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Record Breaking Ernie Barnes Sales Highlight The Need For More Documentation of Black Artists

By Yvonne Bynoe

Each month countless exhibits open around the country that showcase the work of artists of African descent. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these shows are not documented; there is no exhibition catalog or monograph produced. Generally, museum shows are more likely than galleries to publish exhibit catalogs, but that’s largely dependent on the size of an institution’s budget and the stature of the artist being exhibited.

Museums are not bastions of diversity, so the number of Black artists that they exhibit each year, much less document, is minuscule. In the category of different year, same stuff, a new UBS study indicates that 47 percent of U.S museums focused their exhibits on only 4 percent of contemporary artists, approximately 10,000 artists out of 250,000 in 2017-2021.

The net effect is that across the board, well-known artists such as Amoako Boafo, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Mickalene Thomas, Kehinde Wiley or Kerry James Marshall are afforded numerous books and publications about their work and exhibits while lesser known artists, especially regional artists, are rarely chronicled beyond local magazine articles.

In the face of this dearth, it is therefore incumbent upon artists, galleries, and smaller museums to begin utilizing inexpensive websites and on-demand printing companies to create records of the Black artists that they exhibit. This is a fairly simple step that they can undertake to not only memorialize exhibits but also protect the legacies of those artists’ work. Supporting Black artists shouldn’t end with the exhibit installation.

Photo credit: Bohman’s Auction House

Lack of documentation means that years from now, only a handful of Black artists will have material available for scholars and critics to review as they research particular art movements or the artistic production during this time in history.

More problematic is that a very small group of Black artists would be promoted as representatives of the majority, reflecting the beliefs and experiences of Black communities in the African diaspora. As it stands, most art books are published by academic presses or art publishers with small budgets. This results in them producing a limited number of books which are expensive and quickly go out of print. Without more robust documentation like many of their predecessors, a number of contemporary Black artists will be erased from art history. Worse, if they’re not ensuring that their work is thoroughly documented while they’re alive, they’re opening the door for other people to articulate and possibly misrepresent their visions and work by relying on the scant available source material.

Overall, Black collectors have been more proactive than Black artists in self-publishing or working through publishing houses to create books that discuss the works in their collections, their collecting journey, and the mission behind their collecting. There are numerous books by Black collectors that range from celebrities such as Grant Hill to art patrons such as the late Peggy Cooper Cafritz, Vivian and John Hewitt (whose collection is the cornerstone of The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts and Culture in Charlotte), Pamela Joyner (who’s credited with reviving interest in mid-century Black abstract artists), as well as Bernard and Shirley Kinsey and Bernard Lumpkins who currently have traveling exhibitions of their respective collections.

In 2020, collector, artist, and BAIA founder, Najee Dorsey and his wife gifted 15 works to The Columbus Museum in Georgia. To contextualize the works, a catalog was produced to accompany the Black is Beautiful: Recent Gifts from Black Art in America and Najee and Seteria Dorsey exhibition that ran from December to April 2021.

The increased interest in Ernie Barnes (1938-2009) sharply highlights the documentation gap when it comes to Black artists.

Barnes’s first solo exhibition was in 1966 at Grand Central Art Galleries in New York. In 1990, his traveling exhibition Beauty of the Ghetto returned to the same gallery. There is no available documentation of the 1966 show and the catalog for his 1990 show is out of print. More surprising is that, despite the length of Barnes’s career, there seems to have been only one other catalog for a 2007 exhibit. One Barnes collector stated that he had personally only ever seen one catalog. There are also no art history books that explore Barnes’s oeuvre.

Photo credit: Christie’s Auction House

Although Barnes has been popular among Black Americans since his paintings appeared on the 1970s television sitcom Good Times, he wasn’t initially embraced by the art world. Dr. Bridget R. Cooks said, “While not widely known within the mainstream art world, Barnes is revered by a diverse group of collectors and admirers across the country.” Art advisor Mary M. Walsh stated online that her late husband had worked with Barnes in the latter part of his career. She says that the art world considered Barnes a popular commercial artist and wrote on Twitter, “[H]istorically he was judged as a successful LeRoy Nieman type of artist, one that the ‘serious’ art world of the 1980s and 1990s didn’t want to have anything to do with.”

