A River Runs Through It:
The Mighty Ted Ellis Rolls in as Museum Director at Southern University
by D. Amari Jackson
“We may sense that the river of black struggle is people, but it is also the hope, the movement, the transformative power that humans create and that create them, us, and makes them, us, new persons.”
In his noted 1981 work, There Is A River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America, author Vincent Harding applies the organizing metaphor of a river to the long and ongoing Black movement toward justice in America. A college professor, friend and advisor to Martin Luther King Jr., and the first director of the King Memorial Center in Atlanta, the late Harding used the natural flow of water to embody our progressive communal quest for equity, self-determination, and collective advancement.
Harding’s river certainly applies to the world of African American art. And it flows, rather, pulses through the veins of renowned artist and educator, Ted Ellis.
“We took the baton from our predecessors and said okay, we’re going to define ourselves,” says the 58-year-old Ellis of his generation of artists, stressing how “it was forced upon these mainstream institutions to recognize African American artists. Certainly, Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett, Samella Lewis, Lois Mailou Jones, and Margaret Burroughs were very intentional on fighting that fight and speaking to the importance of African American culture, and using art as a method of social engagement and social equity through images.”
“If they’re not gonna give us access to these institutions, then we’re gonna find an alternative way, and we did that,” acknowledges Ellis. “We did the darn thing.”
Ellis’s declaration is as singular as it is communal. For the past four decades, the popular self-taught artist and current Texas resident has produced a diverse and sizable body of work while specializing in the rich cultural heritage of African Americans. His works have been commissioned by major corporations including Disney, The Minute Maid Company, and Avon, featured in local and national media, and purchased and collected by the likes of Spike Lee and Brad Pitt. Ellis continues to share his success with his community through art workshops with children and related nonprofit programs for disadvantaged students.
He now has another way to do so. On May 2, 2022, Ellis was ushered in as the inaugural Museum Director for Southern University at New Orleans.
“I’m really excited to be doing this and pushing forward—with a lot of intentionality, a lot of purpose—who I am, my community, and my history,” offers Ellis, explaining “I get to make that ask for partnerships, for collaborations, on sharing what’s important to those who have the same kind of interest that I have in celebrating culture and identity.”
Although the position is new, Ellis’s role, like a flowing river, is constant. “When I was going through the museum studies program, there was a level of validation through the course work given this is what I’ve been doing,” explains Ellis, of the professional networking and audience engagement activities he participated in while receiving his Master of Arts in Museum Studies from Southern. “I’m doing corporate lunch and learns, engaging audiences and gaining trust, I’m presenting cultural artifacts—which is my art—I’m telling a story, it’s enlightening them, it’s appeasing their curiosity, they’re learning, and I’m uplifting human capital through my art. And I do it at outdoor festivals, I do it at corporate lunches, I do it at private home shows.”
Accordingly, Ellis soon recognized “I am pretty much the subject matter expert in this” and that “I am the practical side of this theory it talks about. And so, intimately, this is what I’ve been doing, as well as others like me. We have been engaged in presenting and capturing these narratives that tell stories and are sharing it with people. We may do it in a sort of alternate space or in a way you do with commerce, but you’re getting people to see something that they like, something that they value, and they’re looking to participate.”
“And that’s what museums do, you know?”
Though Ellis now resides in the Houston metropolitan area, the storied city of New Orleans, like a mighty river, courses through his veins. Growing up in the Louisiana city known for its culture, history, and rich African American heritage, Ellis was deeply inspired by the artistic and traditional values surrounding him. These elements, along with ongoing encouragement from his entrepreneurial-minded parents, prompted the young Ellis to blend aspects of realism and impressionism while depicting the vibrant people and scenes he encountered in his Lower Ninth Ward community. During high school, the scholarly student would commonly ride public transit to Jackson Square in the French Quarters to learn from artists as they engaged the public.
