Friday, February 27, 2009

Swann Galleries Auction

The African-American Fine Art auction (Sale 2169) was held at Swann Galleries on Tuesday, February 17, 2009 at 1:30 PM. Although smaller than last year's sale which consisted of 264 lots, this sale had 169 lots of many museum-quality works from a number of private collections, representing all of the major 20th-century artistic movements. The smaller number of pieces in the auction might be indicative of the downturn in the economy. One can readily assume, with a fair degree of accuracy, that many of the items that were presented at auction are in private hands and owners are fearful that they might not be able to get the maximum price for their items in an auction at this time. As I speak of money and value, I am ever mindful that there are dangers when one assumes that the price of a piece of art determines the quality of that art; history has shown that "price equals quality" is a poor barometer. However, such can not be mistaken when it comes to African American art that is woefully undervalued in the overall landscape of American art. Comparable African American artists of the same school of art, representing the same time period sell for considerably less than their counterparts. This makes them a favorable group to collect because their works have a greater potential to increase exponentially in value.

In spite of the fact that African American art is one of those current undervalued commodities with potential to realize a substantial future increase in value, the number of items sold and the price at which they sold in this auction is an indication that times are tight even for those with disposal income. There were only twenty lots that had a low estimate of at least $25,000; they included works by Hale Woodruff, Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Charles White, Hughie Lee-Smith, Beauford Delaney, Charles Alston, Eldzier Cortor, Norman Lewis, Sargent Johnson, Henry Ossawa Tanner, and Howardena Pindell. A quick analysis of those twenty lots follow:

  • Of the twenty lots, eleven (lots 12, 16, 23, 29, 30, 36, 38, 73, 82, 112, and 136) of those were unsold, including Charles White's "Hope Imprisoned," tempera on paper, which was estimated for $150,000 to 200,000. (See image at top left, Lot 30.)
  • Six lots (1, 35, 41, 42, 46, and 55) sold for less than their low estimates, including Charles White's "Move on up a Little Higher," which had an estimate of $200,00 - 250,000. Its hammer price was $190,000. (See image at bottom left, Lot 55.)
  • Lot 2, Henry O. Tanner's "Adoration of the Golden Calf" was the only item that sold for its high estimate ($60,000).
  • Two lots (45 and 93) sold above their high estimates. Lot 45 was Hughie Lee-Smith's "Untitled" (rooftop view) which sold for $85,000; its high estimate was $75,000. Lot 93 was Hale Woodruff's "Cinque Exhorts his Captives" which sold for $130,000; its high estimate was $100,000.
According to Nigel Freeman, Director, African-American Fine Art at Swann Galleries, "...We were thrilled to sell our cover lot, Move on up a Little Higher, a majestic drawing by Charles White to an important museum. We also set a new record price for a Hale Woodruff painting, Cinque Exhorts His Captives, 1973, which sold for $156,000; this was the fourth consecutive auction record for the artist (Woodruff) set at Swann in the past four years."

In ending this piece, I want to clarify the term sold. The "hammer price" refers to the winning bid and reflects the highest bid on the item; then the "buyer's premium," which reflects an agreed upon percentage of the "hammer price" are combined to get the realized amount paid by the successful bidder. In my examples, I have quoted the hammer prices. To view all the lots, follow this link to the archived catalogue:
To view the sale results (realized price paid) follow this link:

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Monday, February 16, 2009

Collecting As a Way of Life

The National Gallery of Art is sponsoring a series of programs focusing on collecting African American art. This auditorium lecture series, of three programs, commenced on Sunday, February 8, 2009 and will end on February 22, 2009. It starts at 2:00 P.M.

I missed the first lecture in the series, but did attend the second, this past Sunday. The second in the series focused on "Collecting as a Way of Life," featuring the art collection of Juliette Bethea. This was not a lecture, but a conversation between Juliette and Ruth Fine, curator of special projects in modern art, National Gallery of Art. The backdrop on the stage featured an enlarged image of a central wall in Juliette's home and the two sat in front of that image, allowing the audience to peer into the personal space of the collector. It was an effective means to present the art. I felt that I had been invited into Juliette's living space and was a part of a tour without being intrusive. Each piece of art on the central wall was described, mentioning artist, title, medium, year, provenance, and anecdotal stories as they existed. The anecdotal stories added a richness to the visual tour and gave it a familiar and personal touch. Throughout the explanation of the art, select pieces of art were highlighted, featuring visual detail and projected on another portion of the wall on the stage. This technique afforded the audience an opportunity to see an even clearer image of the art and allowed the conversation to focus specifically on what was being highlighted. The overall presentation worked.

