A 2018 article from ArtNet said that “African American artists are more visible than ever, so why are museums giving them short end...research finds that less than three percent of museum acquisitions over the past decade have been of work by African American artists.”
Take even a few minutes to learn about some of the most highly-priced paintings to ever come up for auction, and the lack of attention to African American artists is a bit confusing. After all, it was only in 2017 that a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat sold for a shocking $110.5 million – the costliest painting by any American artist ever sold. Yet, when the Whitney Museum of American Art proposed a tour of the painter’s work, no other museums stepped up to show interest in the show.
"Untitled" by Jean-Michel Basquiat
A study was done by ArtNet and In Other Words netted even more surprising details. In speaking with more than two dozen “prominent curators, collectors, dealers, museum directors, academics, and philanthropists,” their team discovered that “since 2008, just 2.37 percent of all acquisitions and gifts and 7.6 percent of all exhibitions at 30 prominent American museums have been of work by African American artists…[and] progress is much more recent—and benefits far fewer artists—than high-profile exceptions might lead one to believe.”
Clearly, there is work to be done, and especially in light of the fact that “African Americans comprise more than 12 percent of the US population and are creating some the most visible and compelling art” of the modern era. In fact, the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York said that “If you deal with contemporary art, it is self-evident that many of the most interesting artists are African American, you realize that there were always important African American artists, even if they were not as visible to museums as they should have been.”
Into Their Own Hands
This is why many smaller galleries and entire communities are picking up where the gaps exist and creating their own spaces to represent artists of color. As that same study noted, “the number of solo and thematic exhibitions focusing on the work of African American artists jumped almost 66 percent (to 63 shows, from 38 in 2016). Just nine months into 2018, the combined number of works by African American artists acquired by museums (439 total, so far) is on track to become a 10-year record.”
And yet, it is important to look beyond the formal institutions tasked with growing galleries and highlighting contemporary art in the African American communities. As one curator said, “the stories of African American artists don’t just belong to the bodies that hold the narrative. These stories belong to culture. It is a way of seeing the world.”
It is why so many street artists are rising to the forefront because they too understand that the work of graffiti and street artists are another way of seeing the world. Artists like Retna emphasize that it is important to have art in the streets as a cultural fabric that is woven into the city for the upliftment of civic pride.” And why he belongs to groups like Art Work Rebels, Mad Society Kings, and The Seventh Letter artist collectives.
Retna's Graffiti Art
African American artists have long done work outside of the mainstream, it is only recently that their work has been viewed differently by larger institutions; eager to “reflect the demographics of their communities.” And it is not just massive “big city” museums, the “Columbus Museum in Georgia, for example, was one of the first to acquire major works by Alma Thomas and Amy Sherald, who were both born in the city.” More and more museums are launching equity, diversity or inclusion plans, forging new paths through scholarship, and starting to “study a much broader, more inclusive, and richer art history than their predecessors.”
Alma Thomas | Amy Sherald
Growing galleries and contemporary art in the African American community is something that has to include all forms of art. Just as there is no streamlined definition to the question of “what is white art?” so too can there no longer be boundaries around the concept of “what is black art?” and it must be as varied, inspired, and expressive as the world of art itself.