Thursday, April 11, 2013

Not a black-and-white issue
Museums are buying African-American art to make their collections more representative, but the market remains lukewarm—for now

Swann’s earnings from its auctions of African-American art have been rising steadily since 2007, but prices for most artists remain relatively low. The top lot in the February sale was Barkley Hendricks’s The Hawk, Blah, Blah, Blah, 1970, which sold for $132,000 (est $75,000-$100,000)
Major US museums are increasingly focusing on African-American art when it comes to making acquisitions, despite the fact that this area is still overlooked by the market.
New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has been “making an effort to increase the number of works by African-Americans”, says Ann Temkin, the chief curator in the museum’s department of painting and sculpture. “In the past decade, it has become a curatorial priority to look at whether our holdings are reflecting the history of art made by African-Americans.” The museum recently acquired 12 works by six African-American artists, including David Hammons’s sculpture Untitled (Night Train), 1989 (donated by A.C. Hudgins, one of the museum’s trustees), John Outterbridge’s assemblage Broken Dance, Ethnic Heritage Series, 1978-82, and Melvin Edwards’s The Lifted X, 1965 (both of which were bought). Half of the works were included in the exhibition “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-80”, which travelled from the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles to MoMA PS1 last year. The show “introduced us to a number of artists on the West Coast, many of whom we had not heard of before”, Temkin says.

In 2002, the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore set up a $1m fund to buy African-American art from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Board members and the local African-American philanthropists Eddie and C. Sylvia Brown made a donation of $500,000, which the museum then matched. Before this, “there were no African-American works in the collection”, says the museum’s director, Gary Vikan. The number of African-American visitors to the museum has tripled since 2006, and now comprises 20% of the annual attendance figure. “We take our relationship with the community in which we live very seriously,” Vikan says.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, had just three works by African-American artists in 2001, but now has 108, says Elliot Davis, the chair of the museum’s art of the Americas department. The number of African-American visitors “has increased dramatically since 2010”, when the art of the Americas wing opened, Davis says, adding that the addition of more work by African-American artists has created “a sense of greater welcoming”.

Collectors say they appreciate the effort. Walter Evans, a retired surgeon from Savannah, Georgia, began collecting in the mid-1970s because he felt that museums were not properly representing African-American art. “I had young daughters, and I liked taking them to museums, but African-American art was lacking,” he says. “I realised that the only way my daughters would know these artists existed was to buy their work myself.”

The auction houses and dealers are not paying particular attention to the area, however. “The market isn’t broad enough and the price point isn’t high enough,” says Debra Force, formerly the head of American paintings at Christie’s and now a private dealer in New York. Peter Rathbone, formerly the director of the American art department at Sotheby’s, has acted as a consultant to the department since retiring in 2008. He says that the auction house has not “actively looked for African-American material… I’m not familiar with many of the artists. I’ve never handled them before.” Leslie Hindman, the owner of the eponymous Chicago-based auctioneers, says it is “a nice, fun category”. Hindman held two small sales of African-American art in 2012. These totalled $96,343 and $201,250, with most works selling for three- or four-figure sums.

Seemingly, the only auction house dedicated to expanding the area is Swann Auction Galleries, which has been holding biannual auctions of African-American art since 2007. Nigel Freeman, the director of the firm’s African-American art department, says: “We were the first auction house to sell any of their work, and we continue to get consignments of important works by these and other artists based on those successes.”

Swann’s earnings from its auctions of African-American art have been rising steadily since 2007, ranging from $900,000 to the $1.6m total achieved at its 147-lot auction in February. But prices for most artists remain relatively low. The top lot in the February sale was Barkley Hendricks’s painting The Hawk, Blah, Blah, Blah, 1970, which sold for $132,000 (est $75,000-$100,000).

For the market to really motor, galleries need to play a bigger role in promoting African-American art, says George N’Namdi, whose galleries in Chicago, Detroit and Miami regularly stage exhibitions focusing on African-American art. “The goal of auction houses isn’t to create value, but to get things out the door,” he says. “A large part of what I do is educate people about a group of artists they may not have heard of.”

Others say that there should be less separation from the mainstream. Elisabeth Sann, the associate director of New York’s Jack Shainman Gallery, which represents African-American artists including Hendricks and Kerry James Marshall, says: “Our goal is to erase the line between contemporary and African-American art.”

MoMA recently acquired 12 works by African-American artists, half of whic

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