Articles in This Issue
As a child growing up in Alabama in the 1950s and ‘60s, Jack Whitten was not permitted inside his segregated local museum in Birmingham. Now, the late artist is the subject of a major exhibition at the Met Breuer in New York. Its title, aptly, is “Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture 1963-2017” (until 2 December).
As recently as 1992, a proposed tour of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Jean-Michel Basquiat retrospective was canceled when no other museums came forward to take it. Last spring, one of Basquiat’s paintings sold for $110.5m, becoming the most expensive work by an American artist ever sold at auction.
Such landmark moments make it easy to assume that there has been a fundamental shift in the way the work of African American artists is valued. But since 2008, just 2.37% of all acquisitions and gifts and 7.7% of all exhibitions at 30 prominent US museums have been of work by African American artists, according to a joint investigation by In Other Words and artnet News.
Our data, coupled with conversations with more than 30 prominent curators, collectors, dealers, museum directors, academics and philanthropists, reveals that progress is much more recent—and benefits far fewer artists—than popularly perceived.
“When they look at the totality, people will realize they have a lot of work to do,” says Naima Keith, the deputy director and chief curator of the California African American Museum.
The Most Compelling Art of Our Time
These figures are particularly sobering at a time when African Americans comprise more than 12% of the US population and are creating some the most visible and compelling art of our time: from Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald’s wildly popular portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama to the towering public sculptures by Martin Puryear (who is set to become the second consecutive African American artist to represent the US at the Venice Biennale), not to mention the paintings by Kerry James Marshall that recently toured the country in a blockbuster retrospective.
This spring, several critically acclaimed travelling exhibitions focus on the work of an older generation of African-American artists, including Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at the Brooklyn Museum, New York (until 3 February), while the next generation was the subject of recent shows like Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas at Seattle Art Museum in spring 2018.
“If you deal with contemporary art, it is self-evident that many of the most interesting artists are African American,” says MoMA’s director Glenn Lowry. “And you realize that there were always important African American artists, even if they were not as visible to museums as they should have been. So then you need to address that as well.”
There are signs of change. Last year, the number of solo and thematic exhibitions focusing on the work of African American artists jumped almost 66% (to 63 shows, from 38 in 2016). Just nine months into 2018, the combined number of works by African American artists acquired by museums (439 total, so far) is on track to become a ten-year record.
Nonetheless, this shift is extraordinarily recent. Over the past decade, purchases and gifts of work by African American artists accounted for a mere 2.4% of all acquisitions by the 30 museums we surveyed. Even starker is the fact that at four of these museums, this work accounted for less than 1% of all acquisitions.
Meanwhile, the museums we examined have dedicated only 7.6% of all their exhibitions to the work of African American artists. (Notably, the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York accounts for 2.7% of that figure.)
“I would have thought the needle would have moved more,” says Margaret Morton, the director of creativity and free expression at the Ford Foundation.
A Moment of Change?
Our research suggests that, despite recent efforts, art by African Americans continues to be sidelined within US museums.
The perception of progress is buoyed by a handful of important exhibitions, a—very gently—increasing number of acquisitions and a smattering of headline auction prices. These, however, belie the extent to which entrenched systems of power and influence contribute to institutional racism that impedes significant structural change.
“Historically, what curators have been asked to do is follow a particular storyline—and then when things fall outside that, they are rendered invisible,” says Naomi Beckwith, a senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. But the stories of African American artists “don’t just belong to the bodies that hold the narrative. These stories belong to culture. It is a way of seeing the world.”
The challenges, of course, are not confined to the art world. “We would similarly ‘be surprised’ by the findings in many other industries that would no doubt show equivalently disproportionate statistics—which just speaks to the vastness of the issue,” says Valentino Carlotti, the global head of business development at Sotheby’s.
Make no mistake: African American artists, critics, and historians have long been doing important and influential work out of sight of the mainstream.
“There have been many concurrent art histories that have often been on parallel tracks but rarely aligned,“ says Brooke Davis Anderson, the director of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
The institution has acquired 393 works by African American artists over the past decade—more than almost any other museum. “If you’re not part of the mainstream canon, then your narrative is a community one,” she says. “That doesn’t mean it is less academic and scholarly and smart.”
It is only recently that the country’s largest museums have begun to seriously consider the fact that their collections should better reflect the demographics of their communities. But “historically black colleges and universities have made this a priority for a very long time,” says Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, the director of the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in Atlanta, Georgia. “They were certainly looking at acquiring this work before major institutions were and so there is a much greater context to their collections.”
