Putting Their Money Where the Black Art Is: Museums Collect African American Art

By Shantay Robinson


The mainstream art market opened up in the 1990s, allowing non-white and women artists entrée into significant artworld institutions. In a 2004 talk delivered at the College Art Association’s annual conference, Huey Copeland, now Associate Professor of Art History at Northwestern University, cites Amei Wallach from a 1990’s New York Newsday article as writing, “This year outsiders are in… And lots of museums, galleries, magazines and collectors are standing in line to seize the moment with artists whose skin colors, languages, national origins, sexual preferences or strident messages have kept them out of the mainstream.”


Interestingly enough, 2018 represents a time similar to 1990, where museums and galleries are clamoring for African American art. The subject matter of African American art, which talks back to the status quo and creates rhetoric around black empowerment and appreciation lends itself nicely to postmodern critique, and may have allowed for its induction into the mainstream. But African American artists have been creating art that espouse black pride and have created artworks steeped in particularly black aesthetics for a long time, yet have not always been accepted by dominant artworld institutions.

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The news is that African American art is hot in the world of art collecting right now. Bloomberg published an article on April 18, 2018 describing the “scramble” that’s happening over African American art. The Bloomberg article quotes, Ann Temkin, chief curator of painting and sculpture at MoMA, as she states, “They’re part of a very rich and textured history that we weren’t really committed to exploring… [museums have to] literally pay for the fact that we weren’t as actively engaged in this a decade ago.” According to the article, MoMA has collected more than 430 works by black artists over the past decade. Culture Type reported, in MoMA’s 2016 Annual Report it is recorded that more than 50 works of more than 1,000 artworks collected were by African Americans in 2015-2016.


Because Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald were enlisted to create the portraits of the first African American president and the first lady which were revealed in February 2018, collectors have become more interested in catching up on black proclivities. With the unveiling of the presidential portrait came the realization that black artists are and have been creating great art for a very long time, but haven’t been appropriately recognized for it. It seems like museums across the country are just starting to see the value in collecting art by African American artists. While African Americans have been documented to have been creating art in this country since the 1700s by the likes of Joshua Johnson, the recent uptick in collecting black art doesn’t seem too coincidental.


From looking at the news about acquisitions of black art on Culture Type, this year was very active with eight articles about acquisitions published, whereas there were three stories of acquisitions in 2017 and two in 2016. This may by no means be an accurate reflection of the work being done by museums across the country, but the number of articles in 2018 compared to 2017 and 2016 might be quite telling. Some of the acquisitions in 2018 include: Pope L. by the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh; Amy Sherald, Isaac Julien, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Wangechi Mutu, and Jack Whitten at the Baltimore Museum of Art; Emma Amos, Betye Saar, and Dread Scott at the Brooklyn Museum of Art; Isaac Julien and Wangechi Mutu at Ruby City in San Antonio, Texas; Glenn Ligon, McArthur Binion, and Benny Andrews at Mississippi Museum of Art; Betye Saar and Julie Mehretu at Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and Dawoud Bey,  Willie Cole, and Carrie Mae Weems at Bowdoin College Museum of Art.


On September 21, 2018, Artnet published an article and study titled, “African American Artists Are More Visible Than Ever. So Why Are Museums Giving Them Short Shrift?” where they attempt to reconcile how museums can make up for lost time by collecting artworks by African American artists more intentionally. This article seems naïve to the reality of the system. To ask why museums are giving black artists the short shrift, is to not recognize the changes needed in our society to afford black artists equal opportunity. The article is well-meaning, though. They reported, in 2018, that over the past decade less than 3% of the art acquired by the 30 museums they studied were created by African American artists even while African Americans make up 12% of the population. What might be surprising to some, they report, is that nine months into 2018, the 30 museums surveyed had already acquired 439 artworks by African American artists.


