“When you see the numbers and the vast disproportionality of representation, it becomes clear what the overall mindset and genre that ends up landing in people’s comfort zone is.” – Valentino Carlotti, global head of business development, Sotheby’s
“Even if the market attention is, as always, principally driven by ear rather than eye, I see great potential for our sense of recent history to change and therefore of us being equipped to look further back in time.” – Allan Schwartzman, co-founder of Art Agency, Partners and a chairman of Sotheby’s
Charlotte Burns: Hello and welcome to In Other Words, where we cover everything you ever wanted to know about the art world but didn’t know who to ask. I’m your host, Charlotte Burns, and today, along with my colleague Julia Halperin, who is the executive editor of artnet News, we will be discussing a major report we just jointly published investigating the representation of African American artists in US museums and the global art market.
Joining us for today’s conversation are Valentino Carlotti, global head of business development at Sotheby’s, and Allan Schwartzman, co-founder of Art Agency, Partners and a chairman at Sotheby’s.
This podcast is being broadcast on the same day as a major report will be published across two platforms: In Other Words and artnet.
Julia and I decided around three months ago that we wanted to see if you could assess progress through data, specifically looking at the representation of African American artists in museums across America and in the art market over the past ten years.
Julia, do you want to talk a little more about what we found?
Julia Halperin: Sure. The idea of the project came up, sort of around the time that Kerry James Marshall’s piece sold for a record sum at Sotheby’s. That set off a conversation about this spike in market interest in work by African American artists, and also institutional interests that had been bubbling up previously. Our question was: “Is there a way to see if that’s really happening on a broader level through data, rather than just looking at the sort of headline developments. Is it happening on a more structural level?”
So, in order to do that, we reached out to 30 museums across the country, 13 of the 15 most attended museums in the US, and then a selection of smaller urban, suburban and university museums that had displayed some interest in their programming in American art in general, or African American art in particular, and asked them to tell us the number of acquisitions of work by African American artists that they had made over the last ten years, and the number of exhibitions that they had staged of work by African American artists.
Charlotte Burns: I think the interesting thing to note here is that, absolutely no museum had this data. Nobody has been tracking this, and so it was a massive undertaking—for which we’re very grateful for the 30 museums that we asked for taking such a long time to gather, or to help us gather in-house.
The reason we split the two groups of museums is we thought the best attended spoke to power and the mainstream and broader public tastes. Then the smaller museums, because we felt that there was a lot going on there that wasn’t necessarily rising up to the top level, institutionally.
So, I guess to the figures. The main takeaways that we found were that there has been progress, but it’s very recent. And it’s really quite limited in terms of museums. When you look at the total number of acquisitions of work by African American artists over the past ten years—and by acquisitions, we’re including gifts; so, anything to add in to the permanent collection—there’ve been 5,466 works which represents just 2.4% [the correct figure is 2.3%; the podcast was recording before we had made the final tally] of the total number of acquisitions at these museums over the years
The proportion of exhibitions is a little bit better, it’s 7.6% [the correct figure is 7.7%; the podcast was recorded before we had made the final tally] of all exhibitions either focused on the work of African American artists in solo exhibitions, or were group exhibitions in which more than half of the artists were African American. But it’s still definitely under the population level; the population level is 12% in the US, of African Americans.
We took all this data, and then we spent another month reporting on it in conversation with 30 museum directors, advisors, dealers, an array of people. I’d say that half the people expressed a degree of surprise, and other people were not surprised at all. And so, I wanted to ask you both what you found. What your feelings or reactions are to that data. Are you surprised?
Allan Schwartzman: I’m not surprised. There’s been a great increase in the number of museums that have set as a primary goal in the coming years to be acquiring work by African American artists that they had overlooked. And oftentimes, these processes take time. Announcing an effort and then raising the money and then finding works is often challenging. I know of a number of museums looking for major works by a few particular artists, and none of them are having success because they’re all looking where there may have been two or three works in the market five years ago; now there’s currently nothing. So, some of it I think is a function of supply and demand.
But also, the principal activity that we’ve seen thus far in a change in collecting with a concentration on the work of African American artists, or more broadly, artists of African descent, has been focused in the contemporary market and not in the more historical market. It would be interesting to understand where these numbers divide in terms of historical artists and contemporary artists.
