In 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement threw light on the longstanding social issue of the oppression of black people in the United States and many other countries. It not only concerns discrimination, but also a passive and commonplace form of racism, in which the black community is systematically under-represented. The art world, like practically every other industry, had long sidelined black artists, collectors and galleries. However mentalities are evolving. A welcome awakening, which brings about a growing representation of the black community in the art world, where its impact is hugely positive and significant.
African art had long been put aside and dismissed as tribal art. It wasn’t until the 21st century that its contemporary offerings and its other art forms have become a part of the international art scene in key locations like London or New York. Today the black community are located in all 4 corners of the world, and their work, inspired by anything from Pop Art, African art, to classical art, has begun to receive the recognition and praise it deserves. Of course some major players in art stand out, but they remain a minority among the huge majority of white male artists showcased in museums and galleries. The most well-known include Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kara Walker, Gordon Parks and Augusta Savage.
Jean-Michel Basquiat © Lee Jaffe/Getty Images
Exhibitions are also among a minority, the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art organised 8 exhibitions dedicated to black artists in the last 10 years whereas 40 exhibitions were organised by the museum this year. However, this famous New York museum has recently acquired around 200 artworks by black artists for its permanent collection.
The representation of black artists throughout art history is limited, almost absent. It is extremely important to educate students about them since this is equivalent to denying an entire part of the history of art. In effect, the Black British Art Movement has lasted longer than the Pre-Raphaelite era and Fauvism combined! It is essential for young people of all backgrounds to be able to identify the major players in a discipline, in order to create the passion that will push them to pursue a career in that field. Shining a light on black art history can only enrich the artistic production of the current black community. Although recognition of black excellence is becoming more common, such as Lubaina Himid’s 2017 Turner Prize, there is still a long way to go.
In the last few years, initiatives have been created by a small number of actors to better represent black artists. For example, the dedication of funds specially for the purchase of their work, replacing the works of white men by those of women and people of color, and hiring consultant curators. The situation has slightly improved but lots of progress remains to be made. In 2018, 80% of leadership posts in museums and galleries were filled by white people.
It is important to note that black culture is extremely rich and draws its inspiration equally from its African origins as it does from the multiculturality of the other various countries in which it has developed. Obscured for many years, the community brings a novelty, freshness and a feeling of progress in an often stagnant art scene. The artistic creations of the black community play a key role in the dynamism of the sector.
However, other actors have a role to play in order that these artists be recognized, listed and distributed, namely art professionals, and in particular galleries.
2. Art Professionals
Whether it be last year or more recently, you undoubtedly would have already seen articles mentioning black-owned galleries. In effect, following the social movement in the United States and Covid-19, many businesses have been going through difficult times. Black-owned galleries and businesses therefore emerged to find out which structures needed the most support during these difficult times, but also to give visibility to these often neglected actors.
Black owned galleries allow for primarily showcasing works by the black community, and act as an important vessel for the movement. Among them we can count Ground Floor Gallery in New York, Addis Fine Art in London or even (S)ITOR in Paris. These galleries also encourage artists’ freedom of expression by rejecting preconceptions. In addition, the objective of these galleries is often to accompany members of the black community in order to encourage a more open approach in the art world, which is sometimes considered inaccessible and elitist.
Finally, through galleries the black community is doing a great deal for its artists and culture. Beyond sharing voices that are often ignored by society, they contribute to the diversity of the art world and the fight against racism, making them absolutely essential. They allow for the exhibition of undervalued artists and talents, so that they are not forgotten from history as in the past.
"Basquiat : Defacement" at the Guggenheim, curated by Chaédria LaBouvier.
© Eddie Lee/Hypebeast
Through exhibitions and participation in fairs, galleries contribute to changing mentalities. Despite the pandemic, these galleries are offering new alternatives to continue to achieve their mission. For example, many galleries are offering digital exhibitions, such as "Am I Next?" by Christopher Cook at Welancora Gallery, or "dis/contented reality" with Sophia Azoige, Samuel Dallé, Àrà Deide, Amarch Odimba and Kaylyn Webster at Urevbu Contemporary.
A couple of young entrepreneurs have created an innovative virtual reality exhibition platform that galleries can subscribe to. Another solution already mastered by these new players is the online sale of art, for example through Artsper, which records more than 50 works sold per day.
The third element of the art world, on the flipside of vendors, is represented by collectors. They generally buy from galleries, sometimes directly from artists, through sales in person and through the internet or fairs.
If the representation of black artists in the current art market is on the rise, it is mainly thanks to black collectors. The relationship that collectors have with one another, their willingness to use art as a catalyst for developing their community and their art purchases are as essential as the creation of the artworks themselves.
It may seem obvious, but it is collectors who inject money into the art market by buying art. Without this influx of capital, a market does not work! The relationship between supply and demand determines this balance and then sets the prices. A model in which supply is abundant, but demand does not follow, will not work. The ratio between these two variables sets the price. The more collectors there are, the more demand there will be, the more black artists will be listed on the art market, the more visibility they will get, and the richer the market will be with works by these artists. It is a virtuous circle, which is important for maintaining the quality and diversity of the market in general.
Moreover, everyone can contribute. Galleries, by continuing their role of exhibiting the art of the black community to people who are not necessarily exposed to it, allow for the artistic education of future collectors. The more galleries with this objective, the more collectors and enthusiasts there will be in the market, whether they are from the black community or otherwise. Thanks to them, the value of the artists increases and the whole benefits.
Artists, galleries, collectors: all actors are linked to each other, resulting in a certain emulation. Galleries are nothing without their artists and buyers, collectors are nothing without talent and their intermediaries, and artists are nothing without their promoters and enthusiasts. When one variable is missing from the equation, the whole system breaks down. The nature of things and the evolution of today's society are pushing us towards an increasing inclusion of all minorities. It is essential to recognize that the art scene is incomplete without black culture and it is therefore necessary to value it by promoting its collection and dissemination.
The black community significantly enriches the art world and today all actors are moving to showcase it. Artists inject black culture into their works, while gallery owners - and Artsper! - distribute it to collectors throughout the world.