Art Basel Deserves Some ‘Black Artworld’ Respect
by Debra Hand
First off, I have to start with a confession. I did something very wrong during a recent interview. I recounted a story that only represented a small part of the truth.
I didn’t mean to do it, and it didn’t hit me until afterwards that mistakes like this are part of what divides us racially. So let me self-correct by never telling this certain story again without also flipping the coin and telling what was on the other side.
Okay, what had happened was…
During the aforementioned interview, I was answering a question about once working in technology. The interviewer suggested that I was apparently extra smart to have excelled in that field. However, I felt it had been primarily my determination that caused me to excel at the job, rather than natural brilliance.
To make my point, I shared a story about a White dude who had been unkind to me when I was new to a mostly White male technology department.
This dude’s arrogant, unwelcoming attitude fueled my determination to prove I was smart enough to be his professional peer. More importantly, I wasn’t about to be his proof that Black people were somehow inferior thinkers when it came to technology. So it was on. And, in the end, I became great at that job.
In fact, I became a go-to person for complex technical issues. Eventually, even the arrogant dude humbled himself to seek my help when technical questions left him stumped. You might say “All’s well, ends well,” but here’s the problem with that story…
There were also a few other White dudes in that same department who went out of their way to help me, or to even buffer me from the treatment of the first dude I mentioned. They took the time to help me learn and to share their vast experiences. They buoyed me up when the arrogant co-worker tried to make me feel inept. They contributed greatly to me becoming good at that job, despite the person who would have rather seen me fail.
All along my technical journey, there have been moments where select White dudes were willing to step in and give me the game—helping me to discover my potential, despite the fact that racism existed in parallel during those moments.
Of course, this is how life should be in every facet of society: All of us lifting each other up and stepping up to make life fair for those whose paths are obstructed by unjust people or systems. Since society is far from reflecting such an ideal, for the most part anyway, I have to be intentional about recognizing those of other races who take it upon themselves to assure that Black excellence can rise on its own merits and shine in the forefront.
In Black art, helping Black excellence shine cannot happen by accident—no more than having kept it from the spotlight ‘historically’ has happened by accident. So I’ve always had a special affinity for those who go out of their way to shine a spotlight on Black art “on purpose.”
One such person was Julius Rosenwald. His legacy should be known throughout the artworld. His philanthropic efforts supported the careers of countless Black artists and thinkers. According to his biography, “The Julius Rosenwald Fund warded fellowships to nearly nine hundred [Black] artists, musicians, writers, educators, scientists and scholars—eventually representing the largest and most influential single patron of African-American arts and letters in the twentieth century. Rosenwald provided the seed-money for 5000 schools to help educate African Americans. Maya Angelou and Congressman John Lewis, among the many iconic alumni, and artist Charles White, among the art fellows recipients.”
Rosenwald had great power, wealth, and influence; and he eagerly used it for the betterment of humanity. He maintained a keen focus on cultivating Black talent and helping Black artists navigate the maze of opposition created by racial and economic factors. He believed in the potential of Black creativity and wanted to see Black artists thrive.
Rosenwald’s legacy is too impactful and far-reaching to be adequately covered within the scope of one article, but when it comes to White dudes who step up, no one has out-stepped him to this day. So when I think of this category of people in the world, he comes to mind first.
Then, of course, I give big props to the dudes who said (about me) during my technology days, “she deserves a fair chance.” Those men then stepped up to make sure I got that chance.
Where racism might be thrust upon my life, and I have no choice but to endure or confront it, there is a world of people for whom this issue does not exist (unless they step up to acknowledge and fight against its existence). This is what is happening on a large scale across America now. Many are stepping up to say, “I am an American. This is my problem to confront as well.”
This is why I felt bad after the interview I’d done. In my haste to illustrate a point about one rude co-worker, I failed to give credit to all the others. This brings me to Art Basel and why they deserve some Black artworld respect right about now. In recent months, they have gotten something “really right” and it is setting a great example for the mainstream artworld.
First of all, no one would argue that Art Basel resides at the tip-top of the food chain when it comes to the mainstream artworld: who’s in, what’s hot…a lot of it funnels through Art Basel’s art fair. It’s where all things related to the mainstream artworld coalesce into one big spectacle. It all gets presented there: mega galleries, art stars, art trends; the hoopla and fanfare of sky-rocketing price tags, record sales, deep-pocket collectors, and neon-color haired, party-hardy spectators. It is a global travelling extravaganza of artworld influence kept in place by the g-force of Art Basel’s well-earned global reputation.