Charlotte Burns: I think we’ll talk about that in a minute, because actually that’s something that the data shows really clearly—that there is a split. But before we do that, Val, I wanted to ask you.
Valentino Carlotti: I was not surprised. It was interesting that you mention that a lot of the museums and institutions didn’t have the data. Actually, that’s one of the reasons that some are surprised, but the fact that… On the one hand, not having the data or initiating an exercise to go after it, in some ways, one can take as a positive that these communities and these intuitions approach what they do from a perspective of: “We’re not trying to pick and choose. We’re just trying to go after what we think is the thing that we should have in an exhibit,” versus group or demographic led.
That being said, when you see the numbers and the vast disproportionality of representation, it becomes clear what the overall mindset and genre that ends up landing in people’s comfort zone is. And therefore, you have this disparity.
So, actually, the first step in lowering that surprise is to get people focused on the exercise of actually having this data, and looking at it in this way—by the way, which is, for many, a jump and maybe even a philosophical debate about whether or not it should be tracked.
And then of course, if you tried to answer the question: “Is there progress?” Well, then it’s even tougher because defining what progress is. You gave the percentages, and of course, as we know, going from one to two is a 100% increase, but then it’s very, very low. And so, that context will also be important in everything we talk about in the vast underrepresentation, which is inherent in a long commentary on the history of how artists are selected, get prominence, have visibility, and what becomes the canon.
Charlotte Burns: We choose a ten-year period, primarily because it felt like that a lot had happened since 2008. It marked economic cycle shifts, it marked presidential shifts, it marked the expansion of a number of museums, and it also felt possible; it felt like if we asked museums to get us 50 years data, it would be even harder. And I think that would’ve been the case. But even in the ten years that we’ve been looking at data, it’s really interesting because you can see three distinct phases. Julia, I don’t know if you want to talk more about this.
Julia Halperin: Well, the phases that I think about; the sort of, post-recession period—you see the numbers go down, but that’s because numbers across the board went down. Then you see things sort of slowly spiking back up, after the financial crisis between 2011 and 2014, and then things really start to begin to shift a bit more substantially in 2015. You can see in 2017, the number of acquisitions of work by African American artists was almost twice that of 2013. And so, in 2013, it was 451 works, and in 2017, it was 822. And this year, 2018, we were halfway through the year when we recorded the data, it was 439. So, it’s on track to be a ten-year high. It’s interesting to see just how recent we’re seeing at least numerical change; we’re really talking about the last two or three years.
Allan Schwartzman: At the same time, in looking at your chart, what I also find interesting over ten-year period, because in the chart you’ve looked at the number of museum acquisitions side-by-side with the total dollar value of money spent on the work of African American artists at auction, that museums have been consistently ahead of the general art market in seeking this out.
Charlotte Burns: About two and a half years.
Allan Schwartzman: That however new this is for institutions to be recognizing shortfalls in their collections in their own curatorial ways of thinking, that the general market has been even further behind that. And that just in this last year, there’s been a huge acceleration in the overall market’s interest in the work of African American artists. And that’s where the numbers start to talk of a different trajectory that we’ll have to see in the coming years whether that continues.
Valentino Carlotti: So, there’s a lot of things that have been happening in the last ten years—and I think to Allan’s point, clearly we see some growth in acquisitions—but interestingly, I don’t think there’s anything really different about this ten-year period than pick several other ten-year period in the past. Of course, the time we’re in becomes the thing that’s most visible and urgent and prescient. But, as I’ve looked at some documentaries recently of things that have been going on when we were kids, it’s amazing how much the themes and the issues are just—
Charlotte Burns: Cyclical.
Valentino Carlotti: —coming back. And so, the point there is, I actually think there’s nothing particularly distinctive about these last ten years in terms of what should drive the market, but nevertheless, there’s some change in acquisition and focus, so what’s driving that? But I wouldn’t say it’s because of events in the world, or the context, or the environment, because I don’t know that this ten-year period in of itself is so distinctive to be the catalyst that would create this activity. And by the way, I’m sure we’ll get to this later, the longevity of this trend, and is it a moment a time? Is it a trend, and what will happen for the next ten years?