Walsh, however, added that Barnes didn’t need the art world establishment to forge his reputation or to sell his work because of his relationships with celebrities. She cites the 2007 Time Warner and the NFL sponsored, A Tribute To Artist and NFL Alumni Ernie Barnes: His Art & Inspiration. The star-studded and well-funded event was co-chaired by political heavy hitters Jack Kemp (a former NFL player) and Donna Brazile. Richard Fagaly of the New Orleans Museum of Art wrote the essay for the 36-page commentative catalog (now out of print) for his 22 work exhibition, Liberating Humanity From Within.”

Barnes was born in Durham, N.C., and had been a long time resident of Los Angeles. In 2019, Ernie Barnes: A Retrospective was mounted by the California African-American Museum. The survey was guest-curated by Dr. Cooks and included 50 works by Barnes from 1962-1977. This retrospective followed the survey The North Carolina Roots of Artist Ernie Barnes, which was on view at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh from 2018-2019. These two retrospectives were the first after Barnes’s death in 2009 from cancer. In 2021, the month-long Ernie Barnes: Works, 1961-2003 at 55 Walker Street was the first New York exhibition of Barnes’s paintings in 31 years.

On May 12, 2022 the iconic painting Sugar Shack (1976) was sold by Christie’s auction house to African-American hedge fund manager Bill Perkins for a dazzling $15. 275 million dollars. This was a record breaking sale for Barnes’s work; the original sales estimate had been $150,000-$200,000. The next day the “Sugar Shack Effect” resulted in Christie’s selling another Barnes work: a 1977 basketball scene for $2.34 million against a $100,000-$150,000 estimate.

The sales momentum continued on May 26 when the Los Angeles Athletic Club who had owned the Barnes painting The Maestro since 1974 sold it through Bonhams auction house for $882,375. The sales estimate for the painting had been a lowly $25,000-$30,000 dollars. Lastly, more than a decade after his death, Barnes finally has gallery representation. In May, 2022 Andrew Kreps Gallery and Ortuzar Projects announced they will co-represent the artist’s estate.

Undoubtedly, there will now be a mad scramble by scholars to write books about Barnes. There are magazines and a few academic journal articles they can draw insights from. However, it would have been wonderful to have contemporaneous material from Barnes, his peers, curators and African-American writers from the 1970s-2000s about his paintings and exhibits.

There is an official Ernie Barnes website that contains a general biography with links to several articles about Barnes starting in 2019. The modest site also sells Barnes’s 1995 memoir From Pads To Palettes, detailing his transition from professional football player to artist. In all candor, the website seems more geared towards selling reproductions of Barnes’s work than in documenting his career.

Photo credit: Christie’s Auction House

Some galleries do a very good job of providing detailed information online about their artists and exhibited works. Those galleries, however, are the exception. Furthermore, many Black artists are unrepresented, so there is no staff behind them. This leaves the responsibility largely on the artist to advocate for his or her work and exhibitions being memorialized by galleries and museums or to do it themselves.

At minimum, exhibit documentation should include:

1. High resolution photographs of the included works with full descriptions (title, materials, year and dimensions)

2. Biographical information on the artist with several current photographs

3. The artist’s perspective on the work, including his or her influences and/or intentions for the body of work

4. At least one 750-1500 word essay from an art writer, historian or artist discussing the relevance of the works (Ideally, there would be several contributors, including one by the exhibit curator.)

5. Information about private and institutional collections that contain the artist’s work

Cultural institutions who have the financial means should immediately begin creating and maintaining researchable exhibit documents as part of their curatorial duties. Independent artists, under-funded galleries and institutions, however, will likely say that they’re already stretched to the limit and can’t add documentation to their plates. Honestly, creating a website, ebook, or on-demand physical book could be delegated to a tech savvy intern or junior staff member. Additionally, an art student or an emerging art writer could write serviceable exhibit content.

In thinking outside the box, engaging African-American art students and emerging art writers serves two goals: It creates valuable documentation for Black artists and gives the students professional training that will help them enter and diversify the field of art criticism.

 

Yvonne Bynoe is the founder of the curated online platform @shelovesblackart which highlights visual art from the African diaspora to encourage more people of African descent to collect art. She is a cultural critic and author of several popular books on popular culture.

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