Why It's Time For More Black Collectors to Consider Hosting Artist Salons

Ms. Hewitt and her husband, John Hewitt Jr., were two of America's most important Black art patrons. Credit: Hewitt family

Why It's Time For More Black Collectors to Consider Hosting Artist Salons 

by Yvonne Bynoe 

While it's wonderful that more people of African descent are acquiring art, unfortunately very few are investing in the art ecosystem that ultimately determines the value of their collections. None of the major art fairs, publications, auction houses and multinational galleries that influence the art market are owned, even fractionally by African Americans. What will African-American collectors do if, or when, "Black art" is no longer in vogue?

How would a change in market tastes impact your collection?

There have been rumblings of this possibility for quite a while. Antwan Sargent, a noted art critic and curator, voiced concern about the fragility of the renaissance of Black art early in 2022 during an interview on the Cerebral Women podcast. Sargent is not the only one skeptical about the long-term interest in Black art, given that White affluent men are considered the prime buyers of the art market. Not long ago Asian art was all the rage; now it's rarely mentioned.

Art is a multibillion dollar business whose chief customer remains the very wealthy. A key sponsor of Art Basel-Miami is UBS, a wealth management company. The company states on its website: “With a 150-year history and a network of offices in over 50 countries…UBS has extensive experience managing the wealth of high net worth and ultra high net worth individuals.”

For many years, Black-owned galleries have asserted that, when it comes to the major art fairs, they are disadvantaged by exorbitant fees and exclusionary selection processes. Earlier this month in a series of social media posts, Richard Beavers contended that his eponymous gallery had been unfairly excluded from the 2022 Untitled art fair. He stated that he was told after he had submitted his application that "the selection committee felt there has been too much Black figurative art in 2021." The Brooklyn, New York based gallery not only has a roster of successful artists, but also participated in the 2021 Untitled art fair. Untitled runs parallel to Art Basel which is held every December in Miami, Florida.

Beaver continued by saying that he was informed that Untitled was "only interested in moving in the direction of traditional African-American abstract art." It is unclear what even constitutes "traditional African-American abstract art" but, more importantly, why can't figurative and abstract works simply be judged on their own merits? Ironically, the directive is the same type of censorship that influential White gallerists employed in the late 1960s and 1970s that helped to marginalize African-American abstract artists whose works they considered apolitical and not representative of Black Americans.

Perhaps the most damning charge that Beavers made is that White-owned galleries exploit a biased selection process by marketing their art fair access to Blacks artists who they seek to poach from excluded Black-owned galleries.

Not being included in an influential art fair is not an insignificant concern since these fairs largely determine which Black artists are "hot." The designation results in more media exposure and interest in these artists from private and institutional collectors. The large White galleries that represent the sought after Black artists then determine which collectors have access to the "hot" artists' work. Subsequently, African-American collectors frequently complain that they don't get offered the prime works, if they get anything offered at all.

It's foreseeable in the near future that, aside from a few superstars, Black artists could be marginalized at the more prestigious art fairs.

Another plausible scenario is a replication of what happens in popular music. To better market to elite White collectors, powerful galleries could begin to represent White artists whose work is centered on Black subjects. The need for or importance of a Black perspective (i.e. artists of African descent) could then be diminished through slick marketing jargon centered on a "global perspective."

While things are still going relatively well, it may be the perfect time for Black collectors to think about how they can take steps to mitigate the devaluation of their acquisitions if the art market retreats from Black art. It begins with asking: 

What Black-owned entities, including galleries, museums and cultural institutions and/or emerging Black artists are you regularly supporting financially to advance artists of African descent?

One step to broadening the market is for more Black collectors committing to hosting private art salons. This is how earlier generations of middle class African-American collectors routinely acquainted their fellow collectors to new Black artists when the mainstream art market had no interest in the work. Most important, these Black collectors networks, through their acquisitions and advocacy, sustained emerging artists and acted as stewards of the culture for decades.

Pamela Joyner | Credit: Architectural Digest | Artwork by Frank Boing and Alma Thomas 

John and Vivian Hewitt began acquiring work in the early 1950s and amassed a collection of 58 works. They frequently showed the work of then-emerging artists and, in the process, acquired works by Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett, and Henry Ossawa Tanner. Their collection subsequently became the foundation for the permanent collection at Harvey B. Gantt Center for African Art and Culture in Charlotte, N.C.

San Francisco collector Pamela Joyner almost single-handedly revived interest in mid-20th century abstract artists, such as Norman Lewis, Alma Thomas and Frank Bowling through her patronage, which included private viewing of her collection for collectors, curators, historians and museum acquisition committee members.

Across the country, younger Black collectors are quietly hosting exhibitions in their homes and more need to join their ranks. Art salons can be produced on any budget.

If history has shown us anything, it's that there is an ebb and flow in the art market. This means that certain types of art, as well as celebrated artists, can suddenly become passé. With regards to Black culture production, there's an added layer of diminution of value and erasure of Black creatives. This process invariably begins with White ownership then moves on to the replacing of Black creatives with White ones.

African Americans need not abandon the established art market or stop attending art fairs, but they should be investing in and developing galleries, museums and art collectives for the day when art created by people of African descent is no longer in demand by wealthy White collectors or the galleries that serve them.

 

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 also a cultural critic and author.

 

 

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