The same is true of smaller museums that have made it a priority to support their local constituents. The Columbus Museum in Georgia, for example, was one of the first to acquire major works by Alma Thomas and Amy Sherald, who were both born in the city. (The museum plans to co-organize a major Thomas exhibition in 2020.)
Now, access to comparable works is tightly controlled—and far too expensive for most institutions to afford. “We couldn’t consider buying work by Barkley L. Hendricks or Njideka Akunyili Crosby now, but we have wonderful examples of both because we invested early in those artists’ careers,” says Trevor Schoonmaker, deputy director of curatorial affairs and chief curator of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, North Carolina. New auction records were set this past May at Sotheby’s for work by both Hendricks ($2.2m for the 1974 painting Brenda P) and Crosby ($3.4m for the 2017 work Bush Babies).
Of the 628 works to have entered the Nasher’s permanent collection during the past ten years, 132 are by African American artists—21% of the total. “We couldn’t afford to follow trends, even if we wanted to,” Schoonmaker says.
What appears to many to be a recent phenomenon is, in fact, the product of decades of dedication by both institutions and individuals. Trailblazing curatorial giants such as Okwui Enwezor, the former artistic director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, and Thelma Golden, the director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, have been making steadfast claim to the excellence of work created by artists of the African diaspora for a long time.
“For more than 50 years, we have worked to support the voices of black artists locally, nationally and internationally through exhibitions, publications, educational programs and public dialogue,” Golden says.
Meanwhile, many of the country’s oldest museums are playing catch-up—and being honest about it. In a frank admission of institutional fallibility, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York posted a wall text to accompany its current exhibition of African American portrait photographs from the 1940s and ‘50s (until 8 October). “The museum has until recently acquired few likenesses of African Americans” the label reads. Acquisitions made between 2015 and 2017 “are part of an initiative, long overdue, to build such a collection”.
Shifting the Status Quo
To date, larger museums have mainly chosen to lavish resources and attention on a small number of agreed-upon artists, limiting the amount of new scholarship that could reshape the canon. Of the 216 solo exhibitions dedicated to work by African American artists staged during the past decade at the 30 museums we examined, almost a quarter focused on the same ten names.
“There is no reward system for museums to take chances,” says Maxwell Anderson, the president of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. “Curators have to sell the exhibition or the acquisition to the board or director. The default is to go to people who are much in the news, much discussed.”
Anderson recalls clashing with certain board members when he was the director of Whitney Museum over an exhibition of work by African-American quilters from Gee’s Bend. One disgruntled board member asked: “How many mid-career artists haven’t had shows, and you want to do an exhibition of women quilters from Alabama?’”, he recalls. (The works in the 2002 show were ultimately described by New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman as “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced”.)
As in any field, some power-brokers are reluctant to see the status quo change. Despite the reality that most US museums have not significantly adjusted their acquisition and exhibition priorities, there is quiet questioning in some quarters about whether change has, in fact, gone too far.
This is nothing new. In her studies of demographic representation in museums and galleries in the 1980s and ‘90s, the artist Howardena Pindell—who was one of the first black curators at the Museum of Modern Art in New York—wrote in 1987: “The art world will state that all white exhibitions, year after year… are not a reflection of racism. The lie or denial is cloaked in phrases such as ‘artistic choice’ or ‘artistic quality’ when the pattern reveals a different intent.”
Others express their concerns more explicitly. One museum director, speaking anonymously, tells us that a board member recently took him aside to sound a note of caution: “Just don’t forget about the white guys”.
What’s Taken So Long?
Without institutional buy-in, progress can be slow. “It’s not an easy thing—you have to really want it,” says Melissa Chiu, the director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, which has staged three exhibitions and acquired nine works by African American artists since 2008.
Acquisitions and exhibitions require expertise and resources that museums are constantly under pressure to invest elsewhere. Several museum directors told us off the record that their institutions are struggling to gain ground on the many fronts on which they have lagged behind. “It took years for us to have as many women artists on our schedule,” said one prominent director. “Now you’re seeing the fruits of that. This all takes time.”
Not Just a Matter of Getting People in the Room
There have been episodic efforts to alter the balance of power in institutions before. In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, the multiculturalism movement put pressure on museums to diversify both their personnel and their programs.
But these efforts fizzled out as dedicated funding dried up, museums shifted their priorities, and some institutions faced acute blowback in response to exhibitions like the 1993 Whitney Biennial.
That controversial survey, which became known as the “identity politics biennial,” included George Holliday’s ten-minute video of the Rodney King beating as a work of art and dispensed admission buttons designed by the artist Daniel J. Martinez that read, “I can’t imagine ever wanting to be white”. Critic Robert Hughes declared it “a fiesta of whining.” Kimmelman wrote, more simply, “I hate the show.”
