Two Works of African-American Art Arrive at the White House

Find out which artists the Obamas chose for the nation's most prestigious art collection.

The late Jacob Lawrence in his Seattle studio. (Getty Images)

President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, recently added some color to the White House art collection, and African-American art collectors were thrilled. While there are only a few black artists numbered among the Obamas' selections, they did choose works by relative unknowns from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden: Glenn Ligon, a conceptual artist, and abstract expressionist painter Alma Thomas, who had the first solo show by a black woman, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in 1971.

Previously there were only five African-American-derived pieces among the 450 works of art in the White House. Those works were portraits by Simmie Knoxof President Bill Clinton and now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, The Builders by Jacob Lawrence, Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City by Henry Ossawa Tanner and The Farm Landing, a landscape by Rhode Island artist Edward Bannister.

The Obamas' choices will not trigger a rush for black art. But it should increase the value of the works and artists on display, and inspire collectors to explore African-American-made art.

"The world can now look at the White House collection," says New York gallery owner June Kelly, "and note that art by African-American artists is getting attention and fetching good prices, both in private sales and at auction. It bodes well."

Kelly knows black art. Before opening her gallery in 1988, she managed the career of Romare Bearden for 13 years. She has also supported sculptor and printmaker Elizabeth Catlett and abstract painter James Little, and guided numerous African-American art collectors.

New York gallery owner Michael Rosenfeld is even more upbeat. A veteran promoter of black artists, he believes that the recession increases collectors' selectivity. "It's all about quality now," he says. "There are many great African-American artists, and more works are becoming available. Young collectors who once were only interested in young artists are getting excited about the historically important artists. Prices are higher than they have ever been. For instance, last year, Norman Lewis' works on paper sold from $8,000 to $35,000, and his paintings up to $450,000."

Black art did not gain status without a struggle. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, major museums held demeaning shows of African-American art or ignored it. There were protests about the 1968 Metropolitan Museum of Art show "Harlem on My Mind." Black critics decried how it ignored artists like Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden and focused on sociological trends. The uproar galvanized the community and forced institutions like the Whitney Museum of American Art to exhibit the work of black artists. Most major U.S. museums collect African-American art now, with comprehensive collections found in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts, The Phillips Collection, the New Jersey State Museum and the African American Museum in Philadelphia.

For decades, historically black universities, like Howard, Fisk and Hampton, supported black artists on their faculty, and their alumni took the lead in conserving their legacies and establishing collections. Howard acquired works by muralist Aaron Douglas and multimedia artist Lois Mailou Jones, and Hampton bought the prints and sculpture of Elizabeth Catlett.

The Studio Museum in Harlem joined the movement, and through its artists-in-residence program it has supported 100 graduates -- including Kerry James Marshall, gestural painter Julie Mehretu and versatile Kehinde Wiley -- who have gone on to highly regarded careers.

African-American Collectors

More African Americans also began to collect black art. On their honeymoon in 1949, Vivian and John Hewitt began assembling their distinguished Hewitt Collection of African-American Art. After taking a 10-year tour of 25 American cities, it is now housed at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture in Charlotte, N.C. "We started with prints," Ms. Hewitt says. "You don't have to be wealthy to collect. But they made us very happy."

John Hewitt, a writer, and his spouse, Vivian, followed their hearts and befriended many artists, opening their home to showcase the work by multitalented Hale Woodruff, Ernest Crichlow, comic book and fine artist Alvin Hollingsworth, and painter J. Eugene Grigsby, Mrs. Hewitt's cousin. "What a wonderful time we had promoting the art and the artists," she says.

In 1978 Dr. Walter O. Evans added Jacob Lawrence's portfolio series "The Legend of John Brown" to what is now one of the finest collections of African-American art. "I love finding good art," he said. "But I have been slowed by the recession due to lack of funds, even though major works are available at reasonable prices. In the past, there were not many collectors in the marketplace, and I was usually the successful bidder unless Bill Cosby wanted the work. Now I have much more competition."

Buying an Elizabeth Catlett sculpture turned Helen Forbes-Fields and her husband, Darrell, into collectors in 1986. They then gravitated to the Cleveland's black-owned Malcolm Brown Gallery and decided to focus on early black masters. Before long they acquired a sculpture by Selma Burke, and today they own about 40 first-rate works.

"Collectors don't so much think in terms of good and bad times to buy," Forbes-Fields says. "I bought that first Catlett on layaway. Maybe I can't afford a William H. Johnson, but there may be a young artist that I can."

A Buzz About African American Art

Kinshasha Holman Conwell, deputy director of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, is optimistic about the trend. She cites increased interest in black art among mainstream museums and collectors. For example, retrospective shows have been held, respectively, of the work of lyrical abstractionist and color field painter Sam Gilliam in 2005 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and sculptor Martin Puryear at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2007. "I believe African-American art will only become more appreciated and valued in the years to come," says Conwell.

As director of the Studio Museum in Harlem in the 1970s, she initiated a course called "The Fine Art of Collecting." "It's really not that mysterious," she says. "It's a way of becoming a good cultural citizen. You get so much back living with art that you love. What would happen to museums if not for the passion, foresight and generosity of collectors?"

Valerie Gladstone, who writes about the arts for many publications, including The New York Times, recently co-authored a children's book with Jose Ivey, A Young Dancer: The Life of an Ailey Student.

To learn more about this click here.