Museums and galleries at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) are priceless for collecting artworks by African American artists at times mainstream institutions ignored black artists. While the Brooklyn Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Newark Museum and Smithsonian have been ahead of the curve, many museums are just now catching up. In a controversial move to diversify their collection, Baltimore Museum of Art’s director, Christopher Bedford, decided to sell seven artworks by prominent white male artists, including Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Franz Kline in order to collect works by people of color and women. The truth is, deaccession, as it is known, selling off artworks where there is already great depth in the collection, is done by museums regularly. And this deaccession was a decision made by both the curators of the museum and the community.

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Safety patrol by Bisa Butler

According to the Artnet study, major museums across the country have ramped up their numbers of artworks acquired within the past decade: Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts acquired 393 works over the past decade; of Nasher at Duke University’s 628 acquisitions 132 of them were works by African American artists; and over the past decade Cleveland Museum of Art acquired 73 works by African American artists. These acquisitions signal a change in the thinking about art museums in general. They are becoming more cognizant in reflecting the interests of the communities they are meant to serve.


Several museums have added the work of African American self-taught artists to their collections, including the High Museum of Art, Dallas Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Spelman Museum of Fine Art, Museum of Fine Art Boston, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, New Orleans Museum of Art New York’s Morgan Library and Museum, and the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas. Artists who have been collected include Thornton Dial, Lonnie Holley, Ronald Lockett, Purvis Young, Nellie Mae Rowe, and quilters from the Gee’s Bend Quilters. All of the art works collected by these museums by self-taught African American artists are represented by the Atlanta-based Souls Grown Deep Foundation. In 2014, the Foundation made a gift of 57 artworks to the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art. In 2017, The High Museum of Art in Atlanta, which is known for its folk-art collection, collected 54 works by the artists represented by the foundation. In 2018, Spelman College Museum of Fine Art was the first HBCU museum to receive a gift from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in the form of seven quilts from the Gee’s Bend Quilters and Virginia Museum of Fine Arts collected 34 works from the foundation.


In 2015, The New York Times published an article about collecting African American art. Included in it is a prediction by Norman Lewis, an African American painter, scholar, and teacher who passed in 1979. He told his daughter, “‘I think it’s going to take about 30 years, maybe 40, before people stop caring whether I’m black and just pay attention to the work.’” Ideally this would be the case as museums start to acquire the best of African American artwork to add to their collections. That they would look at the work and not worry about whether the artist is black would be the situation in an ideal world, but is that the case today? Are museums collecting great art or are they collecting black art? There is no doubt that African American artists have created awesome works throughout history. And the representation of African American artists in museum collections positively adds to the art history of America.


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Aaron by Alfred Conteh

Three years since The New York Times article, and several museums are actively working to acquire the artworks of African American artists. Per the Artnet study, the 30 major museums they surveyed are putting their money where the black art is. But of course, these larger museums are going for the legends, Alma Thomas, Beauford Delany, William H. Johnson, and Aaron Douglas to name a few. Recent news indicates that emerging artists Alfred Conteh was acquired by the Minneapolis Museum of Art and Bisa Bulter by the Art Institute of Chicago during Art Basel in Miami. From reading artists statements of emerging artists, smaller museums are also collecting black art. By placing their artworks in well-known collections, the value of all of their work increases, making such a move very important for the black collectors who have been acquiring their work for years.


The truth is, African American art is inherently laced with value. African American visual art represents the history of a resilient people, a people who would not be discouraged by the racism of the artworld or any other institution, but encouraged by their passion for the arts. Most African American artists who are being collected by major museums today, those who have worked for decades without such recognition, aren’t alive to reap the benefits of these acquisitions; and it’s not simply about the money, but about an overall appreciation for the work. Hopefully this interest isn’t momentary, but permanent, so the work the ancestors put in will help contemporary artists be appreciated for their work in a major way too.


(In an earlier version of this article, Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley were listed among black artists. We have made the correction as of 12/24/2018 and we apologize for the misrepresentation)


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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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