A few of the visual artists represented included: Romare Bearden, Herbert Gentry, Richmond Barthe, Elizabeth Catlett, Dox Thrash, Frank Smith, Samella Lewis, etc. The overall collection was strong in textiles, representing international weavers. Also, there was a major collection of Mary Jackson's baskets; Juliette has collected baskets since 1993 and is a strong supporter of the fiber artist, Mary Jackson, owning a large collection of her intricately coiled vessels that preserve the centuries-old craft of sweetgrass basketry.

There were a couple of personal favorites that I liked in the lithographs of James Wells. One was Wells' "Rendezvous" (1930), featuring a male and female, in which the faces were very similar to that of "The Negro Worker." They were signature Wells' faces. The collector expressed that she collected works that were not widely known images. Again, such is the case with Wells' "Waterfront and Cape Cod."

There was a short question and answer period, but the following was gleaned from the questions posed, as suggestions to help the young or new collector:
  • Stay true to yourself. This collector is non-traditional in her selections and her art selections come from her passion and belief in conserving the culture.
  • Tips to being a successful collector include being actively involved in the process of collecting by going to museums, art shows, galleries, meeting artists, and studying.
  • Buy what you like.

One of the most salient points made in the conversation is that Juliette collected as a working class individual and is not wealthy, and she looks at herself as the custodian of the works that she has collected. In many instances, she got to know the artists and supported the efforts of many young artists, trying to make a difference in their lives in a tangible way. She believes very strongly in encouraging young artists, and she collects their works, but they were not featured in the visual presentation. In planning the program, the decision was made to stay with the historical artists.

See the podcast:

The final segment in this three part series will be on February 22, 2009 at 2:00 P.M., featuring Harmon and Harriet Kelley, collectors in conversation with Deborah Willis, university professor and chair, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.

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Friday, February 13, 2009

The Scurlock Studio and Black Washington: Picturing the Promise

This exhibition, The Scurlock Studio and Black Washington: Picturing the Promise, curated by the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) features approximately 100 images created by one of the premiere African American photographic studios of its day. The Scurlock Studio was a Washington, D.C. black owned institution. Although I had seen many of the images in various books from time to time, to see them amassed in a single exhibition provided a positive impact to the viewer. They presented a virtual history lesson of the time, beginning around 1914 to 1980, in a clear, sharp, and exquisite presentation of black culture, racial issues, achievements, and success.

In spite of the positive images that were portrayed, I am reminded of a piece of wall text that accompanied the exhibition, "Inspirational as these images are, they reflected just a microcosm of the lives of most black District residents, suggesting progress that often was more myth than reality." That microcosm was beautifully portrayed through the images presented in all their success, accomplishments, and beauty of the sitters...many of a "single hue." As I progressed through the exhibition and reflected on the distinct Washington, D.C. residents, I was reminded of stories that abound of "old Washington," Dunbar High School, black social clubs, black businesses, and the like. It presented a beautiful story of how we survived and created our world of peace, tranquility, and success in spite of the odds and obstacles of a segregated time.

The individual portraiture of the luminaries provide a virtual history lesson of the time. How wonderful to have a piece such as this incorporated into a civic or local history class for elementary and middle schools. Those images covered some of the earliest that were done by Scurlock. Presented in this section were portraits of Mary McLeod Bethune, Dr. Anna Julia Cooper, Mary Church Terrell, W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Madam C. J. Walker. Fredi Washington, Robert Todd Duncan, Madame Evanti, Duke Ellington, Jackie Robinson, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., and etc.

There was a literal who's who at Howard University presented in portraiture: Charles Hamilton Houston, Ernest Everett Just, Sterling A. Brown, E. Franklin Frazier, Alain Leroy Locke, Lucy Diggs Slowe, Ralph Bunch.... The University and the Scurlock Studio had an obvious strong working and personal relationship based on the images of the social life captured on the Howard University campus. The educational scene was just one of the aspects captured in black Washington, as reflected in images of Howard University, Dunbar High School (first high school for blacks in the nation), and Miner Teachers College.