Allan Schwartzman: I’d like to suggest one substantial difference. When I began in the art world in the late 70s, all of these same discussions were taking place. It was a smaller world, there wasn’t so much of a market, but there were, to my knowledge, two black curators. One at the Museum of Modern Art, Kynaston McShine, and one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
To me, the difference is indeed that in the early 1990s, I believe that was the timing of it, the Whitney museum hired as a young promising curator, Thelma Golden, whose curatorial work from the start was very focused on race and identity and bringing into the museum voices that had not previously been present and that were particularly prescient in terms of what was going on in contemporary art. When she was showing Glenn Ligon, Glenn Ligon was indeed one of the most interesting contemporary artists to have emerged.
And if you look at the work that Thelma has done through the years and the work that Okwui Enwezor has done in Europe and Africa and other parts of the world through these years, these curators—who then became museum directors—have trained and formed new generations of curators that they have mentored. And those curators are now emerging in prominent roles in major museums and are amongst the most respected curators of the younger generation. So, I think what we’re not seeing necessarily in statistics, we are seeing more of an embedding of a consciousness within the system, which I think is just at the beginning of bearing fruit.
Valentino Carlotti: And it speaks to the important of the ecosystem that’s around artists as well. Of course, as we all know, artists don’t do it alone; it’s that community of supporters and advocates and those who provide a platform. Interestingly, if we looked at that ecosystem, we would find similar disparity or disproportionality in terms of representation, and depth, right?
Julia Halperin: Yeah, I was going to say the same thing I think it’s an interesting parallel to the market and exhibition discussion, where a few really high-profile, really influential figures or works of art or sales can distort the view of the whole picture. So, one of the things that we cite in the article is a 2015 study by the Mellon Foundation that shows that only 4% of museum curators are African American in the US—which isn’t to say that there aren’t extraordinarily influential African American curators and museum leaders who have been working to bring this into museums for decades, but it is in the context of a structure that, so far, I think, hasn’t experienced meaningful change.
Allan Schwartzman: But I would say that probably two of the ten most significant museum directors working in the fields of post-war and contemporary art are, well, not African American but of African descent. And my guess is that also of curators from the age of, let’s say, 25 to 40, the most promising and increasingly influential voices represent a higher percentage of those who are African American than at any point in the past. So, statistics tell one thing, but then you find that those of influence who have made a change have had a greater impact, or are likely in the future to evidence greater impact, than the broad statistics might ultimately suggest.
I’ll just add one other point, which is that we just ended two days of meetings for the Sotheby’s Prize. And without revealing anything prematurely, I would say that probably half of the ten most interesting applicants that we considered for the prize and for commendation were focusing on the work of artists of African descent.
Charlotte Burns: One other thing I would say about the statistics is that all of these things are true; the statistics tell us things that are factual—there may be more, but there’s still barely anything, in terms of growth.
But also, yes, absolutely, the influence that individuals can have—which is something that you actually can capture in data, and we can see in this data. When you look at the figures, we broke it down for our own internal records by the museums, you can see that individuals determined to make a difference have made a difference. Whether that’s Thelma at the Studio Museum, or whether that’s Brooke Davis Anderson in Pennsylvania, or whether that’s Trevor Schoonmaker at Nasher, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. There are certain instances that you look at an excel spreadsheet and you see spikes. And those spikes can be almost directly related to determined individuals, which I think is very encouraging, the sense that you can actually impact the world around you, in whatever that focus is.
Another point I wanted to make is that something that Hamza Walker, the director of LAXART brought up to us, which was this discussion around curators of color, and the expectations of what curators of color might do, or the stories they might be expected to tell. And he said: “This talk about curators of color, do you mean a curator who moves objects of color around, or do you mean my skin? Because can I not be focused on Alaskan art?” And that’s when you’ll see progress, when we don’t talk about “curators of color” in quite that way.
And something that Naomi Beckwith said, who’s come through that Studio Museum system and is a very influential curator working in Chicago, she said to us that “these stories aren’t contained by the bodies that house them, these are stories of our culture and our history.”
Valentino Carlotti: But it’s an interesting point on, listening to Allan about influence and perhaps the outsized influence of underrepresented leaders, as I heard you speak, Allan, I was asking myself the question: “Does it speak to the unusualness in creativity and ingenuity, and frankly, talent and influence ability of those individuals? Or, does it speak to the ecosystem of support and the environment that actually nurtures that and encourages that.”
