Can minority artists find success following the same career paths as their white counterparts? Let’s take a look.
Different Strokes for Different Folks? (Maybe)
By Daniel Grant
author of The Business of Being an Artist
There is no magic formula for becoming a successful artist, but those who do achieve success — defined here as the ability to support oneself through sales of one’s artwork — tend to have certain qualities in common. They have an understanding of their audience and the market, know how to bring attention to their art, and know how to negotiate a sale. They are aware of how the law pertains to the creation and sale of art. They are not tongue-tied when setting up a consignment arrangement with a gallery owner, and do not resort to art school jargon when discussing their artwork with prospective buyers. Generally, the mastery of those (and perhaps a few other) art business skills separates the professional from the wannabe.
Books on the subject and recommendations in career-focused columns in artists’ magazines regularly stress the importance of business skills, but a nagging thought remains: is this body of advice relevant to all artists or primarily to those who are white and male? Is there an alternative path to recognition and sales for female and minority artists?
The answer, not surprisingly, is a mix of yes and no. Perhaps the ambiguity is best described by Yesenia Sanchez, a San Francisco-based professional development consultant to arts organizations and individual artists, who states that “in terms of guidance that I offer to BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] artists, often it is the same. However, as a person of color in the arts for over 20 years, I have an awareness of how privilege, access, and representation affect the artists themselves, and that they are not playing on a level playing field.” Artists who come from less privileged backgrounds, she adds, may lack the same level of confidence as their white counterparts and may not look at business development in the same way.
That is not to say that significant steps have not been made at a number of commercial art galleries, nonprofit arts organizations, and museums to provide greater exposure to the work of women artists, African-American artists, Native American artists, Latinx artists, and other minority groups. In 2020, for instance, the Baltimore Museum of Art vowed that for that year it would acquire only works by women artists for its permanent collection.
Likewise, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and its Renwick Gallery have pointedly looked to broaden their presentations of the history of American art and crafts with additions to their collections of works by “Black, Latinx, LBGTQ+, Indigenous, and women artists,” according to a statement released by the museum.
Moves aimed at increasing the diversity of exhibitions and holdings have had an effect. The June Kelly Gallery and the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in New York City, both of which were established in the late 1980s with the principal mission of promoting the work of historical and contemporary African-American artists, have expanded their focus in more recent years to include a wider array of artists, and not as a result of any failure of the African-American art to sell. The Michael Rosenfeld Gallery staged an annual “African-American Masterworks” show between 1992 and 2001 but “stopped, because, if we really see these artists as great American artists — and we do — then we should just do shows of American art in which African-American artists are included,” says Halley Harrisburg, the gallery’s co-owner and director. “Pigeonholing artists can do more harm than good.”
Some artists have long rejected the idea of predominantly African-American art galleries, seeing them as ghettoizing artists. “The art world, like the rest of the world, is multi-racial,” says Washington, D.C., painter Sam Gilliam. “An African-American art gallery is a kind of gimmick, but it is wrong to try to create a second nation in America.”
In the present day, the category of “African-American art” is beginning to break down. On the part of individual and institutional collectors, there is no less eagerness, and in some instances even a willingness to pay far higher prices, for the work of contemporary African-American artists, such as Dawoudews Bey, David Hammons, Glenn Ligon, Martin Puryear, Betye Saar, Dread Scott, Any Sherald, Lorna Simpson, Hank Willis Thomas, Kara Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, and Kehinde Wiley. These artists tend to be represented by galleries that exclusively exhibit contemporary art. As Elizabeth Sann, associate director of New York’s Jack Shaiman Gallery, which represents Nick Cave, Barkley Hendricks, and Kerry James Marshall, among others, claims, the “goal is to erase the line between contemporary and African-American art.”
In It For the Long Haul
Still, the success of a small number of stars is not necessarily indicative of the state of a larger category. “Galleries in New York City do not reflect America,” says Chattanooga, Tennessee, painter Charlie Newton. “They don’t represent the larger culture.” He adds that the majority of his collectors are African-American and probably do not have the means to pay the kinds of prices asked in Manhattan. There are a handful of annual art fairs* around the country that specifically focus on African-American art, drawing Black audiences and buyers, but Ricardo Morris, founder and chief executive officer of the Chattanooga Festival, states that “artists cannot make a living just doing Black arts festivals.” He says, “These festivals are where artists may get their start.” In effect, there is no alternative career path for African-American artists; they must seek out the same venues as their white counterparts.
It is unlikely that any African-American artists are supported solely through sales to Black collectors. Howardena Pindell, a New York City artist, notes that she creates “smaller works for people with smaller budgets,” as a way of developing collectors in the African-American community. And, according to Dean Mitchell, a painter in Tampa, Florida, “Once you get past $3,000, you lose a lot of Black people. I’ve never sold anything to anyone who is Black for $30,000.”
Exclusively exhibiting the work of African-American artists has long been the goal of George N’Namdi, founder of the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in Detroit and before that the owner of galleries in Chicago, Detroit, and Miami. “A large part of what I do is educate people about a group of artists they may not have heard of,” N’Namdi says. The first step toward creating a generation of African-American collectors is to inform members of that community that African-American artists exist.
Erasing the line between contemporary and African-American art is not as easy as one may hope, and African-American artists who receive recognition are frequently identified in terms of their race, rather than the quality of their work. “For my whole career, I have been ‘Benny Andrews, the Black artist,’” said the painter, who died in 2006 at the age of 76.
“Everything that a Black artist does gets talked about in terms of social issues and economics by critics.” He noted that, years ago, he made two paintings of nudes: “One was a white couple, and everyone said it was Adam and Eve, and the other was a Black couple, and people said, ‘What are those Black people doing under that apple tree?’”
Race is unavoidable, but so are gender and age, which may affect who is interested in purchasing someone’s artwork and what that person is willing to pay. Faith Ringgold, a painter and mixed-media artist in New Jersey, notes the various roadblocks to her career that she needed to overcome, adding that overcoming obstacles has been and still is “more difficult for women than for men.” Looking back over a long career, she says, “It does seem to me that there is less racism now than before,” but the only solution for artists is to “be prepared to stay in it for the long haul.”
*These art fairs include the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta; the Chattanooga Festival of Black Arts & Ideas; the Colorado Black Arts Festival in Denver; and the African American Cultural Festival of Raleigh and Wake County, North Carolina.
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