by Shantay Robinson

In 1997, Josh Wainwright responded to the status quo by putting black art front and center of what for the next twelve years would be the National Black Fine Art Show. While at the start of the show’s existence, it was criticized for focusing on black art, the show allowed art by black artists to gain attention by the right people – collectors of black art. Today, there are several black fine art shows in existence including Black Art in America’s Fine Art Show in Philadelphia on September 14 – 16.

In 1999, two years after the National Black Fine Art Show had taken off, The New York Times reported:

“The term black art is fraught with problems. It doesn’t describe a style, a period or a fixed set of ideas. It can serve equally well as political statement and sales pitch. It has been used to carve out a valuable power base for artists excluded from the mainstream, but it has also insured that the mainstream continues to flow along without them. All of these factors jostle around in the National Black Fine Art Show, now in its third year. In fact, they are one of the exhibition’s chief attractions.”

In 2000, The New York Times questioned “Is it a good idea to categorize art by the race of its creator?” And then answered, “Many artists of color would not think so.” 

While it might be thought that some black artists would be averse to being lumped in a category based on their race, I doubt many wouldn’t understand why a move such as this one is necessary. Black fine artists have been recognized internationally for generations, but black artists still exist on the margins of the dominant art world.  Creating a specific space for black art allowed would-be collectors to be immersed in black culture and experience the richness and diversity artists of this given race could create.

Housed at the Puck Building in New York City’s Greenwich Village, approximately 40 vendors would promote their art of black artists from around the world. Alongside the Jacob Lawrence’s and Romare Bearden’s would be work by artists of different generations. Critics stated that the quality of the work wavered rather than remaining at a high level of excellence. They were concerned that the quality of some work didn’t match the quality of the best in show. But isn’t that to be expected? This diversity is what made the National Black Fine Art Show special. Collectors were able to come across the more popular artists’ works to add to their collection and discover nascent talent that was yet to be refined.

For 12 years, the National Black Fine Art Show allowed collectors of black art to find the burgeoning black artists of the time. While the moniker “black art” is all encompassing, it does relate to buyers exactly what one might be looking for. When going to a contemporary art show, one might be inclined to seek the most talked about artist of the day. But when attending a black fine art show there are multiple dimension that one can start their search to add art to their collection. Seeking out hot artists of the day might be the way to get started. But one could also seek out artists who have yet to make a name for themselves. And the piece de resistance at a black fine art show would be that either way it’s sliced, another black artist would have made a sale.

In 2017, Huffington Post reported that 77.6% of the artists who make a living from their artwork are white. The NEA reports that there are almost 2 million artists working in the United States, approximately 200,000 of those are fine artists, art directors, and animators. A 2016-2017 survey conducted by CUNY Guttman College reported that only 6.3% of working artists are black. So, while critics lambast the necessity of an all-black art show, black artists couldn’t possibly be fairly represented by majority white art shows where they exist as mere specks of blackness in a sea of whiteness. Of course, many talented black artists who are present at majority white art shows are recognized and do sell work, but collectors looking to collect art by black artists would have a more challenging search if looking to support black artists.

The National Black Fine Art Show had a significant impact on the black art world. Curators, collectors, and galleries all benefited from the show.  Here’s what some members of the community have to say:

“The National Black Fine Art Show was a thrilling extravaganza of art and an important gathering of galleries, artist and collectors in one place.  It was an opportunity for artists to showcase their work and collectors to refine their collections.  The artwork represented the art spectrum, from watercolor to assemblage, from mix media to fine paintings, from sculpture to self-taught, from fiber to photography.  I considered it an art collectors haven, especially for the newly initiated collector.” – Esther Silver-Parker, Collector

“Josh Wainwright had it right with the National Black Fine Art Show (NBFAS) and Joysmith/Sunsum Gallery were both pleased and privileged to have participated for several years presenting, as we did, a nuanced list of well-known and needed to be better known Black artists.  Both avid collectors and Black art novices had with the NBFAS an annual event that emphasized our creative culture by providing a nationally recognized venue for experiencing a juried selection of galleries representing past, present and future legacy Black art/artists shown in an exceptionally well-presented art focused venue and, expecting so, many of the annual attendees did so from across the country.” – Robert Bain, Joysmith Gallery

Joysmith/Sunsum Gallery 2009

“We must celebrate what Josh contributed and was able to accomplish. What made the National Black Fine Art Show held at the Puck building so special was because it showcased galleries and dealers who represented the best in established and contemporary works by African American artists. Black Art in America Fine Art Shows are carefully curated exhibitions of invited galleries that offer the caliber of material collectors are looking for as well as the educational programming that educates and expands the audience.” – Najee Dorsey, Black Art in America

Black Art in America is attempting to fill the void that the National Black Fine Art Show’s disappearance created. This September they host Black Art in America Fine Art Show in Philadelphia at the Historic Belmont Mansion and Underground Railroad Museum. There will be opportunities to purchase artworks from legacy artists like Norman Lewis, Barkley Hendricks, Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence, and Charles White, Sargent Johnson, Hughie Lee-Smith, Charles Porter, Bob Thompson  as well as art by contemporary artists  Faith Ringgold, David Driskell, Lavett Ballard, Delita Martin, Gerald Lovell, Jamaal Barber, Sonie Ruffin, Jurell Cayetano, John Biggers, Jamaal Barber, Najee Dorsey, Frank Frazier, Steven Tette, Woodrow Nash, and more.

In addition to a plethora of artworks to consider, “BAIA Talks” will take place throughout the weekend. These seminars are meant to familiarize attendees with issues concerning black artists and collectors of artwork made by black artists. Kimberly Camp talks about the Barnes Foundation. Art lawyer, Sametria Goodson, talks legal issues. Patric McCoy talks collecting. And the Colored Girls Museum founder Vashti DuBois talks creating art for healing.

Although the Black Art in America Fine Art Show in Philadelphia will only occur during the weekend of September 14 to September 16, buying black art can be done all throughout the year online and in person. While purchasing art during the event might not be feasible for all, visiting the site will inspire and attending the BAIA Talks will inform that next great purchase.  In true National Black Fine Art Show fashion there will be something for everyone. Get tickets here

featuring artwork by Jurell Cayetano, Karen Powell, Woodrow Nash, Charles White, Romare Bearden, Nelson Stevens, David Driskell, Najee Dorsey, Lavett Ballard, Richard Barthe and Jamaal Barber


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Shantay Robinson, BAIA resident scholar has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While  receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.

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