I would offer that if you had to pick one, it would be the former, and that the structural change that would allow that more prominently, is still wanting. By the way, this is not to say that other directors in the majority are not equally talented and influential and, of course, have a strong impact, but that, in the cases of either groups of people or art that is underrepresented, I guess it just kind of highlights that it takes unusual tenacity.
Charlotte Burns: If you are the exception, you have to be exceptional.
Julia Halperin: Well, that’s what I was going to say the same thing, that I don’t think the question of outsized influence and small numbers, I don’t think that’s contradictory at all. I think that makes sense because it is much harder to get to a place of prominence and so, if you get there, odds are you are going to be exceptional and you’re going to have outsized influence because it was a lot harder to get there.
People we spoke to for the stories said the same thing about artists. Alexander Gray said that he talks to a lot of well-meaning collectors who say: “I’m really attracted to this work and I don’t even know all the time, that it’s always African American artists who made it, I just, I love it.” And Alexander Gray said: “That’s probably because they’re really good artists, and it was a lot harder to be an artist, especially if you’re African American, especially if you’re an African American woman.” And so, in order to do that, you have to display a commitment—
Charlotte Burns: That level of excellence.
Julia Halperin: And a excellence that’s likely outsized.
Allan Schwartzman: I would also add one other point. In the last two years, we’ve seen a huge spike in attention of mainstream collectors for the work of artists of African descent, which I think is directly connected, at least in this city, to the capital campaign momentum of the Studio Museum. And this I know for a fact, but I won’t go into more detail about that. And all of this is good.
Valentino Carlotti: I’m not sure it’s… Are you sure it’s good?
Allan Schwartzman: No, well, I was about to qualify it. There’s a part of it that’s extremely disconcerting to those who have known of these artists, whether they’re artists who have emerged in the last ten years, or artists whose work has been around for 50 years. But Thelma’s a truly inspiring and motivating individual. And that has paved the way for a whole range of supporters that never went to the Studio Museum two years ago. And the ones that I know who are pursuing acquisitions in the realm of artists of color, who had not been thinking along those lines before, are passionately engaged in that art.
Valentino Carlotti: Well, that was a good word, it’s in some ways disconcerting because it’s a helpful catalyst of course, but as you said, the Studio Museum in Harlem and Thelma, and the impact and the vision and the leadership and the development and the community of artists that support one another has been such a mission for so long. And so, in some respects, you’re right, it’s disconcerting that a thing like: “Okay, we’re building a new building”, wakes others up, but in some ways almost misses the consistency and the depth of what’s been going on for so long, and the day-to-day hard work of nurturing artists and providing a platform of support.
Julia Halperin: And I think that that points to a tension that I felt throughout this entire article, and even doing this at all, is saying, “Okay, so we’re picking 30 museums where we say this means mainstream recognition.” The question of mainstream and what that means is very fraught. And of course, there are institutions dealers and curators who, all the way back from the ‘60s have been doing this.
I talked to a couple of dealers who say: “This term of rediscovery grates on me, because I’ve been here the whole time. Like, we’ve been here the whole time.” This feeling of Columbus coming to America And so, I think that’s something we had to navigate—that we don’t want to rewrite history and say that this is what recognition means, or this is what status means, because it’s one slice of a much deeper story.
Charlotte Burns: I think that points to something that Val mentioned, which is about institutional support, the framework for these things. And that’s something that Julia and I talked about a lot in these articles, when we were writing and researching them, which is that, essentially, these are stories about power, and who has power and who gets to decide who else will have power.
And, there are lots of paths we can go down with this. Diversity efforts in the ‘80s and why they kind of failed then in the 90s; changes now to talks about equity and inclusion, rather than diversity; ways of embedding people to empower them: rather than just bringing people into places, actually giving them a support so they have and find an established voice for themselves.
But it also speaks to the tension that people inevitably feel when things start shifting, and that sense that some people are very on board with this, and some people don’t necessarily want to acquiesce.
We had one museum director say to us that a board member had told him this summer: “Don’t forget about the white guys.” And when you look at the numbers, that’s kind of a preposterous thing to say, because it’s really not a bad time to be an artist who is not of color, and especially a male artist who is not of color. Someone said to me: “When do you think it’s going be safe to say, ‘I want to stage an exhibition of work by white male artists again?'” And I was like: “Honestly? Like today, yesterday, and tomorrow. Like, you’re fine. Like, we can do this.”