“We went to the same high school and, as far as I can recall, Ted was the first student that they let paint a mural on one of the major walls in the school,” remembers lifelong friend, Dale Johnson, whose mother taught with Ellis’s mom at a local school when the two men were babies. The Dallas-based business owner details how his talented artistic friend would go on to receive a B.S. in Chemistry from Dillard University before becoming an environmental chemist. “As a chemist, he still did his art on the side,” clarifies Johnson, noting Ellis’s entrepreneurial spirit. “So, one day, I came to him with an idea to start a business together. And he told me, ‘it’s ironic you say that. I don’t want to start a business with you because I am going to start doing art full time,’ which was awesome. So he wants to give me credit,” laughs Johnson, “by saying I kind of pushed him out there to start his own business.”
Like his artwork, Ellis went about his business with a passion, making connections, networking, and exhibiting at local and national fairs with his artistic peers. Over time, as he and his network of colleagues grew more successful, Ellis recognized that an important shift was occurring, like a river transporting eroded sediment and redepositing it in a different location to forge a new frontier.
“It was remarkable, when I started looking at it,” offers Ellis, pointing out this was “the first generation of African American artists that didn’t have to take a job or didn’t have to take a flight to Europe to sustain themselves. They could stay here in America and make it happen. And we were that group of artists that didn’t need to have another profession or moonlight, for we could do it full time.”
“We were also the driving force in bringing African American art to the forefront again,” says Ellis, noting “it just wasn’t in an academic setting or quiet places that you had to get acknowledgement or distribution through, like major museums, we were doing it our own.” Consistently, he acknowledges the pioneering work of Ernie Barnes on the primetime television series, Good Times, and the art of Varnette Honeywood on the Cosby Show. At the time, none of this activity, clarifies Ellis, was presented by major institutions like “the MET or MOMA. We were defining ourselves and you had a plethora of mom and pops distributing artists that were self-publishing” and, in doing so, “getting a larger percentage or the lion share of revenues from their art. It was just a high moment for African American artists and for making an impact.”
For Ellis and many of his colleagues—he points to the relevant careers of Larry Poncho Brown, Charles Bibbs, and Brenda Joysmith, gallerists Keith Golden and Walter Shannon, and BAIA’s Najee Dorsey—the successful business of art further represents progress within the river’s path, like the Nile’s northward inundation of its fertile basin, depositing precious layers of silt. “We took it to the point to say, ‘now we’re gonna monetize this, we’re gonna place value to our culture,” stresses Ellis, acknowledging that “we did that, and we continue to do that. And as we continued to evolve, we recognized we needed to be on the programmatic side of it, we needed to have more curators inside these mainstream institutions. And we’re gonna talk about equity, accessibility, and inclusion. So we’re doing that now.”
“You have artists that are six-figure, fast lane artists that are doing it, that are living,” continues Ellis. “Twenty years ago, I was saying this was going to happen, and it has. When you look at Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley, these are younger artists that are doing it.”
That said, there were those, acknowledges Ellis, who “looked at what we were doing and sometimes said that maybe we are a little bit too entrepreneurial, and that there’s no value in what we do. And I was on the opposite side of that argument because we’re creating industry, we’re monetizing culture, and it’s no different than what the institutions do.”
As Ellis’s commercial success advanced, adding such high-profile clients as Disney, Minute Maid, Coca-Cola, State Farm Insurance, and Avon, so did his education. Twenty years after receiving his B.S. in Chemistry from Dillard, Ellis received his Master of Arts in Museum Studies from Southern. And with his new position, the accomplished artist is ever looking for additional ways to keep the river rolling.
“I want to get all of my contemporaries who are living their due,” stresses Ellis. “You’ve got artists out here who, for 20 and 30-plus years, have been doing great work that should get the proper recognition and historical documentation for their volume of work and their capacity to tell and preserve our stories. There’s always those artists who get rediscovered, but I want to be able to promote, in my own kind of way, my brethren and sisters who give their effort and purpose to telling our story with a lot of beauty, a lot of passion, and a lot of intentionality.”
So, adds Ellis, “I see that happening with this opportunity. And that’s gonna be a high mark because it steps outside of self in service to others.”