Amending Black Narratives To Expand American Art History: Seismic Change In Artist Empowerment, Honest Scholarship, Gallery Representation, And Museum Leadership Fuels Burgeoning Market
By Natasha Gural
More than half a century after the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 1969 disputed exhibition Harlem on My Mind organized by all-white curators provoked protests from Black artists and cultural critics for taking an insular perspective and disregarding seminal works, artists, and scholarship, a comprehensive American art history is beginning to take shape.
The art world has transformed dramatically over the last four decades, with long-overdue recognition for legendary Black Modernist masters whose work is finally priced alongside white peers, and growing appreciation for contemporary artists of color. More galleries and publications are recognizing the need to display and promote Black artists alongside their white counterparts, approaching an accurate overview of American art history.
In recent months, key hires at major institutions signal a positive shift toward thoughtfully formulating a revised narrative. Notably, The Metropolitan Museum of Art hired Akili Tommasino, a scholar of the 20th century avant-garde, as associate curator in the Modern and Contemporary Art department, and the Guggenheim Museum named Naomi Beckwith as its first-ever Black deputy director and chief curator. While some administrative posts purporting to celebrate diversity may be symbolic, the overall transfer of power is a positive move toward creating parity and a genuine account of American art.
“I don’t say Black art, I say American art, because it’s part of the American story,” said Reginald M. Browne, a financier and art collector who serves on non-profit boards mostly focused on the arts, including the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA).
Demand for Norman Lewis’ work soared quickly after Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis opened at PAFA in 2015. The discovery that year of Lewis’ large oil on linen canvas Untitled (circa 1958) led to a record sale for the artist, fetching nearly $1 million and handily surpassing an estimate of between $250,000 and $350,000 at Swann Auction Galleries. During the PAFA exhibition, Lewis’ brilliant blue Ritual, referencing his calligraphic paintings of the Ku Klux Klan, was owned by Chicago-based advertising mogul Thomas J. Burrell, who convinced corporations that “Black people are not dark-skinned white people.” Burrell sold and consigned the work to a St. Louis collector, who put it up for sale at Sotheby’s New York in 2019, where Gabriel Catone of New York art advisory firm Ruth|Catone paid $2.7 million, crushing the estimate of between $700,000 and $1 million.
“Norman Lewis’ work went from $15,000 to $1 million overnight,” said Browne. “That signifies a period of time that museums and curators recognize that their collections were under-represented by artists of color. I think that during this time period, museums have made a collective effort, some of it uneven, to put more representation around their mission to make sure American art includes artists of color. Now museums are demanding it. So are individual collectors. We’re seeing collectors of all stripes wanting to acquire African-American art.”
In 1956, Lewis and Jacob Lawrence were the only African-American artists featured in the 28th Venice Biennale. A year later, Lewis rose to prominence with a series of solo exhibitions at the Marian Willard Gallery in New York, but his work never sold for market value until 36 years after his death in 1979.
“Artists like Titus Kaphar, who paints historical figures and asks appropriate questions: ‘Where was the person of color at that time?,” said Browne, of the painter, sculptor, filmmaker, and installation artist who challenges history by deconstructing classical structures and styles of visual representation in Western art. “I think that you will have more examples of redefining the American narrative. …. (Art history) is being amended, I won’t say rewritten. It’s being amended to include a larger ensemble of people. And I think that’s positive. I think that art schools are recognizing their role and impressing a balanced broad spectrum in their teaching practices. I think that there’s positive change that is coming, and is happening. I think that it’s here to stay just because you have so many different elements that are challenging it, you have not only a demand for increased board diversity, on a museum level, you have demand for more people of color to sit in the curator spots.”
Photographer Dawoud Bey notes that “Sam Gilliam and Martin Puryear have been in the collections and all the walls of almost every major American museum for decades now. So this is not exactly a new and sudden emergence. This interest in Black artist’s work has a very long history. Galleries sell what clients and the market wants. So as long as the interest remains, the galleries will do what is right for them.”
Describing galleries as intrinsic to “mainstream retail and capitalism,” Dr. Greg Shannon, a gastroenterologist and art collector, said there “have always been stallworths like Bill Hodges of New York, Stella Jones Gallery in New Orleans, and more recently BAIA and Richard Beavers.” Outside of the Black community, ACA, Michael Rosenfeld, and Jack Shainman are among the mainstream galleries that “have always been tried and true to this mission.” Others, continued Shannon, like David Kordansky, Hauser and Wirth, Salon 94, Pace, Stephen Friedman, and David Zwirner “have picked up the call to arms to take things to the next level.”