And the numbers show—it’s outsized, the disproportion is dramatic. And yet there is a sense… Something someone talked to us about was this difference between the symbolic and the real, and that’s kind of why we wanted to put numbers—albeit arbitrary numbers, in a sense: we have a methodology that we defined, but still, you could’ve come up with other methodologies—but that idea of applying some kind of reality.
Because this an industry where there isn’t much hard data; there are a lot of opinions and a lot of passionate beliefs and a lot of convictions, and ultimately, those drive tastes and those drive markets and canons. But being able to sort of pause and say, “Well, where are we, actually?” Because there is this perception… In researching, we were looking at headlines, saying “Wall Street’s rushing in to scoop up the works up of African Americans, it’s a great time to be an African American artist”, like: “This is the hottest thing ever. Museums are jumping on the bandwagon.”
And there’s this very breathy excitement but, actually, talking about the market, you realize it is very top heavy. It is true that the market is top heavy in general, that tastes have gravitated to the top, but the figures are, again, just the disproportion.
And just to put some figures in, over the past decade at auction—because obviously gallery sales are private, and we’ll get on to the data that we missed—but over the past ten years, total sales of art by African Americans has been $2.2bn.
Basquiat accounts for $1.7bn of the entire $2.2bn. When you take him out, $460m has been spent over ten years, which, to put it in context, is less than some single evening auctions here in New York of contemporary art.
So, they’re small figures, when we talk about a market. That disproportional impact of the symbolic, the sense that perhaps things are really shifting, that perhaps is a story that everybody wants to believe. But when you look at the numbers, you take out Basquiat, and then you take out Mark Bradford—Mark Bradford alone accounts for 25% of all sales over the past ten years.
Julia Halperin: That aren’t Basquiat?
Charlotte Burns: That aren’t Basquiat, yeah. And then five artists account for 64% of the value. I could just keep throwing figures at you because we live and breathe statistics these days, but the figures are low. And also, incredibly recent. Like Allan was saying, that the markets have been following institutional efforts you see that, really, that growth has happened in 2018.
Julia Halperin: Yeah, I was just going to point out that the total spent in 2017 was $57.8m and 2018 to date is $116.7m. So, it’s, the full year has doubled in the first six months of this year.
Charlotte Burns: It’s almost a quarter of the total value that has happened in the first half of 2018.
Allan Schwartzman: So, allow me to propose another data point, which is that of artists who have emerged, let’s say, American artists who have emerged in the last ten years, I would venture to estimate that around 40% of most interesting are African American artists. And this is a huge shift between what had been a market driven by contemporary abstraction to a market driven by contemporary narrative and representation.
It’s also a market that, for the most part, consists of artists who are new to the market, and therefore, at lower price points. So, I think that it explains, in part, why so much of the dollar value is disproportionate to the numbers of artists represented, but also why we feel a shift in discussion. Because I think that, while the museum activity is driven in part by scholarship that’s historically embedded, a lot of the attentions of these exhibitions have been on contemporary artists. And the focus within the marketplace has been on contemporary artists. I would also say that some of the hardest artists to acquire at this point are indeed artists of African descent.
Valentino Carlotti: The spike in the last couple of years almost, as promising as it would seem, it’s almost alarming because it seems that it’s not organic. What is driving it and how long lasting will it be? And then by the way, even though it is, that spike is happening, it’s just still such a very small part of the market.
Allan Schwartzman: Well, it is so new.
Valentino Carlotti: Yeah.
Allan Schwartzman: I mean, it’s so, it is so recent. I would say, by nature, almost all contemporary markets, at least strong ones for which there’s been huge increase in demand, are faddish. There are a few leaders who identify or recognize the significance of certain artists, and that then creates a momentum of people who want to pursue work of an artist they heard of and haven’t yet seen. That goes back to the early 1980s, when the market that we’re in now started to take root. And that has to do with whether it’s white artists, black artists, European, wherever.
I feel like I’m the voice of disagreeing with the data, and I don’t want to seem that I’m trying to justify anything or rationalize anything. But the last ten years have been, to me, one of the most challenging, frustrating, and unfulfilling times in the search for greatness in the work of emerging artists.
I feel like we’ve been flooded with so much artwork that is very strong but that is not inspired, or that doesn’t change how we think about things, or what we look at, or the nature of experience of art. And I do think that a substantial number of the artists of African descent who have attracted the interest of the market in these last couple of years are indeed far more compelling and potentially lasting than the principally white artists that had been the focus of the market in the earlier part of the same ten-year cycle. And so, I think this is positive.