In the aftermath, optimism quickly fractured as “political correctness became a kind of buzzword,” says Bridget Cooks, a professor of African American studies and African American art history at the University of California, Irvine. “There had been a blossoming of visibility and then this became a way to handle it, wrap it up and shut it down. There was a sense that ‘this is no longer art.’ It further polarized people in terms of next steps.”
The earlier efforts to increase diversity were “naive”, Naomi Beckwith says. “There was this idea that if we all come together in a melting pot, it will naturally create an egalitarian society. But people can’t just appear; they need to be given power.”
Today, only 16% of leadership positions in art museums are held by people of color and only 4% of museum curators are African American, according to a 2015 study by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Since then, several initiatives have formed to try to tip the scales. In 2015, a grant from the Mellon Foundation helped establish a curatorial studies program at Spelman College. Last year, the Ford Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation pledged to spend $6m over three years to diversify management at US museums. And this year, the Souls Grown Deep Foundation and the Association of Art Museum Directors both announced plans to sponsor paid museum internships for undergraduate art history students of color.
What’s Different Now?
Issues of equity in the art world can never be entirely extricated from the broader social context, says Jeff Chang, the author of Who We Be: The Colorization of America. Museum acquisitions of work by African American artists jumped 63% in 2015, the year after Black Lives Matter demonstrations swept the country. And the number of exhibitions, which often take two to three years to complete, increased 70% between 2014 and 2017.
Nevertheless, a palpable feeling of unease remains among many of the people we spoke to, who fear that the pendulum could swing back in the other direction, just as it has in the past. “We’re still moving though this particular era with such a huge lack of equity that we have to depend on the goodness of white folks to see these changes being made,” Chang says. “What happens when there is a backlash? That is the story of the 1990s.”
Museums are trying different methods to safeguard against this. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, for example, made its desire to become a leader in the field of African American art a prominent part of its strategic plan in 2015. During the past decade, the museum has acquired more than 350 works by African American artists. “Our ambition around African American art is nothing short of the very top,” says Alex Nyerges, the museum’s director.
And last month, after two years of planning, the Cleveland Museum of Art in Ohio—which has acquired 73 works by African American artists during the past decade—launched its first diversity, equity, and inclusion plan. The program will inform how the museum trains employees, hires vendors, and collects art.
Other museums are considering more radical methods. The Baltimore Museum of Art’s director Christopher Bedford recently oversaw the controversial sale of seven works by white male artists from the institution’s collection to create an acquisitions fund dedicated to contemporary work by women and artists of color. He now plans to “put in place provisions,” as donors have done historically by placing conditions on gifts, “to make it impossible for those inroads to be undone.”
At the same time, new paths are also being forged through scholarship: the Getty Research Institute will soon announce its plans to launch an African American art history initiative. Collector Pamela Joyner, who commissions academics and curators to write about her 400-strong collection of work by primarily African American artists, notes that scholarship is key to “make sure that what we are experiencing isn’t some kind of cyclical blip.”
The hope, of course, is that these efforts will ensure that future generations study a much broader, more inclusive, and richer art history than their predecessors. As the Tate curator Zoe Whitley noted in a recent In Other Words podcast: “Romare Bearden was asked in a 1972 interview how he would define black art, and he said that black art is the art that black artists do.
“If someone were to say: ‘What is white art?’ you might say the Italian Renaissance, but you could equally say the German Renaissance, Rembrandt or English painting. Black art is as varied as that.”
First came the furor. A recent flurry of high-profile market activity surrounding work by African American artists has been taken by many observers as a sign that—finally—history is in the process of being corrected. So far this year, six of the ten most expensive contemporary works to sell at auction have been by African American artists. This is just one in a recent string of notable statistics, from the historic $110.5m sum spent by the Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa on Basquiat’s punchy 1982 painting of a skull to the $21.1m record price paid by the rapper and businessman Sean Combs, aka Diddy, this past May for Kerry James Marshall’s Past Times (1997).
All of this seems promising for an area of art history so woefully under-appreciated and undervalued. But pan out and the broader numbers tell a different story, according to a joint investigation by In Other Words and artnet News. Around $2.2bn has been spent on work by African American artists at auction over the past ten years—a mere 1.2% of the global auction market during the same period, which was $180bn, according to the artnet Price Database.
The popular perception that Wall Street has been rushing in to scoop up the work of African American artists has been framed by such high-profile sales as the Basquiat and Marshall records and the sense that there has been an increasing number of marquee museum exhibitions dedicated to African American artists. These landmark moments are “events of symbolic import, and those events then filter how we even look at reality,” says Hamza Walker, the director of the Los Angeles-based nonprofit art space LAXART. “But the symbolic can be mistaken for real.”
