The 1%: African American artists in US institutions

In 2018 Amy Sherald’s Portrait of Michelle Obama and Kehinde Wiley’s Portrait of Barack Obama were unveiled at The National Portrait Gallery. The museum contains 23,000 works in its collections, from the official portraits of presidents to the great men and women of the arts, sciences and public life in general. Its mission “is to tell the story of America by portraying the people who shape the nation’s history, development and culture.” Yet Sherald’s and Wiley’s portraits of the Obamas are the first works by African American artists to grace its walls.

The former First Lady Michelle Obama commissioned the Baltimore painter Amy Sherald for her official portrait. © Amy Sherald

The National Portrait Gallery has actively sought to redress this imbalance. The lack of representation of African American artists in major public collections, however, is a very broad problem. A 2019 study of the composition of 18 major collections in the USA revealed that art by black and African American artists constituted just 1.2% of the total. This is significantly less than art by Hispanic and Latinx artists (2.8%), substantially less than Asian artists (9%), and a horribly small proportion when compared to white artists (85.4%). It is even less than “all other ethnicities” (1.5%). Gender disparity is similarly stark: just 12.6% of works are by women.

Behind this lack of representation is a set of complex factors at play that culminate in institutional discrimination. Firstly, the 18 museums in this analysis are primarily historic art collections. The median year of birth of artists in these collections is 1863. The lack of diversity reflects a choice made to collect works that express traditions of art born in Europe and from a primarily (white) American canon that grew from these in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The problem here, for a country as culturally and ethnically diverse as the USA, is that a substantial part of the population trace their ancestry and cultural heritage back not to Europe, but to Africa, the Caribbean, the Latin world, pre-colonial America, the Pacific and Asia. To put this in perspective, the 2019 US census revealed that people self-identify as: White alone (60.1%); Hispanic or Latino (18.5%); black or African American alone (13.4%); Asian alone (5.9%); two or more races (2.8%); American Indian or Alaskan Native alone (1.3%); Hawaiian Native or Pacific Islander alone (0.2%). The choice to collect primarily European or white American artists in ‘historic art museums’ has been a choice to privilege the history and art of one cultural group above others.

Collecting African American Art

The lack of diversity in major collections is an issue that curators and museum directors are aware of and have for the most part said they’ll rectify. Many, such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, have been open about the deficiencies in their collections – its 2018 exhibition of African American photographic portraits from the 1940s and 1950s was accompanied by wall text at the entry that bluntly stated: “The museum has until recently acquired few likenesses of African Americans.” The 150 portraits on display in that exhibition had been collected since 2015.

The Met’s 2018 exhibition, African American Portraits: Photographs from the 1940s and 1950s

Developing collections of art by African Americans in the US has, however, generally been slow going. Charlotte Burns and Julia Halperin, writing for Sotheby’s Magazine, reported that from 2008 to 2019 only 2.3% of gifts to and acquisitions by the 30 major collections they surveyed were of works by black or African American artists. Some smaller museums, they show, are more likely to have developed African American art collections. This is because smaller museums have often been more engaged with their local communities, and many began serious collecting of works of art by African Americans before the big museums decided it was time to do so too.

A sometimes cited side effect of the new demand for art by African Americans has been a sudden rise in prices. The higher price tag would put acquiring works out of reach of smaller museums and would reduce the number of works that a large museum could afford. In 2018, for example, art by African Americans reached a total US$2.2 billion in sales at auction. It sounds like a headline – it certainly was a record. But $1.7 billion of that total was from the sale of works by a single artist: Basquiat. Of the remaining amount, most of it came from the works of just five other artists.

