By: Sheila Gibson Stoodley
African-American art has come a long way since 1876. In that year, at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, artist Edward Mitchell Bannister won the bronze medal, the top prize for painting, but was denied the chance to attend the award ceremony when officials realized he wasn’t white. Exactly 100 years later,Two Centuries of Black American Art, a groundbreaking show that appeared at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the High Museum in Atlanta, the Museum of Fine Arts, Dallas, and the Brooklyn Museum, raised public awareness and was followed by scores of others that examined art made by African-Americans. American institutions also assisted the cause by purchasing African-American art for their permanent collections. Perhaps the highest-profile museum showcase is the General Motors Center for African American Art at the Detroit Institute of Arts, which launched in 2000 and now has five galleries to ensure that a rotating selection of 80 works from its collection, 500 strong and growing, is always on show.
The 1980s and ’90s saw the opening of many galleries that carry pieces by a wide range of African-American artists—the June Kelly Gallery, the DC Moore Gallery and the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, among others. Scholarship on African-American art flourished in the latter half of the 20th century, uncovering information on little-known and unknown artists and allowing a fuller picture of African-American art history to emerge. In some cases the frontiers of knowledge were explored by African-American artists themselves, most prominently by Romare Bearden and David Driskell. Even popular culture made a contribution: Bill Cosby is a leading collector of African American art and placed it on the set of his hit 1980s sitcom, The Cosby Show, exposing it to millions of viewers.
The growth in African-American art is reflected in auction results as well. At a Sotheby’s sale in New York in 1981, Cosby’s wife, Camille, paid $275,000 for Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Thankful Poor, an 1894 canvas depicting an elderly man and a child saying grace over a meager dinner table. The sum turned heads for robustly exceeding its $40,000–50,000 estimate. Twenty-six years later the White House Acquisition Trust purchased Jacob Lawrence’s 1947 tempera on board, The Builders, a colorful scene of overall-clad black and white men hoisting planks and climbing ladders, for $2.5 million at Christie’s New York, setting a record for the artist. It was not the first artwork by an African-American to grace the walls of the White House, however. The Clintons installed Tanner’s circa 1885 landscape canvas Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City, in the White House’s Green Room in 1996, the same room where First Lady Laura Bush later hung the Lawrence.
All these developments have awakened people to the variety, breadth and depth of African-American art. Black artists have done straightforward depictions of African-American life (as in the work of Tanner and Lawrence), played with traditional stereotypes of African-Americans (as in the paper silhouettes of contemporary artist Kara Walker) and plunged wholeheartedly into the realm of experimental modernism (as in the colorful abstracts of Norman Lewis and the collages of Romare Bearden). Bridget Moore, president of DC Moore in New York, says interest in African-American art has “definitely broadened” since she opened the gallery 15 years ago. “There’s more interest and more understanding. When people start to look, they look with a greater base of knowledge.”
Interest in African-American art is unlikely to lose momentum anytime soon. Last month ground broke in Savannah, Ga., on the Walter O. Evans Center for African-American Studies, a new 90,000-square-foot complex at the Savannah College of Art and Design that could be completed as early as 2013. It will include several galleries where art history students and others will view 70 African-American artworks donated by Evans, a retired surgeon and a collector of African-American art. The National Center of Afro-American Artists in Boston has announced plans to build a 60,000-square-foot extension of its museum. And the centennial of the birth of Bearden, one of the most-celebrated African-American artists, occurs in 2011.
The rising fortunes extend beyond Tanner and Lawrence. Bill Hodges, who founded his namesake gallery in New York in 1994 and makes a specialty of Lewis, says, “A $30,000 Norman Lewis work 15 years ago might be worth $140,000 today.” Charlotte Sherman, director of the 49-year-old Heritage Gallery in Pacific Palisades, Calif., recalls selling Charles White drawings for $1,500 and observes that some now fetch $250,000. “Yet that’s still below the market for contemporary art. All African-American artists are,” she says. “African-American artists have been painting since the late 18th century, but only recently has the public recognized the value of the art. The prices for the artworks have gone up exponentially in the last three or four years, but they’ve not reached contemporary values in the contemporary market. They should, and they will, but they just haven’t reached that level. I think the recession has halted things temporarily. When you can sell a drawing for $250,000 and a painting for $2.5 million, there’s no reason they couldn’t double that.”
Another force that has transformed the market is Swann Galleries, a New York auction house that held its first dedicated African-American fine art sale in February 2007. Nigel Freeman, director of the department, which is the only one of its kind in the auction world, convinced president Nicholas Lowry to launch it after demonstrating that a market need was going unfilled. “I had worked in the works on paper department. Whenever we received a unique work by an African-American artist, it would sell, but it would come to us in a haphazard way,” Freeman says, recalling. He sought an opportunity to show that a group of African-American artworks could perform at auction and got it in September 2005, when Swann was offered a collection of Bearden pieces that had belonged to Harry Henderson, a writer who collaborated with the artist on the 1993 book A History of African American Artists: From 1792 to the Present. Two collages, Pittsburgh and Family, which had appeared in a Bearden retrospective at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., sold for $106,375 each. It was the first time that Bearden collages had garnered more than $100,000 at auction. “The test, of course, is the market itself,” says Freeman. “Whenever something sells for six figures, it gets attention.”