A Top-Heavy Market
A more detailed look reveals an unbalanced market that is much smaller in value and volume than headlines suggest. Auction sales of work by Jean-Michel Basquiat account for $1.7bn of the $2.2bn total spend—a staggering 77%—representing the big head (or skull, more fittingly) atop an otherwise meagre body. Of the six contemporary works by African Americans in the top ten sold so far this year, four are by Basquiat. Indeed, 2018 marks the first time ever that African Americans other than the late young painter have made the list.
Exclude Basquiat, and the total combined auction value of work by African American artists is $460.8m—just 0.26% of the global auction market. For context, consider that more money has been spent at auction during certain single evening sales of postwar and contemporary art in New York than on work by African American artists in the past ten years.
The market is top-heavy, even without Basquiat, consolidating around just five artists: Mark Bradford, Glenn Ligon, Kerry James Marshall, Julie Mehretu and David Hammons, all of whose combined auction sales over the past decade account for $297m—or 64%—of the $460.8m total spend. Bradford is far and away in a league of his own: sales of his work account for 25% ($117.2m) of the total. These top five aside, only two artists—Njideka Akunyili Crosby and Sam Gilliam—have generated auction sales of more than $10m since 2008.
None of those seven markets is a fluke. “Each of those artists is considered a contemporary master,” says Jack Shainman, whose gallery represents Marshall, together with David Zwirner. “They have been really well celebrated in terms of the market, and these results substantiate them as major players.” Nevertheless, the “sharp wedge” of their success relative to other African American artists “is shocking”, he says.
For these few contemporary giants, demand outstrips supply. Were a major work by David Hammons to come to market, for example, it would likely achieve a record price. A similar squeeze on supply characterizes the market for Marshall, an artist with limited production but an extensive waiting list. Since museums and leading private collectors get first pick, frustrated buyers further down the pecking order tend to battle for work when it comes to auction, driving prices up.
Of course, this bifurcation is also a symptom of market-driven trophy hunting. Many historically significant artists are overlooked by buyers who instead focus on the competition to acquire material by a small handful of figures. Work by certain artists is “becoming a commodity now, which is unfortunate—though the artists deserve all the attention they are getting and more”, says Jumaane N’Namdi, the director of N’Namdi Contemporary, who followed his father into the gallery business. “I get cold calls from investors: it is poaching season for African American art.”
The market heat is recent: 25% of the entire ten-year total was realized in the first six months of this year. Focused on a handful of artists, this spending has had a tremendous but narrow impact: for example, Bradford’s combined auction sales between 2008 and 2017 jumped 60% this year, while Marshall’s leapt from $13.2m to $46.6m.
When the specialist auction house Swann staged its first dedicated sale of African American art 11 years ago, the numbers “were a lot smaller—and the pool was even smaller,” says Nigel Freeman, the firm’s director of African American art. For years, there were only four artists whose work would sell for more than $100,000, two of them born in the 19th century and two in the 20th century: Henry Ossawa Tanner, Robert Duncanson, Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence. “It became almost a running joke that there were only two African American Modernists,” Freeman says of Bearden and Lawrence, “because that was all you’d see.”
Over the past two years, the market has grown considerably (Swann’s dedicated spring sale in April, which made $4.5m, was its highest-grossing to date in any category) and the pool of buyers has deepened, too. “People who collect Color Field painting or postwar abstraction are looking at Sam Gilliam,” Freeman notes, while “New York School collectors are looking for Norman Lewis.”
The Modern market is growing, but the contemporary is quickly outpacing it. Today, some younger artists already have secondary markets of equivalent size to artists of an earlier generation. For example, 46-year-old Wangechi Mutu and Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000) have both had aggregate auction sales of $5.2m over the past decade, while 92-year-old Betye Saar has a secondary market roughly equivalent to that of 44-year-old Trenton Doyle Hancock ($147,000).
This focus on younger artists is typical of many nascent markets, which “start with the art of the present day and when they mature inevitably look back in time,” says Allan Schwartzman, co-founder of Art Agency, Partners.
For many Modern artists, the seeming dearth of big prices is simply a matter of having been paid little heed for so long, and so recently “discovered” by the market and mainstream museums. Yet for some of the most recognized Modern artists, it is about supply: just try finding a great Jacob Lawrence for sale. If a major work by a Modern legend such as Alma Thomas or Romare Bearden were to appear at auction, “I suspect it would sell for numbers that would stun most auction buyers—who right now probably couldn’t describe a work by either artist,” Schwartzman says.