Browne says the broader landscape is slowly transforming to include more Black artists being recognized for their accomplishments in their lifetimes.
“This is a positive trend, where the entire American story or narrative has been woven into the museum landscape,” said Browne. “The moment is happening.”
That “moment” includes the 2019 exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay focused on the use of overlooked black models throughout art, and building on Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today, which premiered at Columbia University’s Wallach Art Gallery in New York in 2018. Renaming Édouard Manet’s “Laure” from “Olympia,” the maid who also appears in Children in the Tuileries Gardens and La Négresse (Portrait of Laure) was a catalyst.
Shannon said the growing demand for work by Black artists and the newfound acceptance by many galleries coincides with “a shift in institutions to ‘fill in blanks’ as they realize some very amazing and important artists and their works were passed over if ever seen at all.”
“Institutions that lie within the community should reflect the community and I feel in my heart museums are starting to get this point. Of course that should include diversity and inclusion with regard to academic/museum staff, curatorial staff, museum boards, inclusion on different committees etc.,” said Shannon. “These are important in helping this to continue to move forward. I’m seeing some of that happen in institutions across America and I think this will continue to get even better over time.”
These hires are “monumental,” said Shannon, adding that “for positions like chief diversity officer to grow and become permanent and mainstream, we need more people who truly believe in diversity on boards and as directors at these museums. That’s the larger hurdle I believe. But one I think that is slowly changing. These individuals will help to keep the diversity officer in place. Without those higher ups then that position won’t make it.”
“Recent hires of art professionals of African descent underscore the fact that the limitation of a Eurocentric institutional perspective promises that they will no longer be relevant or sustainable, unless they examine historical materialism from the viewpoint of an inclusive human visual history,” said scholar Halima Taha, author of the seminal book, Collecting African American Art: Works on Paper and Canvas.
Activist artists such as Benny Andrews “themselves began to challenge institutions for inclusion,” said David Houston, executive director of the Frank Gehry-designed Ohr O’Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi, Mississippi, and a professor and author of more than 40 books, exhibition catalogs, and articles on architecture, art, and photography. He describes the art world as an ecology, with consumers, interpreters who create tension and value, and major collections and museums. “That generation wasn’t using a common vocabulary and language, they were being innovative, pushing that boundary.”
In January 1969, a group of artists met at Andrews’ studio to organize the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC) to protest the upcoming exhibition Harlem on My Mind: The Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900-1968 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, opposing its exclusion of Harlem residents and artists from the exhibition and its planning. The BECC picketed the museum and encouraged a boycott of the opening reception.
The Met “organized an exhibition without input from African-American community. And they used a lot of artists’ works without even discussing it with them or getting permission,” said Houston. “That was the moment that kind of solidified the importance of the coalition who managed to protest, and that was really the beginning of this arc of public challenges, that forced institutions to at least pretend to be more inclusive.”
“Thirty years ago, you would not see David Hammons in the history of America. He was wildly experimental, very talented, and disrespectful of the game of the art world,” said Houston. “It took a while for David to be acclaimed for his major significance.”
“I think there’s a knee jerk reaction among institutions, especially museums. And I think that that can create a certain kind of superficial reality as to why institutions are embracing artists of color,” warned Houston. “I remember sitting and talking to him in the living room around this dining table, and having a conversation about his work. Even though he’s a self-taught artist from rural Alabama, it was the same conversation I have with any other artist about inspiration and process. A lot of curators just will not venture to have those conversations.
While the media has created a narrow dialogue that recent social uprising and growing intolerance for police brutality has sparked a renaissance for Black art, Shannon said “I suspect it has more to do with looking at people of color’s overall plight, which has recently been stoked, and asking ‘Why have these people and their fine contributions been excluded?’”
Bey, an educator best known for his large-scale art photography and street photography portraits, stresses that Black culture has always shaped global and national culture, across music, fashion, literature, sports, and myriad forms of entertainment.
“The rise of Black art in the contemporary marketplace is more a result of its increasing relationship to popular culture than a response to systemic racism and the struggles against that,” said Bey. “When Diddy recently successfully bid $21 million for a Kerry James Marshall painting that impacts not only Marshall’s market but the entire market for Black art, a rising tide lifts all boats indeed.”