Since 2007 Swann has established track records for dozens of African-American artists who had previously lacked them, and it has set dozens of records for artists at auction as well. Aaron Douglas’ Building More Stately Mansions, a 1944 oil painting, sold for $600,000, four times its high estimate, in February 2008. Charles White’s General Moses (Harriet Tubman), a heroically sized (47 by 68 inches) 1965 ink drawing of the heroine of the Underground Railroad, earned $360,000 in October 2007, exceeding its high estimate by $110,000. Untitled (circa 1960–64), a cool-colored abstract painted by Norman Lewis, garnered $312,000 in an October 2008 sale, soaring past its $150,000–200,000 estimate. Hughie Lee-Smith, Elizabeth Catlett, Hale Woodruff, Augusta Savage, Benny Andrews and Whitfield Lovell are just some of the other African-American artists for whom Swann has set records. It will hold its next African-American fine art auction on Feb. 23 in New York (see “Swann’s Way,” page 54).
Swann further distinguishes itself by choosing to use the term “African-American.” While some dealers embrace the phrase—Eric Hanks, director of the M. Hanks Gallery in Santa Monica, Calif., says, “I’m not ashamed to call it African-American art and I’m not afraid of it”—this attitude is not universally held. A fair number of dealers who handle this material prefer to draw little or no attention to the artists’ race.
“I don’t like the idea of pinpointing and putting artists into boxes,” says Kelly, director of the 24-year-old namesake gallery. “I like people to see the whole picture. If you came to the gallery and I said the name James Little, you wouldn’t know he’s an African-American artist. There’s no way to know. What I try to do is open up their eyes to see. The art is not pegged by ethnicity, but pegged by the joy they receive from it.”
Furthermore, Kelly no longer holds shows of works by African-American artists in February, which is Black History Month in the U.S. “People only came to me during that month and I never saw them again. It was a waste of my time, and my artists are beyond that,” she says, adding, “African-Americans have been part of America since it began. Their contributions are so important, and it takes time to educate people. It has to be ongoing, not just one month.”
Freeman defends Swann’s use of “African-American” by pointing to the positive effect that its African-American art sales have had. “In the last three years we’ve offered over 100 artists who haven’t been at auction before,” he says. “A lot of these important artists had just not been included. As long as that is the case, it justifies having a separate sale.”
Walter Evans, who has collected African-American art since 1978, says Swann has had a “major, major, major influence” on the African-American art auction market. “I have purchased from all the other auction houses, but the amount of material they handle is so limited. When Swann came along and saw what the audience was, the others expanded what they had for African-American art,” he says, adding, “Is this the best way to handle it? Probably not, but it works. Otherwise, there would be no pressure on the major auction houses to sell these works. Since Swann came in, it expanded the stable of artists, which had been very limited.”
Of course, if Swann’s African-American fine art department continues to succeed in its mission, it could ultimately put itself out of business. “It would be a good thing if African-American art could be merged into the mainstream,” says Hanks. “It’s got a little ways to go before that happens, but it’s getting there.” Evans agrees: “There’s been an explosion of interest in African-American art. It’s a good thing that will lead to the day when African-American art is American art. I would like to see that day come.”
The New York auction house readies for its first African-American Art sale of 2010.
The star lot at Swann Galleries’ African American Fine Art sale on February 23 will be Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, a recently rediscovered 1928–29 masterwork by Malvin Gray Johnson that Swann has estimated at $200,000–250,000. Nigel Freeman, director of the African American fine art department, says it will be the first Johnson painting to come to auction and should inspire spirited bidding due to its quality and rarity; Swing Low, Sweet Chariot received widespread acclaim upon its debut in 1929, and Johnson is known to have made only 60 works during his short life. “Not just to have a Malvin Gray Johnson, but to have the Malvin Gray Johnson, his most famous painting, is great,” Freeman says.
Also in the lineup are Untitled (Couple on a Rooftop), a classic Lee-Smith scene of people on an urban roof, rendered between 1953 and 1957 ($50,000–75,000); Children’s Hour, a 1960 Charles White drawing of a boy seated beneath a tree ($60,000–90,000); Untitled (Standing Woman), a tan-glazed terra-cotta figure sculpted by Sargent Johnson circa 1933–35 ($30,000–50,000); Jackie Sha-La-La (Jackie Cameron), a 50- by 60-inch 1970 painting by Barkley L. Hendricks of a woman seated on a couch, her eyes hidden beneath the wide brim of a black hat ($40,000–60,000); and a 1977 body print by David Hammons ($80,000–100,000).
DC Moore Gallery, New York
Through Feb. 6
African American Masterworks
M. Hanks Gallery, Santa Monica, Calif.
Through March 27
From Process to Print:
Graphic Works by Romare Bearden
Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, Baltimore
Through March 28
The Arthur Primas Collection: 200 Years of African American Art
Irving Arts Center, Irving, Texas
Through March 28
African-Americans: Seeing and Seen, 1766–1916
Babcock Galleries, New York
Through April 2
Bill Hodges Gallery, New York
DC Moore Gallery, New York
The General Motors Center for African-American Art, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit
Heritage Gallery, Pacific Palisades, Calif.
June Kelly Gallery, New York
M. Hanks Gallery, Santa Monica, Calif.
Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York
The Savannah College of Art and Design
Museum of Art, Savannah, Ga.
Swann Galleries, New York