While curators are looking both forwards and backwards in history for acquisitions and exhibitions, their museums may not be able to afford to acquire Modern work. Our data shows a similar slant toward contemporary art: of the 5,466 works by African American artists that have entered the permanent collections of the 30 museums we surveyed, almost half—48%—were created after 1989. “Let’s just be honest—museums have a hard time competing with private collectors,” says Naomi Beckwith, senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.
The interests of patrons and collectors also inform what we see in both museums and the auction room. “The market still prizes younger and mid-career artists,” says Christopher Bedford, the director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, so “institutions have an easier time raising the money to bring works by younger and mid-career artists into the collection”.
A critical dynamic defining the field is the effort being made by artists themselves to draw attention to their predecessors and peers. A generation of artists who are experiencing success in a professional gallery system and international art world that did not exist 50 years ago (and which, once it came into being, remained closed to many African American artists for decades) are deliberately directing the spotlight backward in history to significant artists of an older generation, as well as forward to a younger generation.
Think of Kerry James Marshall’s generous and moving homage in the Paris Review to Charles White earlier this year, on the occasion of a major touring exhibition of work by his mentor and idol: “I saw in his example the way to greatness. And because he looked like my uncles and my neighbors, his achievements seemed within my reach.”
Or consider the transatlantic spike in attention paid to to Sam Gilliam since Rashid Johnson staged an exhibition of his work at David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles in 2013. “Rashid’s generation of artists, who have enjoyed greater success than the earlier generation, are using their flex,” says the gallerist Alexander Gray.
Many are wielding the influence afforded them by their relationships with powerful mainstream galleries to broaden the field and expand curators’ and collectors’ knowledge. Artists who were never considered by some of the best-attended, most influential institutions are “now in major museums, primarily because of who is handling them,” says the New York-based dealer Peg Alston—who opened her doors in 1972 when the market for work by African American artists “was zero”. It is “unprecedented that the work of so many African American artists is so internationally known, she says, adding, “The art hasn’t changed—it’s always been of the same quality. ”
Marc Payot, a partner and vice-president of Hauser & Wirth, credits Bradford, who joined the roster in 2015, for spurring the gallery to sign the artists Amy Sherald and the late Jack Whitten. And Mnuchin Gallery’s Sukanya Rajaratnam says she first began thinking of organizing a show of the work by the 92-year-old abstract painter Ed Clark after speaking about him with David Hammons, who happens to own one of the largest collections of Clark’s work. Last week, the gallery opened the first major Clark exhibition in New York since 1980.
“The collateral effect is very powerful,” says Nicola Vassell, the curator of the collection assembled by the music producer Kasseem Dean (aka Swizz Beatz). “What I call the artist ‘industrial-complex’ begins to take on a different kind of purpose.” Furthermore, she notes, there is a growing class of wealthy black patrons, including Dean, who “look like the artists and are operating in the sphere of power on the buying side.”
The correction is only just beginning, experts say. A recent study by City University of New York noted that more than 88% of American artists represented by top New York galleries are white. The dynamics have not changed significantly since the artist Howardena Pindell took it upon herself to document the woefully homogenous demographics of galleries and museums in the 1980s and 1990s. “The museums often let the galleries do the primary sifting of artists,” she wrote. “If you are locked out at this level you are locked out at all other levels because each feeds the other.”
The historic lack of mainstream attention creates real potential for market growth. “From a dealer’s point of view, there is a huge opportunity—and not because they are African American, but because they are great artists,” Payot says. Despite the triumphant headlines touting new auction records, a full re-appraisal of this sweeping art historical category has only just begun. He adds: “Yes, we are moving in the right direction but, take out the top segment, and progress is much less than people think.”
Norman Lewis (1909-1979)
In the photo, a group of smartly dressed men and women sit around a long table scattered with bottles of beer and bowls of pretzels. They are mainly artists—including Ad Reinhardt, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman and Louise Bourgeois—and they are having fervent conversations about their art. They settle upon a name, “Abstract Expressionism”, for the kind of work some of them produce.
The photograph documents the Artists’ Sessions at Studio 35, New York, in 1950. Among the sea of white faces is the young African American artist Norman Lewis, a pioneering painter who started his career producing works of social realism before moving towards an abstraction that he would ultimately, many years later, fuse with social commentary.
He found great success during his lifetime. His work was exhibited at major museums including the landmark 1951 “Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America” show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In 1956, he was one of 36 artists selected to represent the United States at the 28th Venice Biennale.
Despite this, he was not included in the famous LIFE magazine photograph of the “Irascibles”, he was not mentioned in any of the major books about the period; nor was he the focus of a monograph. He was not the subject of a major museum retrospective until 2015—36 years after his death. Lewis “didn’t make a living as an artist—he had to teach,” says Nigel Freeman, the director of the African American art department at Swann Auction Galleries.
