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The Soul of a Nation Examined: The Market for African American Artists in the Wake of Black Lives Matter

The famed Black inventor and scientist, George Washington Carver, depicted around racist stereotypes while crossing the Delaware.
George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook signed and titled; signed twice, dated 1975 and variously inscribed on the stretcher acrylic on canvas. | Robert Colescott
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Last month Sotheby's offered Robert Colescott's 1975 painting "George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook" in their Contemporary Art Evening Sale in New York. The winning bid by the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles was $15.3M, despite the previous auction record for the artist being under a million dollars.

A seminal painting of Colescott's, the large acrylic on canvas depicts, not George Washington, but George Washington Carver, famed Black inventor and scientist, striking a heroic pose, while surrounded by other Black figures representing racist stereotypes such a banjo player, a shoe shine and even an Aunt Jemima. The painting continues to be a biting commentary on the prevailing racist stereotypes in the United States today. This work is arguably the most important artwork the artist created, and while it is unlikely another work by this artist would fetch a similar price should it be offered for sale, its over-performance in the market indicates the level of interest in African American art in the market today.

The market for artworks by African American artists has significantly increased over the past ten years. This sea change has occurred through a culmination of a number of forces: the recognition of African American artists who were a part of the leading artistic movements that were intentionally written out of art history, the patronage of these artists by collectors who also identify as African American and the emergence of a new generation of artists of color whose work is sought after by collectors and the increasingly engaged public.

Learn more about Black Panther newspaper artist Emory Douglas and the visual imagery of protest in the country.
Emory Douglas: The Black Panther Artist

I searched far and wide for art market data on works sold by African American artists and was only able to find a study done in 2018 by Art Agency Partners. From 2008-2018, according to their findings, just 2.37% of all acquisitions and gifts and 7.7% of all exhibitions at 30 prominent U.S. museums have been of work by African American artists. I was unable to find a broader data set on the market for African American artists. As there has been a much more demand for their work at auction and numerous price records have been set in the past few years, I think the numbers may be improving in the art market much better than the proportion of collections at museums. With the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, institutions are increasingly realizing the need for diversity and inclusion initiatives within their own staff and the need to add works by artists of color to their collections.

There have only been a handful of wide-ranging museum exhibitions focused on African American art. The first such exhibition of Black artists was "Two Centuries of Black American Art," which opened at LACMA in 1976. While it received fanfare from the public and broke attendance records, it was countered with derision from the mainstream media. At the time, the Black experience had not ever been documented by a Black curator — David Driskell — and presented in a 200-year context to the public.

Other efforts hence include "Harlem on My Mind" staged at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1968. Unlike the LACMA exhibition, "Harlem on My Mind" found itself protested by Black artists and Harlem residents alike due to the fact that no Black curators or artists were consulted for this exhibition, demonstrating just how much investment there needs to be from an institution to be able to successfully and sensitively mount an exhibition of this kind. It is territory that museums have been more cognizant of especially in light of the protests in the past year.

More recently, "Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power" has reignited the conversation around art, race and politics. This exhibition began in 2017 at the Tate Modern and toured to Brooklyn, L.A., San Francisco and Bentonville, Arkansas. It was co-curated by Zoe Whitley, an African American curator at the Tate. Her mother had studied art history with David Driskell and this exhibition was received with critical acclaim and public support. Each venue added to the exhibition based on their African American artists historically working in their regions, from the Black Power movement in Oakland to the Watts Tower legacy of Assemblage art in Los Angeles. "Soul of a Nation" also impacted the market for the artists that were prominently featured in the exhibition. On the cover of the exhibition catalogue is "What's Goin' On" a painting by Barkley Hendricks named after the song by Marvin Gaye. Before the exhibition, his portrait paintings of African Americans would sell for several hundred thousand dollars. Now they go for several million, with Sotheby's setting a record for his work last December at $4M.

A nude Black woman stands among of group of people dressed in white in the painting "What's Goin' On" by Barkley L. Hendricks.
Barkley L. Hendricks named this piece after the Marvin Gaye song "What's Goin' On." | Barkley L. Hendricks

Apart from increased visibility through large-scale exhibitions in museums, there have also been a number of celebrity African American collectors who have championed the work of African American artists and significantly improved these artists' markets through their patronage. From Beyoncé and Jay-Z, to Swizz Beats and Alicia Keys, these patrons own following has helped promote these artists. The highest price ever paid by an African American artist at auction was when music mogul Sean Combs purchased Kerry James Marshall's "Past Times" for $21.1M at Sotheby's in 2018. Combs was introduced to his work from his friend Swizz Beats. This work had been recently featured in the artist's retrospective at the Met Breuer "Mastry" and surpassed his previous auction record by nearly four times.

