas and William H. Johnson. A casual reader would see no difference between the artists -- but there is. Case in point: David Hammons is mentioned in the Times article. Hammons is a contemporary artist whose Basketball Hoop as Light Fixture sold for $8 million in 2013, placing him among the most expensive living artists.  Is Hammons one of the black artist who is finally getting into the museum collections - no.  He is already known and collected by many museums and collectors.  David Hammons' aesthetics are euro-centric.  The artists that are the real subject of the Times article were working for decades as marginalized outsiders. Their work was perceived by the white establishment as formally “lesser” — too often figurative and too narrowly expressive of the black experience. This view was a source of embarrassment to the certain black art professionals and they shied away from championing this work.  It will be interesting to see how they will position themselves now that the work is being Romanticized. 

                                (Above:  Norman Lewis’ Twilight Sounds)

(Left: Self-portrait (1939) of Norman Lewis)

The black abstract artists, such as Norman Lewis, were ignored by curators who were looking for black artists to fill their quotas. Abstracts, by nature, cannot be identified along racial lines. Black abstract artists even had to resist pressure from within the black art community because they were not overtly political. Lewis remarked in 1979, "I think it’s going to take about 30 years, maybe 40, before people stop caring whether I’m black and just pay attention to the work”.

The change of events has resulted in a rush for the best work: 

The Times said "as the gauge begins to move toward correction, more collectors and museums are scrambling to find the best works".  Where are all these works?  Well, New York dealer Michael Rosenfeld in the Times article stated he has shown work by black artists and their estates for decades. But who should benefit for preserving and nurturing the art before it became fashionable?

The New York Times asked that question of Edmund Barry Gaither, Director of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists in Boston.  Gaither gave credit to black collectors and historically black colleges, like Howard University and Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University), for buying the work when few others were. 

Najee Dorsey, art activist, artist, founder and CEO of Black Art In America™ says "the Black Art Dealers and Collectors should be credited for preserving the culture. 

Dorsey who is also a collector, puts faces to other collectors with the BAIA™ Collectors Home Tours SeriesMajor Galloway is a generational collector who was influenced by his Aunt Fern to start his collection, his Aunt has been collecting since the 1960's Galloway relates one of his Aunt's great stories about how she grew her collection. Fern had an encounter with Lois Mailou Jones, Dr. David Driskell.

"In the 1960s she purchased a piece for $250 from Mrs. Lois Mailou Jones who allowed her to buy it after an initial down payment of $150.  Before the final purchase, Dr. David Driskell came by Mrs. Jones’ house and expressed his desire to purchase the piece for $500, double the asking price Ms. Jones required of my aunt.  My aunt recalled Ms. Jones told my aunt what Driskell had said to her, “Mailou, you are giving your art away”.  My aunt says Mrs. Jones wanted to get her art in the hands of African-Americans and interested persons. My aunt was very thankful that Mrs. Jones honored her promise. The private collectors have supported black artists before it became fashionable. They hold the provenance to a lot of these sought after works.

(Above, left: Major Galloway, Aunt Fern and Galloway's son - generational collectors)

The Shift to redefine Contemporary Art began in Europe.

What is done has been redone ...

Every Art Basel, the mainstream media focuses the public's attention on conceptual art.  Conceptualism as contemporary art is over 50 years old. In Europe, where conceptualism was born, the river is flowing in a different direction. They are now looking to figurative work and formally trained artists with hands-on skills.  

(Above: Hank Willis Thomas' Truth Booth Art Basel 2014

Stuckism -- founded in 1999 is an international art movement  by Billy Childish and Charles Thomson to promote figurative painting as opposed to conceptual art. They have also embraced other media such as, photography, sculpture, film and collage. The movement is not waning but is growing. Coupled with the voices of critics that wish conceptualism would die

What will fill the void left by the departure of conceptualism? Partly - black art as part of the American museum experience.  

Black Art In America™ (BAIA) is known on record, for not shying away from associating with the title - BLACK ART, but instead building a monument to it.

BAIA™ Manifesto published in 2014

(Above Our Grandmothers #3 by Dr. John Biggers -- this drawing is one of the five original concept drawings for the Dr. Maya Angelou Our GrandMothers project).

"African-American art is inseparable from a discussion of American art. One can’t exist without the other."
-- Edmund Barry Gaither  

You will find on the pages of Black Art In America™ a vibrant community of artist, art enthusiast, collectors, gallerist. SHOP BAIA ONLINE ™ is a source to find emerging, established and Master Artists.

 

(Above:  Hero's Ascension by Benny Andrews, gouache and collage on paper, 1988)

We cover news that the mainstream publications overlook. BAIA™ gives you a ground view of what's trending and we tell the stories of people who are changing the face of ART. 

(Above: Bon Bon Buddies by Reginald Gammon
48x36 inches acrylic painting on canvas)

The New American Curator

According to the New York Times a growing number of curators emerging from graduate programs since the late 1990s felt like they were educated to address an imbalance in representation. BAIA featured the press release Sept. 15, 2014 – A Charles White painting, Goodnight Irene, that once belonged to Harry Belafonte, has been acquired for the permanent American collection of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. We reached out to the curator who made the purchase possible and told her story.

Stephanie Fox Knappe, Curator from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art was asked to look for gaps in the collection. The number one thing on Stephanie's wish-list, after she carefully thought about it was, she wanted to add a significant African American Modernist work from the 20th century. It was Good Night Irene by Charles White.   Stephanie said two parallel thoughts were racing through her head, she stated, "we have to acquire this painting and how are we going to do it?"   

Black Artists and the March Into the Museum has begun .. 

Harlem On My Mind, Metropolitan Art Museum (1969) started a chain of events that has only just now yielded its intended results -- 45 years later.  Harlem on My Mind, was intended to celebrate the cultural history of black Americans but contained no work by painters and sculptors with flourishing careers in Harlem. For most of the Artist who put their blood in the struggle it has come too late.

(Below: photograph of Eldzier Cortor)

Eldzier Cortor summed up the whole experience in his last interview “It’s a little late now, I’d say, --- But better than never.”   

Where is all this leading?  The answer is complex -- as complex and diverse as the Black Art community. The world of ART is changing from the top down so this will be an ongoing discussion for 2016.

Read part 2 of this series : The Gold Rush To Collect Black Art  Is On ...

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Comment by Glenn Tunstull on January 18, 2016 at 2:44pm

It is about time that art of this transformative quality is being recognized in the mainstream artwork. Just hope the estates of some of these artists benefits from the new interest.

Comment by Walter Oliver Neal on December 28, 2015 at 11:43am

Given the art world's current interest in collecting African American and Black Art, I would say that there would be a trade-off for the artist's soul for the 'privilege' of showing in prestigious downtown galleries. If history is correct, then the next Prince of Visual Arts is on the horizon, who will resist being a 'slave', and the rest of us will follow. After all, the bigger question is Not 'Inclusion' in their market; but developing one, out of our own volition!

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