Two works by the late acclaimed graffiti-inspired artist Jean-Michel Basquiat – ‘Irony of the Negro Policeman’ 1981 and ‘La Hara’ 1981

A longer tradition of collecting

While many major institutions are attempting to address the lack of diversity in their collections, other institutions have a longer history of collecting African American artists and making them more publicly visible. The Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles, for example, is a leader in this respect. The privately funded museum was founded in 1976 and has actively collected and exhibited ground-breaking artists, such as Palmer C Hayden, one of the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance. Hayden, who had worked as a busboy and a janitor before studying in New York and Paris, painted some of the US’s most iconic works, such as Midsummer Night in Harlem (1936).

Palmer C. Hayden’s iconic work, ‘Midsummer Night In Harlem’ 1936. From the collection of The Museum of African American Art, Los Angeles

Conserving and providing access to historic art such as Hayden’s is vital – his John Henry series, for examples, celebrates an African American folk hero. As a boy, John Henry had had a vision that driving steel pegs into stone to lay explosives for rail tunnels – an exceptionally demanding form of labour that was essential to the growth of the American economy in the age of rail – “would be the death of me.” And yet, he went on to do it, day after day, year after year. As the ballad goes on, it becomes clear how proud he was of his might and stamina: when the railroad company bought a steam drill to the site “John Henry wanted to drive against it. He took a lot of pride in his work and he hated to see a machine take the work of men like him.” Henry challenged the machine to a race and he won, although the exertion killed him and he “died with his hammer in his hand.” Hayden’s handling of the folklore is superb, making the historic significance and toll of black labour clear, while also celebrating African American culture and pride.

Palmer C. Hayden’s ‘John Henry On The Right, Steam Drill On The Left’ 1944-1947. From the collection of The Museum of African American Art, Los Angeles

Art such as this contains, preserves and communicates a universe of African American culture beyond the black labour that has been at the heart of America’s economic development since the get go. But it is also significant because it is part of a broader movement to tell the big history of America more accurately. Hayden’s art reiterates that African American political consciousness, including resistance to enslavement and prejudice, predates the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Indeed, foundational works of the Harlem Renaissance can be found in major collections, such as Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series (1940-41), whose 60 panels are divided between New York’s MoMA and the Phillips Collection. This monumental work of narrative painting tells the multifaceted story of internal migration from the South to the North, from the country to the city, of millions of African American men, women and children in the 1920s and 1930s. It too is a history that should be at the centre of the American story – black internal migrants played a huge role in driving America’s rapid industrialisation and reshaped the great cities of the north. Indeed, the significance of the work and the moment was recognised at the time: Lawrence’s masterpiece was acquired by MoMA (the very first work by an African American the museum bought) and the Phillips Collection in 1942.

Panel 1 from Jacob Lawrence’s ‘The Migration Series’ (1940–41).  © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation

The Museum of African American Art is just one of many now prominent institutions that place African American culture centre stage. These include the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC – the first, and currently only, nationally endowed museum of its type in the US. The museum has a substantial art collection which it has been building since 2003. The museum opened to the public in 2016 and is part of the Smithsonian Institute, which was founded in 1846 for the ‘diffusion of knowledge among all men’. That’s quite a long time to wait for one’s culture to be considered worth knowing about.

Private collections and the travelling show

Other institutions have a longer pedigree, and many have their origins in university campuses during the Civil Rights Movement. Among these is the Harvey B Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture in Charlotte, North Carolina. Today’s museum, named in honour of Charlotte’s first African American mayor, opened in 2009, but it replaced the Afro-American Cultural Center which opened in 1974.

The new museum benefited from a substantial private collection, assembled by Vivian and John Hewitt over 50 years. (Vivian, incidentally, was the first female librarian in Pittsburgh and later the first African American president of the Special Libraries Association.) The Hewitts had built their collection by buying contemporary works of art from galleries and artists at their studios. Collecting art in this way is often more affordable – typically the collector buys works they personally like, and he or she is likely to buy art before its maker is famous or ‘historically significant’ and therefore very expensive. Museums are less likely to buy art in this way, however, because the historic significance of the artwork or the artist is not yet known.