Unlike the majority of his white peers—many of whom left behind deep-pocketed estates—Lewis does not have a dedicated foundation or catalogue raisonné, so “it’s harder to establish or confirm a value for him when there isn’t an accounting of how many paintings he made in his lifetime,” says gallerist Alexander Gray.
While Pollock’s auction record stands at $58.4m (for Number 19, 1948, which sold at Christie’s New York in 2013), and Krasner’s—who, it should be noted, also lags considerably behind her white male peers—at $5.5m (for Shattered Light, 1954, which sold at Christie’s New York last year), Lewis has yet to pass the $1m threshold: his auction record is $965,000, set in 2015 for a 1958 geometric abstract composition that had been unknown and unrecorded before it surfaced at Swann. Over the past decade, a total of $7.2m has been spent on his work at auction, far less than many of his contemporaries.
Still, the wheels are turning—slowly. Nine of Lewis’s top ten auction results have been recorded in the past five years. In April, an uncharacteristically bright abstract composition from 1956 nearly tripled its high pre-sale estimate, selling for $725,000.
Much of the recent market interest followed the major survey of Lewis’ work at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 2015—an exhibition that Roberta Smith, the co-chief art critic of New York Times, described as a “welcome opportunity to assess the rich and varied path of Lewis’s art.”
Increasingly, Lewis’s reputation is being restored to its rightful position—and his work displayed in proper context. Now, more than 60 years after it was first shown during the Venice Biennale, Cathedral lives at Tate in London, hanging alongside works by Pollock and Krasner. “Tate decided this was a historical priority, went back in time, and used scarce funds to buy that picture,” says the collector Pamela Joyner, who is chair of the Tate Americas Foundation. The history of the work, she adds, says a lot about “where institutions are coming from currently and where they have been”.
Betye Saar (b. 1926)
In 2015, the Los Angeles Times asked the artist Betye Saar why she thought no major museum in LA had organized a large-scale retrospective of her work. “I guess it’s always a problem to get recognized in your hometown,” she said. “But they can’t wait and wait because then I’ll die and it’ll cost big bucks. Then they will pay for their hesitation.”
Most major museums, and the art market at large, have been slow to acknowledge Saar’s enormous influence. Institutions in Los Angeles or New York failed to pick up her traveling retrospective “Uneasy Dancer”, which debuted at Milan’s Fondazione Prada in 2016.
Meanwhile, over the past decade, her work has generated aggregate auction sales of just $155,140. That ten-year total is 0.8% of the amount spent on one work by her peer and fellow assemblage pioneer Robert Rauschenberg, whose Johanson’s Painting (1961) sold for a record $18.6m at Christie’s in 2015.
Saar’s auction record, on the other hand, is $22,500, set during a Sotheby’s day sale in 2016 for the painted box Personae (1996). Only four other works—all assemblages from the 1960s and ‘70s inspired by a formative early encounter with the artist Joseph Cornell—have sold for more than $10,000 (although her work likely fetches more on the primary market).
“Part of it is that she’s a woman, and that’s never been interesting to the art world,” says Bridget Cooks, a professor of African American studies and African American art history at the University of California, Irving “And she’s black; but she’s also in LA, so that makes her in the middle of nowhere as far as snobs are concerned.”
To further complicate matters, Saar’s work is consistently representational, an approach that has gone in and out of style; modest in scale, which makes it less likely to attract big prices than big paintings might; and often includes appalling icons of America’s racist history, which she collects from flea markets.
She showed alongside Chris Burden at Jan Baum Gallery in Los Angeles until the 1990s and now is represented exclusively by LA’s Roberts Projects (formerly Roberts & Tilton). Yet, for many people, their first encounter with her work was in 2010 when it was included in eight simultaneous exhibitions in California as part of the first region-wide, Getty-funded Pacific Standard Time initiative, which focused on art made in the region and which made clear her importance as a postwar art.
The East Coast is finally waking up to this West Coast artist, who recently turned 92—and shows no sign of slowing down. A major East Coast institution is expected to announce plans for a Saar show soon. Her work also features prominently in the traveling show “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power“, which opened to rave reviews last week at the Brooklyn Museum. In the spare time she doesn’t appear to have, Saar is working on a comprehensive catalogue raisonné of her 60-year career.