When the Obamas revealed that their portraits now on display at the National Portrait Gallery would both be painted by African American artists of their same gender and age, it sent a message that the artist who is creating the work should also represent the person they are depicting. Michelle Obama chose Amy Sherald, then a relatively unknown artist based in Baltimore, Maryland. Barack Obama chose Kehinde Wiley, who at the time was already sought after for his monumental portraiture of Black men. Since the portrait unveiling in 2018, Amy Sherald has enjoyed greater recognition and increased demand for her work. She was invited to join Hauser & Wirth, one of the top five galleries worldwide, a year later. Her painting "The Bathers" sold for $4.2M, with a presale estimate of $150,000-200,000 in December of 2020. Phillips auction house included "It Made Sense...Mostly In Her Mind," a painting from the artist in their June 23rd sale, which has since sold for a record-breaking $3.54M.

A Black woman in a horse jockey outfit holding a toy unicorn head on a stick meant to ride.
Michelle Obama chose Amy Sherald as one of the few artists to be represented at the National Portrait Galley. One of her pieces called "It Made Sense...Mostly In Her Mind" depicted a Black horse jockey. | Amy Sherald

It is not only the younger generation of artists who have powerful patrons that are gaining further prominence, the market has also dramatically shifted for those who have been overlooked or undervalued over time. Aside from Colescott, Betye Saar is another example of West Coast-based artists who are now achieving their overdue recognition.

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Saar is a Los Angeles-based artist known for her work in assemblage. At 94 years old, she has finally received institutional support and has an increased market demand as well. Two simultaneous solo exhibitions in 2019 and her inclusion in "Soul of a Nation," have caused many collectors who had recently been unfamiliar with her work to pay attention. "Betye Saar: Call and Response" exhibited at LACMA from September 2019 to April 2020 was the first museum exhibition in California to examine her entire career and "Betye Saar: The Legends of Black Girl's Window" at MoMA in New York from October October 2019 to January 2020 brought her work one of the largest centers of the art world. MoMA acquired a number of drawings by the artist prior to the exhibition, signaling that a gap in their collection needed to be filled.

A small assemblage of Betye Saar's recently set an auction record high for her work in Swann's African American Art Sale in April. Entitled "Sojourn" this work sold for $87,500 against a pre-sale estimate of $25,000-35,000. Given how few of her works have come to auction, it is likely that any larger examples would easily break this record in the near future.

Betye Saar's piece "Sojourn" depicts a carrier bird being weighted down by a ball and chain and a heart.
Betye Saar didn't receive institutional support and increased market demand until she was 94 years old. Her 1995 piece "Sojourn" depicts a carrier bird being weighted down by a ball and chain and a heart. | Betye Saar

Saar was also inducted into the Academy of Arts and Letters in May of this year, the highest recognition of artistic merit in the United States. Inductees include 300 of the country's leading writers, composers, artists and composers, and Saar is one of the oldest to be selected. Notably, artist Faith Ringgold at 90 years old was also selected in this year's class.

Faith Ringgold is best known for her children's book "Tar Beach" but has been making artwork for decades. As she worked primarily as a quiltmaker, her work was often considered "women's craft" and not seriously evaluated by the art establishment. The MoMA shocked the art world when it rehung its galleries in 2019 to include her seminal "American People Series #20: Die" opposite one of the most famous works in their collection, Pablo Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon." A retrospective of her work recently opened at Glenstone, a private collection museum located in Potomac, Maryland. It is the only U.S. staging of this exhibition on its global tour and tickets are sold out until September.

With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, there has been a reckoning among the art world on their historical role in suppressing Black voices and the need to right the wrongs of history. The art market is moving ahead of cultural institutions in embracing artists of color with the prominence of African American collectors and the larger art world's interest these artist's work. Although many exhibitions are being staged at institutions of artists of color, it will take time for these works to be gifted to institutions from living collectors or funds given to acquire these works for the permanent collections. Progress is being made slowly but will need to continue as the role of the museum as a convener of culture continues to evolve.

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