I was looking recently at the work of one particular, very significant African American artist who seems to me is poised for a great increase in attention from the market. And this is an artist who became established in the early 1960s and was a major presence in the art scene in the ‘70s and ‘80s; has not yet shown evidence, by statistics, of being one of those artists that the market is actively pursuing, but I think that’s moments away. And what I realized is that the work that this artist made in the ‘60s was rooted in a kind of representation and narrative form that was considered not avant-garde in the time period. It was more traditional; it suggested a viewpoint that was out of times with the nature of vanguard art.
Sometimes, it takes a wider audience 40, 50 years to see, in the instance of today, that now that we’re seeing some of the most interesting art today of younger artists is narrative and representational, and that a huge percentage of that is by black artists. That that starts to pave the way to look back in history and recognize that work that we saw that we may have associated more with like, a Philip Pearlstein or an Alfred Leslie, rather than an Andy Warhol, if you know where I’m going with that, that all of a sudden, that work made sense historically within its own context and we just didn’t have enough of a frame of reference by which to differentiate that narrative work in the ‘60s from the work of that artist’s white counterparts, which was inherently different.
Valentino Carlotti: Well, it’s a really interesting point, Allan, because the other thing, I mean, what you’re saying is perhaps at this moment in time in the development of the market what is craved and perhaps this voice, what is being said by these artists, is ripe to land in a different way or with a different receptivity—which I’m hopeful that that’s actually the case.
It speaks to… Charlotte, you mentioned art being reflected of the dynamics of power, obviously art is a reflection of our culture. And you kind of made an assessment of the art market in the last ten years, and in some ways you’re saying that it got so broad that, in fact, it was impacting quality and the depth of message and vision that it delivers and perhaps the market is craving for the pendulum to move, which would lend itself with greater receptivity to artists of African descent.
Allan Schwartzman: And I would add just one example of such an artist who I think is ripe for that re-examination, and that’s Robert Colescott, who indeed, in the art world of the 1970s and ‘80s was a very present mainstream artist, even though he was a black artist dealing in a regionalist American style about content that was always driven by race and identity and sex and other complicated topics, or at least, potentially incendiary topics.
His work fell out of a broad public consciousness in recent years, I think that was more circumstantial to his situation, rather than a lack of potential interest in that work. But today, now that the material is coming back into the market and now that there’s a major museum exhibition that’s being organized, as we look at the massive financial success and museum and market attention for an artist like Kerry James Marshall, it’s so clear that that narrative lineage rests on the shoulder of a Robert Colescott. And I would venture to guess, without speaking for them, that artists like Kerry James Marshall and Glenn Ligon—very, very different artists—would inevitably openly acknowledge the significance of his work, but that’s an inefficiency of the market that’s somewhat circumstantial.
Julia Halperin: That brings up an interesting point that we touch on in the story, which is something that makes this moment, I think, fundamentally different than earlier ones is that the few artists who have managed to gain really significant financial success and power are using that to spread it around. Kerry James Marshall wrote that piece about Charles White in the Paris Review and I think also has spoken to other dealers about Robert Colescott.
You have an exhibition of Ed Clark’s work at Mnuchin Gallery that was in part inspired from conversations that a gallery partner had there with David Hammonds, who’s 20 years younger but has been a major collector of Ed Clark’s work.
It’s not an accident that these artists are saying… they’re gaining power, and so they’re saying, “Hey, mainstream art history as you think of it actually doesn’t correctly reflect my influences. There are people who you may not have thought of who aren’t reflected in your collections yet who are more formative.” And so I think, it’s another place where—
Charlotte Burns: There’s change.
Julia Halperin: Yeah, there’s change, but also that power influence comes into play.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah, another dealer I spoke to said, and it’s a gallery that has started to represent African American artists with much more vigor over the past three years. I asked them: “How did this happen?” Hauser & Wirth Gallery, and they said, well, a lot of it came from Mark Bradford, because in conversation with him, he was saying: “Well you really should be looking at Jack Whitten. And then if you want to move forward, you should be looking at Amy Sherald. And a lot of this came out through conversations with Mark.