When Art Basel speaks, the global artworld listens. So when Art Basel created Intersections, a podcast for the educational consumption of its immense global audience—then shockingly came right out of the gate featuring Black artists, plus varying shades of women affecting the artworld—well, excuse me, but I have to tuck my program under my arm so I can jump up and applaud with firm, zealous palms. “Bravo! Bravo! Encore!”
On top of that, the podcast, which is sponsored by UBS, is superb!
The secret sauce is the host and Global Director of Art Basel, Marc Spiegler. Spiegler boldly broaches the subject of Black art, dares to mention the word appropriation, and investigates the impact and contribution of precisely those creatives, collectors, and gallerists whose color and/or gender rarely claim the main stage in the mainstream artworld.
But here’s what I really like about this podcast: Spiegler, although an expert in art markets, listens when it comes to Black art. He is listening and learning, rather than over-lording and directing. He makes room for the true experts of Black art (the actual creatives) to narrate their own experiences and perceptions thereof.
Spiegler’s obvious intelligence is apparent in both his questions and responses. Yet, without interrupting the flow of his guests, he manages to contribute his significant expertise to the subject of art and art markets while creating ample space for his podcast guests to narrate their own journeys through Black creativity, female entrepreneurship in the arts, or whatever the subject-matter is at hand.
Having done his homework, his added insights are informative and thought-provoking.
Marc Spiegler doesn’t just share the prestigious Art Basel platform with these guests (so far Black and/or female), but he hands over the megaphone to let the mainstream artworld hear loudly and clearly from those whose story it is to tell: the creative and collectors who are living it.
Spiegler allows Intersections and himself to serve as conduits for these relevant stories without trying to edit them as they transmit out on this far-reaching platform, the influence of which is global. This alone is potentially game-changing for Black art—namely, sharing with Black art a global platform that helps the mainstream artworld learn more about why we create, why we collect, and why our narrative needs to stand on its own merits and within the context of its own relevance.
Also, Spiegler is asking the big questions that could lead to real change. In an interview with the Black collector, Pamela Joyner, Spiegler asked, “How do you think [collectively] we can do a better job of not making culture an elite product?”
Like…What?! In the words of Shakespeare, “That is the question.” This question alone confronts the status quo on a level where this conversation matters most. Spiegler is not shying away from the hard truths. He’s addressing them honestly and boldly. So, speaking of giving credit where it’s due, Intersections, along with Art Basel, UBS, and Marc Spiegler, all deserve a standing-O.
Obviously the Intersections podcast covers all kinds of art by every race—not just Black art. In fact, one of the podcast episodes is about the ‘80s-‘90s New York art scene as told from the perspective of gallerist, Lisa Spellman and artist, Kim Gordon, women who personally contributed to those times.
The fact that Spiegler has come right out of the gate demonstrating a commitment to featuring a diverse slate of artists and collectors, this is great news for the art world! So far the podcast guests, which have all been riveting in conversation, have included Black creatives, David Adjaye and Swizz Beatz, and on the scholarship side of the subject, the collector, Pamela Joyner.
Black Art scholarship requires research and fact finding; the documenting and storing up of significant information in repositories where it is catalogued for retrieval by researchers and scholars. It requires archives through which timelines and activities can be established and contextualized for migration into the larger art historical narrative and canon of American art.
This has been the groundwork of Black Art in America for more than a decade. Long before Black art became a celebrated topic, each and every activity needed to create a place of scholarship for this subject was being firmly cornerstoned by this publication. Now, at this unprecedented moment in American art history, as the mainstream artworld beams its focus on Black art, here stands an online institution ready to illuminate a hidden history with relevant historical facts mixed with contemporary Black art narratives, images, conversations, and commentary.
Fortunately, for the mainstream artworld, here stands a foremost archive for those new to Black art, or for those steeped in Black art and in search of content relevant to this topic. So, in giving credit where it’s due, please join me in a standing ovation to this publication’s contribution to this exciting time in Black art.
And, as always, please feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below.
Stay strong, artists and collectors!
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DEBRA HAND is a museum-collected sculptor, painter, and writer. She is the creator of the historic bronze statue of Paul Laurence Dunbar in Dunbar Park. Among the history makers who own her works are former President Barack Obama; Hillary Clinton; Harry Belafonte; Cicely Tyson; Smokey Robinson; Yo-Yo Ma; Spike Lee; Seal; Sinbad; and the renowned sculptor, Richard Hunt; the late Winnie Mandela, and the late Dr. Maya Angelou also owned her work. Debra Hand holds a Master of Science Degree from the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University. She is a self-taught artist whose talent was discovered by the legendary Dr. Margaret Burroughs, principal founder of the DuSable Museum. It was Burroughs who arranged for Hand’s first public exhibit.
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