Kerry James Marshall (b. 1955)
The sale of 62-year-old artist Kerry James Marshall’s Past Times (1997) for $21.1m at Sotheby’s in May reverberated around the world, in part because of the voracious bidding war that led the work to sell for more than double its $8m low estimate, realizing a price almost 900 times more than the $25,000 that its consignor, the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, paid for it two decades ago. (The fact that the work had a famous buyer—rapper and businessman Sean Combs (aka Diddy)—didn’t hurt, either.)
But Marshall is no one-hit wonder at auction. Past Times is widely considered to be one of the most important paintings produced by an artist now broadly recognized as a modern master. So far this year, all 15 of his works that have come to auction have sold, with five of them selling for prices that now count among his top ten auction results.
Market interest in Marshall’s work has been building rapidly over the past few years, notably in 2014 when Vignette (2003), a painting of two black figures running, sold during a Christie’s day sale for $1m—well over its $600,000 high estimate and almost twice what the same work had fetched at Sotheby’s in 2007.
“There have been waiting lists for decades,” says the artist’s longtime dealer Jack Shainman, who now represents him with David Zwirner. “The list gets longer and longer and his production is quite limited.”
There is not enough supply to meet demand, since Marshall—who often works on a large scale—has a fairly slow production. His galleries prioritize institutional sales; which means that on the occasion his work comes to the private market, bidders chase it with ardor, knowing they might not get another chance.
The length of the waiting list only expanded after Marshall’s wildly successful and critically acclaimed traveling survey “Mastry”, which was organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, the Met Breuer, New York, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in 2016.
Shainman also encourages collectors to resell Marshall’s work through the gallery privately whenever possible, rather than putting it up for auction. When a collector resells a work through Shainman, the artist gets a cut of the proceeds (which is not the case at auction, or with some other galleries). “They get part of the commission we get,” Shainman says.
Later this month, on 25 September, the art advisor Joel Straus is selling a study for Marshall’s record-setting work, Study for Past Times (1997), at a Sotheby’s sale organized by the collector and hip-hop producer Swizz Beatz in New York. Straus bought the study from the artist at the same time he bought the finished work for the McCormick Place Art Collection in Chicago. Now, the study is expected to sell for between $900,000 to $1.2m—around 3,900% more than his client paid for the original painting in 1997.
Just 2.3% of all acquisitions at 30 prominent US museums over the past ten years have been of work by African American artists, according to a joint investigation by In Other Words and artnet News.
Meanwhile, the total auction value of work by African American artists over the same period represents a mere 1.2% of global auction sales.
Working together in an unprecedented three-month partnership, Charlotte Burns (executive editor, In Other Words) and Julia Halperin (executive editor, artnet News) have captured and analyzed market and museum data which, coupled with conversations with more than 30 prominent curators, collectors, dealers, museum directors, academics and philanthropists, reveals that progress is much more recent—and benefits far fewer artists—than popularly perceived.
In today’s podcast, they discuss the data and its implications with Allan Schwartzman (co-founder, Art Agency, Partners) and Valentino Carlotti (global head of business development at Sotheby’s; board member of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia and previously of the Guggenheim and the Studio Museum in Harlem).
Click here to read the series of articles analyzing the data.
Our data set includes solo exhibitions dedicated to the work of African-American artists as well as thematic exhibitions that included work by a majority of African-American artists. We considered shows open to the public between 1 January 2008 and 20 September 2018 and excluded one-night-only events such as film screenings and public performances. We defined African-American as an individual of African or Afro-Caribbean descent who was born in, raised in, or currently resides in the United States.
The 30 museums in our data set include 13 of the 15 most-attended museums in the United States last year, according to The Art Newspaper’s annual attendance survey, and a mix of smaller urban, suburban and university museums chosen both for their geographic diversity and the fact that they had demonstrated some level of engagement with American art in general or the work of African-American artists in particular.
We have ten years’ worth of exhibition data for 28 museums; seven years’ worth for one (the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, which opened in 2011); and data up to 2018 for another (the Museum of Modern Art, New York). We have ten years’ worth of acquisition data for 27 museums; eight years’ worth of acquisition data for one (the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles); and four years of acquisition data for one (MoMA).
We included both purchases and donations of art confirmed as of July 2018 but excluded promised gifts. One museum on our list, the New Museum in New York, is a non-collecting institution and therefore did not submit acquisitions data.
Most of the information was provided by the institutions themselves and verified by our research team. This means the data reflects each museum’s distinct record-keeping practices. Some, for example, record print or photography portfolios as one object, while others count each individual page in the portfolio as a separate acquisition. In select cases where museums were unable to provide a full data set, we gathered the data manually.
The museums we examined have different focuses and breadth of collecting. The 19 encyclopedic museums, for example, have broader ground to cover than the institutions solely focused on Modern and contemporary art. Only two of the museums that we surveyed focus exclusively on American art.
