Collecting African American Art After 20 Years: An Interview with Author Halima Taha

By Shantay Robinson


Halima Taha, author of Collecting African American Art: Works on Paper and Canvas, celebrates the 20th anniversary of her book’s publishing this year. According to Taha, “This was the first book to validate collecting painting, photography and prints by African American artists as a viable asset and commodity.” As a seminal how-to and reference guide for art for both neophyte and seasoned art collectors, this title has gone into six reprints.  The first printing included 7500 books, which was a large run for any art book twenty years ago. Both Absolut Vodka and PBS have created relationships with the book in order to thank their consumers in conjunction with traveling exhibitions and membership drives.  The book has been available on Amazon, art bookstores and museum gift shops, including the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The beauty of Richard Mayhew’s painting dons the cover which inspired window display designers at Nordstrom in San Francisco and Felissimo Design House in New York City to include a wall of this book in their window displays. The information in Collecting African American Art: Works on Paper and Canvas continues to be as relevant today as it was 20 years ago.  Currently Taha is working on a follow up to her first publication, which will focus on collecting and commerce within the international market for African Diasporic art inclusive of the full spectrum of media artists work in.  

“This was the first book to validate collecting painting, photography and prints by African American artists as a viable asset and commodity”

It took her eight years to find a publisher, because they told her a book about art needed to be associated with an exhibition, that black people don’t buy art or read books, and white people don’t buy black art. Fortunately, Taha used her intelligence to subvert the naysayers. She did her own market research by calling popular magazines for their demographics to attest to their diverse readerships.  When the Metropolitan Museum of Art had a seminal Bill Traylor exhibition, she called to find out their attendance and published catalogue numbers. All of the Bill Traylor hard cover catalogues were sold out and they had fewer than half of the soft bound catalogues within the first month of the show’. She says, “I was able to utilize all of the data. So, the hoops I had to jump through for those eight years reinforced how invisible and devalued African American visual culture was in mainstream institutions and with publishers at the end of the 20th century. Knowing how valuable Black culture is and how integral it is to American culture made me push harder.”


When Taha started writing her book in the 1980s, she says there were about six history books and small printings of regional exhibition catalogues available about black art. When her book was rejected, Taha felt like the publishing companies were telling her that she and African American visual culture didn’t have any worth. The myth that black art books would not sell was debunked. With her market research, she secured a publisher after firing her agent. And within the first two weeks of publication, Collecting African American Art: Works on Paper and Canvas was almost sold out. The success of the book allowed the publishing industry to see that books about black art can sell.  Contrary to what publishers believed at the end to the last century, there does not need to be an exhibition in conjunction with the publication of a book on Black artists.  They were also able to see that they could publish monographs about individual artists with success.  Today, there are several books about black artists on the market.


There continues to be a need for a guide like Collecting African American Art: Works on Paper and Canvas for future generations of collectors. Taha says, “I have a real strong social conscious guided by a moral and ethical compass about the culture as well as the importance of equity in access to information. and the sharing of information which comes from learning a lot from. My passion for sharing information about art and artist comes from love and guidance from primary mentors like Dr. Samella Lewis, Elizabeth Catlett, David Driskell, Frank Stewart, Corinne Jennings, and Camille Billops.” Taha was motivated to inform readers about collecting black art because while attending New York University for a master’s degree in Arts Management and Cultural Policy, she co-owned Onyx Art Gallery when a woman, visited the gallery and was excited to share that she had purchased a print by Elizabeth Catlett. When Taha found out how much she paid for it, she was flabbergasted. At the time, around 1984 or 1985, the woman had paid $7,500 for a print that today is sold for no more than $4,500.  “I felt strongly that everybody, no matter what you earn, works hard for their money. The idea of taking advantage of somebody who wants to invest in their culture, and support black artists is criminal.”  This experience was the catalyst for Taha’s decision to educate neophyte and seasoned art enthusiasts on collecting, as she had been doing at Onyx Art Gallery. Although her book was welcomed by collectors, some art world insiders were not thrilled that Taha was sharing such valuable information. “They didn’t want black collectors to know that they could go to a dealer and look at several pieces of work and negotiate a block discount for several pieces of work. ‘You’re telling the trade secrets.’”


In the 1980s, when she started writing the book, the African American art market revolved around works on paper because they are typically less expensive than works on canvas or other media. Her African Americans clients “had real estate, they had their trips, the cars, jewelry clothes, stocks, bonds, all the typical investments.  Now and they were looking for something else to enrich their lives” She educated them on how art appreciates, which is quite different from how stocks and bonds do that have more definitive ways of appreciation. It was an abstract concept for them. According to Taha, the 1980s experienced a significant growth in collecting of African American art. She says, “And that growth was not just among African American art collectors. There were a tremendous amount of European, Japanese and white American collectors looking at African American art.” 


Today, again, collecting African American art has emerged as an important investment for major corporate and art institutions. Taha explains, “If you’re collecting Jackson Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler, you’re looking for Norman Lewis, Hale Woodruff, Beauford Delaney, Mary Lovelace O’Neal and Mildred Thompson to make a complete art historical statement” The gaps in the visual narratives are being filled in major collections with the work of African American artists who had been ignored and now completing the story. “Essentially, at the time of the book’s release, many museum curators and collectors recognized the importance of filing the gaps in their American collections with the meritorious work of American artists of African descent.” “I think the visual narratives, and intellectual prowess of many African American artists is a lot more compelling than a lot of the other narratives in the marketplace. The work is more vibrant and substantive, not just in terms of color, but in terms of content.” Collecting African American Art: Works on Canvas and Paper invigorated museums to search for collections of African American art because they are in the business of showing private and institutional collections.


When asked if she thought the increased interest in African American art is a phase. She explains, “I do not think this is phase because quality art requires intellectual and cultural diversity, worldwide.  I think what is most significant is that an opportunity exists for the art world to recognize these artists as American artists, talented artists and thought-provoking artists who happen to be Black. This is what African American artists have just wanted for years.  They did not segregate themselves from the art world or art market.   The hypocrisy is that the art world and market want to paint a broad brushstroke and infer that it’s all about the art not the color of the skin, when for years that was their criteria for whether they would exhibit or sell “American artists” work. As recent as the 1980s and the end of the 20th century artists were told, we don’t show black art and they didn’t even look at the portfolio. They just saw the artist’s skin. And that’s fact.”


Taha has community-based goals and is motivated by that. She wants to make information about African Diasporic visual culture available to all people regardless of class or education level. She believes in engaging in thinking about art as a way to get people to think critically. She sees art as a “gateway for communication about important thoughts and feelings about the world in which they live in and [thinks] that it also brings disparate groups of people together that might not ordinarily meet.” She thinks art inspires us to our greatest humanity.  Halima Taha loves the culture and she loves what she’s doing. “And in the words of Samella Lewis and Elizabeth Catlett, one of the things they said is there’s so much that needs to be done. There are so many cogs in the wheel. There’s so much work for everybody in terms of the work that needs to be done.” She says it can be discouraging, but she’s clear about her intentions. “The purpose of my work continues to be to bring people together through art. To have conversations that will ultimately enhance our understanding of one another about the issues that are important for people to discuss, and to come up with viable solutions to whatever those issues may be. But the art can be a catalyst to that discourse.”

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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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