In the 1980s, “artists started becoming celebrities of sorts, and the artists and the dealers did this dance together. And then in the 1990s, it shifted to the big collectors and the privatization of museums,” said Houston.
Living artists began earning six-figures for their work in the 1980s, “which seems rather quaint right now,” said Houston. “But the mechanisms of celebrity and marketing really overtook the mechanisms of scholarship in history. Magazines, the mechanisms of fame that used to be applied to the entertainment and sports industry, became part and parcel of the art market.”
“The primary impact of the front and center presence of artists of African descent in a global art arena is that the western canon for aesthetics, beauty and culture is no longer the only cultural model for substantive and meritorious work of value,” said Taha.
Taha added: “The art world is experiencing the Christopher Columbus syndrome when it comes to American artists of African descent. Not only is the art world discovering what already existed but so many of the leading galleries are hypocrites because many of them, from the 1970s through the 1990s, either refused to look at meritorious work within the context of the American art canon or turned away many of the artists they currently represent because they said, ‘We don’t sell Black art’.”
When Taha co-owned, with photographer Frank Stewart, the Onyx Art Gallery, first in Gramercy Park (New York) to sell abstract art by African-American artists, she acquired works on canvas and paper by famous artists such as Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett, and Terry Adkins. She said the uptown, SoHo, and later Chelsea galleries, would not show works by prominent Black artists.
“The current appetite for Black visual culture is fueled by the fact that the white male artists who were championed from the mid-20th century to present have died, and are not producing work, hence the best work is off the market,” said Taha. “Museums and the art market need the peers of these ‘great white male wonders’ to fill in historic and aesthetic gaps, as well as create bookends to veil their documented history of exclusion, inequity and a lack of intellectual and cultural diversity in their American art collections.”
“The most enduring impact of the recent interest in African-American art is that many curators, collectors and art professionals realize that their art historical ”miseducation’ disqualifies them from any claim of expertise because they have been promoters and beneficiaries of a culturally biased and lopsided view of aesthetics and history,” said Taha. “More importantly, their Eurocentric worldview is limited by the finite and restrictive reign of colonialism that is still pervasive in the psyche of the art world, which reluctantly wants to acknowledge that it has never been American artists of African descent who segregated themselves from the art world or marketplace. And now that their presence is enhanced by the global ecosystem of the art fair, more sophisticated and educated art collectors are fixated on the ideas presented and the quality of the work, whereas America remains fixated on the compartmentalized moniker of ‘Black art’.”
Under pressure to become “better civic neighbors and better and more inclusive custodians of art and art history,” said Bey, “public museums need to continue to work harder to have the works they exhibit to be a reflection of their diverse publics. And other museums are realizing that it doesn’t bode well for their futures as 21st-century institutions to remain exclusionary institutions as the population demographics continue to diversify. They also can’t afford to run the risk of irrelevancy.”
“The challenge in the future will be to make sure that the works of Black artists are written about, talked about, and published alongside non-Black artists, to realize that this work is American art made by a Black artist, and that is part of an ongoing continuation of the evolution of American art,” said Bey. “There are increasingly more publications devoted to the works of Black artists. Still, it is important to make sure that this is not seen as tangential to the broader conversation but central to it and that those works are included in that broader conversation.”
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Natasha Gural is a multiple award-winning journalist, writer, and editor with 30 years of editorial experience, including executive roles at The Associated Press, Dow Jones, and Markets Media. A student of literature, art history, and studio art, Natasha has learned from leading scholars at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Oxford University, Clark University, and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Natasha has been writing about art since 2002, for multiple publications, including The Associated Press and Forbes. She has traveled extensively to cover major art fairs and events, interviewing a wide array of world-renowned and emerging artists, as well as curators, art historians, collectors, scholars, and aesthetes. Her last contact with the global art world was covering TEFAF Maastricht in 2020. Natasha enjoys observing every level of the creative process, from inception to installation, in studios, galleries, and various spaces. Passionate about the art world, Natasha embraces every opportunity to engage key players to better understand and explain the changing dynamic. She seeks to accurately portray the art ecosystem in an ongoing process that immerses her in the art world. A first-generation American, Natasha was raised bilingual and has always been drawn to the innovators, rebels, and outsiders who break down boundaries and strive to broaden the continuum of art history. Her goal is always to fairly and accurately represent the accomplishments of artists in an effort to collectively celebrate the arts.
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