The social and political commentary were captured on a number of fronts. Scurlock (22 years old) captured one of the most memorable images of Marian Anderson's concert at Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday on the National Mall with 75, 000 attendees. A similarly impressive image was captured by one of my neighbor's father, Gaston Devigne. The picketing, Gone with the Wind, outside of the Lincoln Theater in 1947 was a strong image (see image above). The Lincoln Theater was known as the largest and finest theater for colored people anywhere in the United States...yet another superlative for Washington, D.C. The protests were captured in the 1930s and the 1960s. The 1938/39 protest outside of Peoples Drugstore at 14th and U Streets, NW..."Don't Buy Where You Can't Work" was a campaign to change unjust practices. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (1963) and images outside of the Scurlock Studio during the Riot of 1968 documents change and turmoil of the times.

From 1886 to 1920, the number of black businesses in the U Street area rose from 15 to over 300. The images in the exhibition reflected the diversity of those businesses: the Whitelaw Hotel, Club Prudhom, Lincoln Colonnade, Underdown Delicatessen, and Murray Brothers Printing Company.

In addition, there was memorabilia from both the Scurlock Studio and of individuals and institutions included in the photographs that placed the photographs into a meaningful context and added an even more authentic feel to the environment. ...An enjoyable, exciting, and rewarding experience. For location and further detail, follow the link:

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Saturday, February 7, 2009

Validate Yourself...Question 3

This is a continuation, Part 3, of the series of questions posed by the Black Artists of DC (BADC).

Can you identify the key repositories of information on black art and artists in this country?I must emphasize that I will mention some of the key repositories of information on black art and artists in this country; and for our purposes, I will limit my examples to those in close proximity to the Washington, DC area. Also, bear in mind that the strength of the repository is based on the particular research or information need or topic that an individual is seeking. When I think of simply art collections with a stronger than normal focus on black visual art some of the richest collections of black art are at the Historical Black Colleges and Universities. These historical collections are valuable in their scope, breath and depth. To view and study their holdings is an educating and enriching experience. Some examples include: Howard University, Hampton University, Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University, Fisk University, Morgan State University, South Carolina State University, Winston-Salem State University, and North Carolina Central University. However, even in the cases where there are strong visual art collections, there are not always equally strong archival and printed material to support research on those collections or on black art in general. Perhaps, the enhancement and documentation to support black art will be the next phase of development for those collections.

To zero in on the specific question of key repositories of information on black art and artists, particularly those in close proximity to the Washington, DC area, I would mention the following:
The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, has an Art and Artifacts Division which collects, documents, and preserves art by and about people of African heritage. Their emphasis is on twentieth century visual arts in the United States and Africa. Schomburg’s collection of painting and sculpture is a rich survey of African American artists from the late nineteenth century to the present. Their strengths include the Harlem Renaissance, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and the Black Arts Movement of the 60s and 70s. Their General Research and Reference Division is substantial in terms of books and exhibition catalogs on black artist. As a point of comparison, their treatment of literature texts is even stronger than the visual arts.

Hatch-Billops Collection, Inc. (New York) began in 1975 and consists of approximately 13,200 slides representing 352 visual artists and approximately
4,000 black and white photographs documenting African American writers, performers and visual artists. The Reference Library contains over 20,000 pieces, consisting of exhibition catalogs, doctoral dissertations, manuscripts, books, periodicals, etc. relating to African American experience in the arts. Hatch-Billops Collection houses an archival collection of oral histories of African American artists from all fields of the arts, including painter, sculptors, photographers, etc. All of those interviews will soon be online and indexed at Alexander Street Press, who publishes digital collections of exceptional quality. Finally, the Hatch-Billops Collection publishes Artist and Influence, an annual journal that includes oral histories of visual artists, as well as individuals in literature and the performing arts.

Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American ArtOne collection in the Archives that I highly recommend is the personal papers of more than seventy African American artists from the late 19th century to the present. The following are the types of items included in the personal papers of an artist: exhibition catalogs, announcements, letters, sketchbooks, clippings, photographs, posters, and writings of the artist. In addition, there are over 70 taped-recorded interviews; transcriptions are available online.