And what’s interesting about that is that something that could be perceived as opportunistic is very much in keeping with the way the gallery’s always run. They’re a gallery that started in Switzerland, but they had a big reputation of working with Los Angeles based artists which, basically came out through a relationship with one artist, Paul McCarthy.
That’s not a new dynamic—galleries providing context and frame of references within their program for the artists they work with to create that history. Mark Payot was quite frank about it, saying: “For us, this is an area of opportunity, much as in the same way female artists are overlooked—and that’s an area of opportunity for us, because we look at the quality of the work and then we look at whether we see there is an opportunity to increase its value. And there’s frankly less competition in certain areas.
Although, to Allan’s point, also said that the competition at the top is even fiercer than for some of the other artists in the program. So, there is that bifurcation that we’re seeing more broadly in the market, too.
One thing you mentioned, Allan, the things that our data doesn’t tell us, which is what’s going on in the primary market, and that’s something that we can’t capture, other than anecdotally, because private businesses doesn’t have to give us their numbers, but I wondered if you wanted to talk a little bit to that.
Allan Schwartzman: Well, I’m just looking at the chart that you have, that tracks the relationship between the number of solo museums exhibitions of individual artists in relation to their total auction sales.
Let me just talk about certain artists individually. Martin Puryear is somebody whose work has always sold out. There’s always been a waiting list for his work for 40 years. He doesn’t make a lot of work; the work is beloved by the people who own it; it rarely comes back for resale. And as a result, you just won’t see a lot of material at auction. That’s not to say that there isn’t an interest in it, it’s just that the interest is so strong that it stays where it is.
Barkley Hendricks was someone who was virtually unknown to the art market until a year and a half ago, and the increase in interest in that has grown so rapidly, and I think it was directly a response to recognizing a great master in the work, where the work had not been seen before and where it was probably being seen by an audience who would’ve seen the work very differently in the time in which it was being made.
Look to Julie Mehretu, yeah, there is a significant amount, of dollar sales at auction, but I would also add equally that this is an artist whose work there’s always a waiting list for. Her primary market prices are quite substantial, and they are usually very well placed so little of it comes back into the marketplace.
At this point in time, it’s virtually impossible to get primary market work by an artist like Njideka Crosby, for example, because there has been such a spike of interest in the work.
Valentino Carlotti: She’s still new to the market.
Allan Schwartzman: She’s a kid.
Valentino Carlotti: But it speaks to an interesting point about what is the dynamic going on?
Allan Schwartzman: There’s so much interest that the vast majority of works that are sold in the primary market are going straight to museums. We’re only talking about ten or twelve artists, but as a concentration I don’t know any decade in which you’ve had that many more than 12 or so artists that come to be the significant products of that decade.
Charlotte Burns: It’s clear that there has been progress, and it’s also clear that this is a story that has been going on for a long time. It’s clear also that the figures are still dramatically lower than most people, I think, would’ve imagined, certainly the people that we’ve interviewed.
Having said that, there are things that are distinct, I think. As Julia was saying, there are artists in more positions of power who are bringing references backwards and forwards in history. There are more curators looking at work. One curator said to us that, ten years ago from their point of view, this was work that was like, kind of nice to have, but no one really cared. Whereas now if you don’t have it, it’s like an omission.
Although, interestingly, that sense of consensus when you look at our heat map of the regions, you see that there are patterns, too. More museum acquisitions and exhibitions have happened in the North-East, for example.
I think we’re almost running out of time now, is there anything that anybody feels that we didn’t discuss
Allan Schwartzman: Well, I’d like to ask both of you what you were surprised by through this process?
Charlotte Burns: You want to go first?
Julia Halperin: There was certain individual intuitions where I was surprised at just how low the numbers were. especially cities that are majority black. Like DC, in certain instances, the numbers were… it was fewer than one work a year that they acquired by an African American artist or three shows in a decade. I’m from DC, so that was like… oof.
So, there were certain instances where I was surprised by individual results and otherwise I think the other thing that surprised me was just looking at the total auction sales for all of these artists and feeling like my sense of historical significance and influence and stature was really not reflected in this lineup.
Betye Saar, for example, who I think of as one of the most influential American artists, full stop, she’s like 56th or something on the list. And alongside artists who are 50 years younger than her and have not shown—or have been nearly as widely influential by any stretch. And so, I think that points to a lot of the things that we’ve been talking about. But in terms of what the public sees and how we define value, it just sent me down a rabbit hole of questioning a lot of that.