The museums we examined are: the Baltimore Museum of Art; the Brooklyn Museum; the Cleveland Museum of Art; the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas; the Dallas Museum of Art; the Detroit Institute of Arts; the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; the Getty Center, Los Angeles; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; the High Museum of Art, Atlanta; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.; the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City; the New Museum, New York; the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Seattle Art Museum; the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.; the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.
The bulk of the market data was provided by the artnet Price Database and reflects auction results from more than 400 auction houses worldwide from 1 January 2008 to 14 August 2018. The database only includes items with a low estimate of $500 and above. All sales prices are adjusted to include the buyer’s premium. Price data from previous years has not been adjusted for inflation. All results are logged in the currency native to the auction house where the sale took place, then converted to US dollars based on the exchange rate on the day of the sale. Further data was provided by the Sotheby’s Mei Moses index, an analytic tool based on repeat auction sales of single objects.
Once the data was in, we analyzed it internally and then interviewed more than 30 people—a mix of museum directors and curators, collectors, dealers, advisors, and academics—for their reactions, insights, and context.
In Must See
The aim of the artistic life of the African American painter and printmaker Charles White (1918-1979) was to create “images of dignity” of his people; he believed that art had a role to play in shifting narratives that might change the world. His contribution to the struggle is seen in the traveling retrospective “Charles White: A Retrospective”. Presented during the centennial of White’s birth in 1918 on Chicago’s South Side, it debuted earlier this year at the Art Institute of Chicago and will open next month at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (7 October-13 January) before traveling to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art next spring. The retrospective is the first major monographic presentation of White’s drawings, photographs, sculpture and ephemera to have taken place in more than 35 years.
The grey, pencil-drawn images of such historically important African American figures as Harriet Tubman, the American abolitionist and political activist, Frederick Douglass, the statesman social reformer and writer, and Booker T. Washington, orator and advisor to US presidents, are on show alongside quotidian scenes of black life that are imbued with grace and beauty.
There are also illustrations of racial pride, cultural legacy and political achievement, such as a reproduction of White’s large 1943 mural The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America, from Hampton University, Virginia, an anti-slavery scene presented on the scale of a history painting, featuring a central figure whose chains really are to be broken by George Washington Carver, Marian Anderson and Nat Turner, among others.
White’s pictures pull in different directions to heighten hidden histories, and, at turns, to complicate the depiction of the African American experience. Leading figures are drawn to evoke the cost of triumph. In the charcoal and white gouache portraits of Denmark Vesey, a former slave who was hanged in 1822 after being accused of planning a slave revolt in Charleston, South Carolina, and singer, actor and activist Paul Robeson, among others, what stands out are their eyes: they search, they are sorrowful and ultimately they show something of solace.
“My work takes shape around images and ideas that are centered within the vortex of a black life experience, a nitty-gritty ghetto experience—resulting in contradictory emotions: anguish, hope, love, despair, happiness, faith, lack of faith, dreams,” White once said. “Stubbornly holding on to an elusive romantic belief that the people of this land cannot always be insensible to the dictates of justice or deaf to the voice of humanity.”
Much of the work in the MoMA exhibition precedes the Civil Rights and Black Power movements that led to the Black Arts Movement, where formal demands were made on black artists to create uplifting art for the community. In some ways, White is one of the early leaders of that aesthetic movement, having worked for four decades drawing the black body, heroically and with great elegance and real authority. In doing so, he influenced generations of figurative artists, giving them permission to celebrate what has often been ignored. Kadir Nelson, whose every New Yorker cover illustration evokes White’s prolific virtuosity, is a reminder of White’s legacy, as are the careers of two of his former students, Kerry James Marshall and David Hammons.
Hammons, as a precursor to the retrospective, organized a single-room exhibition at MoMA last year titled “Charles White—Leonardo da Vinci. Curated by David Hammons”. The exhibition included a single work by White and da Vinci along with their natal charts, suggested a cosmic connection (both artists were born in the first half of April). Each artist’s fidelity to drawing, 450 years apart, links their mastery of the medium and enduring influence.
Hammons slyly suggested how White’s 1973 oil-washed, Black Pope (Sandwich Board Man) deserves equal footing with any da Vinci. For his part, Marshall has written in his essay, A Black Artist Named White, “No other artist has inspired my own devotion to a career in image making more than he did. I saw in his example the way to greatness.”
Art Agency, Partners is a bespoke art advisory firm founded in 2014, and built upon decades of combined experience, to provide counsel to many of the world's leading art collectors and institutions on collection assessment and development, estate planning, and innovative approaches to museum giving and growth.