Made In America: The Economics of Black Art

“As the art market rebounds, we are seeing a surge in collectors seeking African-American Fine Art—especially scarce and important works. The sale began with intense competition for 19th-century paintings by Duncanson and Porter, and the momentum was sustained all the way to the final section, a celebration of Romare Bearden’s centennial year, where two of his collages from the early 1970s sold in the high five figures.” - Nigel Freeman, Director of African-American Fine Art at Swann Galleries, in a press release after the February 17,2011 Sale 2237.

Collecting art, especially works by African Americans and those in the Diaspora, was once revered as taboo and with little to no value for a serious collector. No longer considered a hobby, African American art has always played a tremendous role in the fabric of not only The United States but the world as a whole. There are a number of factors that have contributed to its continued popularity: President Obama’s selections of works by several artists, including Alma Thomas, to grace the walls of The White House; The National Museum of African-American History and Culture; and several retrospectives at major museums of artists like Glen Ligon, Barkley Hendricks, Kara Walker and Radcliffe Bailey.

For a brief moment during the 1980s, there became this increasing interest in works by Old Masters such as Tanner, Charles White, Norman Lewis and many others. But it was during the late 90s that works by artists of African descent experienced a tremendous boom in the investment sectors. On June 26, 20011 at Phillips de Pury & Co’s first contemporary sale at Claridge’s in Mayfair, a Jean-Michel Basquiat self-portrait sold for an impressive 2.1 million pounds ($3.4 million). A few years ago, Swann Galleries of New York City, one of the few auction houses that deal African American art, sold their highest painting by Aaron Douglass for $600,000 though originally priced for $100,000. And who could forget that in 1981 actor and philanthropist Bill Cosby purchased Henry Ossawa Tanner’s Thankful Poor from the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf at a Sotheby’s auction for an astonishing $200,000-plus.

It seems that African American art is becoming more valuable monetarily and culturally. “We [Swann Galleries] started our African-American Fine Art department back in 2007 with a focus on bringing those types of works as well as artists to the forefront,” says Nigel Freeman, Director of African-American Fine Art“But much success is owed to Bill Cosby who is responsible for this boom of early collectors in the 1980s before the prices skyrocketed. It wasn’t until these instances that we were able to sell Romare Bearden collages for six figures. With no known records auction records no one knew how to price or even market these works. The demand was always there but I never knew why there wasn’t any supply.”

But how are price points determined on these works? Freeman says that desirability, sales records, scarcity and quality all come into play. “Since we, Swann Galleries, are part of a secondary market, the pricing is less than retail which may fair better because it equates to huge leaps in sales,” he said. “In the end it all boils down to previous auction records and access to records, via the internet, to compare.”

But according to a preliminary sale in early 2011, Swann Galleries boasted a sale total of $1,259,034 with Buyer’s Premium of 148 lots with 116 sold at a 22% buy-in rate by lot. So this proves that, even in a recession, African-American art has proven to be a source of revenue for the proper investor.

On the other hand, you have those interested in preservation of history rather than the economics of it all because, as we’ve heard time and time again, one can never put a price on history. Dr. Imo Nse Imeh, Assistant Professor of Art & Art History, Westfield State University, also an artist, says that just as art is subjective so is popularity of the work itself. “ The purchase of a particular piece of art could save the work from being destroyed in an instant. If the right person makes the purchase, some sort of visibility could make the work more valuable in a sense,” he says. “When pricing my work, there has never been issue because I value it based upon the size as well as scholarship of art history.”

As a Black artist, Imeh says that the cultural and identifying racial themes impact the value and price determined by the art world. “One must always keep this in mind: The white artist is the mainstream artist. Mainstream art is a white world. It is controlled by a white circle therefore determining who can purchase art.”

Even with the presence of the auction, galleries, museums and dealers, there lies another venue in which to reach the artist and that is technology. This has allowed for the artists themselves to be able to control who buys their art, where it is distributed and how it is used. This method is especially popular with young African-American artists.

Leopold Vasquez, founder of Sound of Art, a multi-faceted, visual arts-driven business that acts as a liaison between a vast pool of emerging artists and the art buying public, has noticed how technology has changed the motivation for many young artists. “What I have noticed about African-American art today that I sell is that it’s less about a message and more about connection. They have solved the issues and obstacles in dealing with representation. Technology has allotted them more options in connecting with more people. So it becomes less about their plight of being a black artist and more about them being an artist.”

Although technology has enabled more works of art to be exposed and, thereby, given Black artists a larger platform, Imeh doesn’t believe the power of Black political art has diminished. If anything, it’s only evolved.

“Black art today is in a very interesting place especially ‘now that we have a black president.’ There are new shifts in altering how blacks are seen in white spaces but I don’t think so much has changed,” said Imeh. “I don’t think that things are so different that they were in the 90s, 80s and 70s but there is a surge for multiculturalism and the presence so many different types of ‘black ‘now. We are now not dealing with black art on the canvas but how we view the black art in alternate spaces and how do we define blackness.’

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