Charlotte Burns: For me, the surprises were really the numbers. I think I just expected things to be a bit better than they were, or the numbers to be a little bit higher, and I think that speaks to how we are shaped by the conversations we have rather than the facts that exist.
And maybe an uncomfortable thing to think about was that I think I wanted it to be better, and I’ve come to recognize that through the three weeks of interviews where, I recognize that a lot of people that I’m interviewing, that they don’t want to believe these figures either. There are a lot of people who are incredibly intelligent people who have a lot more knowledge than I do who are pointing to reasons why the figures… I don’t know the way of saying it. I think Julia alluded to this earlier, this idea of there being more hurdles. There are more conversations about sort of meritocracy and quality and decisions, as if those decisions aren’t informed by biases.
Another thing is that people have been very receptive, which I think is very positive; it speaks very well to a will for change. People have made a lot of effort, which has been, I mean, I don’t think that we even knew that we could do this project when we started out.
Julia Halperin: No.
Charlotte Burns: So in one sense, the fact that this has even happened is the biggest surprise of all.
Julia Halperin: And the fact that intuitions were willing to invest the time to even collect this data was surprising. And then, on the flip side, the fact that so many of them seemed so surprised when they gave us—
Allan Schwartzman: By their own data?
Julia Halperin: Yeah.
Charlotte Burns: Very, very surprised. Some people were very, very shocked that their numbers were so low. One museum professional said to me that they’d taken these results to their board because they were so surprised by them. And they considered themselves to be a pioneer and someone who’s pushing for change. And they said that they had indeed been collecting more work by African American artists, but that they’d just been collecting more of everything. And so, they had no sense that the—
Allan Schwartzman: The percentages hadn’t changed.
Charlotte Burns:—the percentages hadn’t changed. Yeah. So the volume had increased, but the volume had overall increased. And so I think that people’s reactions to it were very enlightening and informing.
And on a more cynical note, or sadder note, is that you realize how insidious some of the things we’re grappling with are. Whether that’s our shared cultural histories, our biases, our racism, sexism; these are very fraught issues, and this felt like a kind of slice of insight into something… I probably wouldn’t have been able to gather that much insight without kind of embarking on this.
Valentino Carlotti: And the vastness of the disproportionality in the numbers bears what you’re saying out—that there’s got to be more going on. Statistically this distribution would not happen. And so, of course, there’s bigger issues, bigger forces afoot.
As I said, I was not surprised by the numbers themselves or the vastness of a gap. The continuing hurdle is there is a natural disposition to not want to believe them because it just, it just can’t be this bad.
So, therefore, one either has to spend more time to have the detail of the data and go through the analysis, or you ask people to make the leap of, again, back to your point about the meritocracy conversation—which is code for justification of warranting attention and inclusion—that therefore requires additional work because it means you have to spend time actually still describing that there’s an issue. Which is time wasted, actually.
But I agree with you, people’s participation and willingness to participate and talk about it and take a look at it, I think is an encouraging dynamic.
Charlotte Burns: I think it would be interesting to do this as a periodic thing. People seem to want to know more. And actually, we had people reaching out to us saying: “Are you going to do anything like this for artists of Latin descent? Are you going to do anything like this for women? We’d be interested to know.” And so, I think there is a hunger for knowledge. And, knowledge is power, so that’s kind of a positive place.
Allan Schwartzman: The data is not surprising, but it’s highly enlightening. It does not reflect the same level of change that is spoken of, but I would also say at the same time, I do think we’re in a very different moment. And with the spread of great interest in the work of quite a number of artists of African descent and in the spread of a greater presence of truly significant developing and mature curators in American museums who are of African descent, I do think that that work is pervading consciousness. And even if the market attention is, as always, principally driven by ear rather than eye, I see great potential for our sense of recent history to change and therefore of us being equipped to look further back in time.
Charlotte Burns: So, with that I will say thank you all for being my guests, it’s been a pleasure to have you here, and a really enlightening conversation. And a reminder for all of our listeners to please go and read the data and our articles and tell us what you think. So, check out artnet.com and artagencypartners.com. Thank you all for being here.
Allan Schwartzman: Thank you.
Julia Halperin: Thank you.
Charlotte Burns: Thank you.