Charles Alston’s ‘Woman Washing Clothes’ 1970, part of the collection at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture

In this respect, museums are perhaps by default ‘behind the times’ in their collecting habits. But this doesn’t explain away that awful figure: only “1.2%” of works by African American artists. It does, however, reveal the cultural significance of the private collection and how it becomes vital to the development of public collections. In some cases, such as the Hewitt Collection, a third party might procure the collection (as the Bank of America did in 1998), and then donate it to a museum (which might not have had the funds to acquire much.) America’s history is replete with generous private donations of art to its public institutions – it’s what they are built on.

Private collections have also proved to be excellent foundations for travelling exhibitions. Some museums face the difficulty of an increasing demand from their patrons for shows featuring art by African Americans, without enough in their own collections to put together a truly fantastic and coherent show. Recently, Philadelphia’s The Barnes Foundation, which has a genuinely world-class collection of post-impressionist painting, hosted 30 Americans. The show – 60 works including pieces by the now unaffordable Basquiat, the increasingly unattainable Mark Bradford, and other acclaimed artists such as Carrie Mae, Nick Cave and Kara Walker – was entirely drawn from the collection of Don and Mera Rubbell.

Nick Cave’s ‘Soundsuit’, from 2008, one of the works in the ’30 Americans’ exhibition. Cave began making the famous Soundsuits — sculptural costumes fashioned from all manner of textiles and other materials — in response to the police beating of Rodney King in 1991

The Rubbells began collecting art in 1964 with $25. They have come to own an exceptional collection of contemporary art – about 7,200 works, including numerous works by artists who, like Basquiat, had once been affordable. The lending of their works to museums such as The Barnes Foundation has proved beneficial – it allows more people to see the range and variety of art made by African Americans than would be possible if the collection remained at home in Miami.

As Chadd Scott has reported in Forbes, the exhibition will visit 22 cities in all during its 10-year trip around the US. It’s a landmark exhibition that meets the immediate needs of museums and the interests of their patrons. But it’s not alone – The Smithsonian has lent works from its collection for African American Art in the 20th Century, which first travelled to Cornell Fine Arts Museum. A strength of this exhibition is the diversity it shows among African American artists from the Harlem Renaissance to the Civil Rights Movement – it is a gentle way of reminding people that there is no more reason to assume homogeneity among artists of colour as there is among artists who are white.

Michigan’s Kalamazoo Institute of Art (KIA) has also recently taken on a travelling exhibition to meet the interests of its patrons. The 2019 show Black Refractions is drawn from the collections of The Studio Museum in Harlem, an organisation that has been supporting artists of African descent for over 50 years. It was no ordinary show: KIA took down its entire permanent collection to hang the new 4-floor exhibition.

One of Barkley Hendricks’s earliest portraits, ‘Lawdy Mama’ 1969, shown in the Black Refractions exhibition, a traveling exhibit that showcases 100 years of creative history and achievements by artists of African descent

These are just a few of the museums and private collections in the US that have been working together to increase the visibility of art by African Americans, and it is an immediate solution to an increased demand among museum patrons to see it. But it doesn’t solve the long-term lack of representation in major collections. It only reveals decades of institutional inertia and neglect – travelling shows and loans from private collections are only necessary because the major institutions didn’t acquire the work in the first place.

Short Course – African American History and Culture

You can further explore the history of the African American peoples and their unique social, political, and artistic contributions to American and global culture, by joining Dr Matthew Laing’s short course African American History and Culture, a 4-week series commencing this Tuesday at 11.00am AEST. Learn more >


Dr Nick Gordon

Dr Nick Gordon is a cultural historian and artist, with over 10 years of experience leading tours to Europe. He has strong interests in art, history, philosophy and architecture, from the ancient world to the present. Nick is also a practicing painter and brings this passion to the visual arts. He holds a University Medal and PhD in history from the University of Sydney.


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