Through using these papers and reading the interviews, one can see the societal challenges that African American artists struggled to overcome and the accomplishments and contributions that they have made in spite of those obstacles.

The Smithsonian Libraries at the American Art Portrait Gallery, Hirshhorn, Anacostia, and African Art Museums house a strong collection of books, magazines/journals, and vertical files of ephemeral materials.

David Driskell Center will be an extremely strong force when those papers are processed and the book and archival collections are made fully accessible. The Gallery space is awesome and I recommend that all pay a visit; programming is strong; and collection building is on a continual focused basis.

The Local Artists Files in the Art Division of the District of Columbia Public Library are a rich source. Also, the Division has vertical files of materials and a solid book collection on black art and artists. It can either help you find what you need on site or can be a great starting point in your research endeavors and that may lead to an appropriate referral locally or across the country.

These are simply a few repositories. Across the country, special collections at major universities and museum libraries, as well as some select large public libraries, will have rich collections to varying degrees, focusing on the visual arts. Again, the few repositories that I have focused on are in close proximity to the Washington, DC area.

Finally, I need to mention the work that has been and continues to be undertaken at the Amistad Research Center, Tulane University in New Orleans, simply because of the recent devastation to the city resulting in hurricane Katrina. I must remain mindful of the strong black presence and cultural heritage in that city. The Amistad Research Center has an African American Collection that consists of two major categories: The Aaron Douglas Collection (late 19th and early 20th centuries art) and Contemporary African American Art. The Center is also the repository for the papers of Richmond Barthe, Elizabeth Catlett, William E. Pajaud, John T. Scott, Hale Woodruff and Varnett Honeywood. There is a library of over 20,000 items and all of Amistad’s books are in Tulane University’s online catalog. In addition, the books and exhibition catalogs that are a part of Howard Tilton Memorial Library at Tulane University add even more strength to the Amistad Center’s Collection.

Key repositories of information on black art and artists in this country is a topic that I intend to explore in further detail, highlighting private, academic, and public institutions across the country. As a whole, these institutions are essential because they identify, collect, and make materials accessible for our use, and through their collections, they document the role of black artists and art in the broader field of American art.

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Validate Yourself...Question 2

Approximately a year ago, I was interviewed by Adjoa Burrowes, a member and blog writer for the Black Artists of DC (BADC) on "The Importance of Documentation for Artists." Adjoa posed a series of insightful questions on various aspects of documenting with the intent that the series of questions would constitute an ongoing dialogue on documenting Black art. However, the series was not completed. For the beginning of that series, focusing on the first question posed, "Why is it important for Black artists to document their work?", please see the Black Artists of DC (BADC) blog: The continuation of the series will appear as a part of the Black Art Project's blog. The answers to the questions are presented as they were for the interview. Additional information will be added to these questions as requested from viewers.

How exactly should an artist document and what tools should be used?

Documentation simply requires the artist to be proactive and take charge of his/her career without minimal disruption to the creative process. This can be done by keeping brief notes on ideas and concepts that you are attempting to convey in your art. If writing is cumbersome, then turn on a tape recorder as you work and think out aloud…talk to yourself. Capture thoughts at the end of your day or the beginning of the day…whatever is best for your style. Keep drafts or studies…just throw them in a bag, don’t try to organize, leave that for an archivist. Save discussions and communications via email or written format that you have with other artists or with galleries. Have digital images or traditional photographs or slides of your work that can be kept and printed later as the need arises. Insist that any gallery or space showing your work create a catalog or brochure. At minimal, certainly insist on an exhibition announcement card and ask for a press release. Make certain to have images of your artwork as it hangs in the gallery or venue and keep the price list; this affords tangible documentation that the exhibition occurred. Keep images of the full body of your artwork and maintain records of what you sold and to whom it was sold. Even when art is sold through an art gallery, the artist wants an on-going record of what was sold and to whom. As the artist matures, these records will make it easier to call works of art in from around the world for his/her major retrospective, saving thousands of dollars in research and magazine ads to locate the art.

If this sounds too cumbersome to undertake, then outsource many of those tasks to another person for a nominal cost and factor that cost into the price of your art when selling. Because each artist’s creative spirit and style of working will vary, so will the way in which each will handle the process of documentation. I just hope that there can be a happy medium between being creative and working smart to document.

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