Long Overdue: Cultural Change Affecting the Art Market
The art market is experiencing a boom in demand for work by African American artists. Many factors over the years have contributed to this well-deserved but long overdue rise in recognition. In the appraisal business, it’s important to monitor these trends and any effects that they may carry with them, such as copycats or fakes hoping to take advantage of market directions. To counteract this, having a strong provenance is crucial and having work appraised and authenticated before attempting to sell is always beneficial to everyone involved.
Several decades ago, the art world was quite different. African American artists were largely not included, and their accomplishments went overlooked. Today the story has changed: art by African American artists is actively sought by museums, and more African American scholars are taking up curatorial positions in museums and academia. Several contributing factors and cultural movements have spurred this on. In 2008, Barack Obama was elected and was the first black president of the United States. He and his wife, Michelle Obama, wanted to have more artists of color represented in the White House. This request exposed the art world: people didn’t know how or where to look for these artists or their art because of their previous exclusion in the market and art history.
The Obama’s further advocated for the recognition of African American artists on a national and international stage when they commissioned Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald for their official portraits. In his speech, former President Obama stressed the importance of representation and praised Wiley, who paints subjects he meets and paints them in the context of royal portraiture, to recognize those who “make this country work but are so often out of sight and out of mind.” Since the paintings went on display in February 2018, the National Gallery had a record attendance of 2.3 million more than in 2017.
In 2017 the Tate Modern held the exhibit The Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983, and the exhibit has since been traveling around the United States. The show looks at the artwork of sixty artists and explores the cultural influences that define their unique approaches to black art as an agency of change, self-expression, and self-exploration. Since its opening, the show has been highly praised for shining light on the important work made by marginalized artists and the networks that have sustained them throughout the years.
Because of these events and numerous others, a number of African American artists have been selling at auction for record prices. For instance, the artist Jack Whitten had never sold at auction before 2011, and earlier this year a painting from 1974 was estimated to sell between $300,000 and $500,000, and it sold for more than five times the high estimate. The artist Kerry James Marshall’s paintings used to sell between $50,000 and $100,000 in 2006 and 2007. One of those pieces sold at that time returned to auction and sold for over $1 million, and his paintings have since sold at higher prices. Last year, a painting by Marshall sold for $21.1 million, setting a record for a work by a living African American artist. This sale still pales in comparison to the sale of a 1982 Basquiat in 2017 that went for $110 million and reveals a still-unbalanced market ($1.7 billion of the $2.2 billion, or 77%, went towards Basquiat). 2018 is the first year that African American artists other than Basquiat have even made the top ten list of works sold. Even with the top-heavy market, the ancillary effects of the demand for African American artists are resounding. Many artists are using their influence and relationship with galleries to expand the field and spread knowledge to collectors and curators, and museums are collecting artists that would not have been collected previously. Artists that are experiencing success in this generation are opening the doors for previous generations and generations to come. For example, Kerry James Marshall wrote an homage in the Paris Review to his mentor, Charles White, and described how seeing his artwork resounded with him and helped him to realize that his goals were in reach.
Another factor in the surge in demand on the art market is museums are rushing to catch up and diversity their collections as well. At the top of the grand staircase of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, visitors find themselves facing a large pair of canvases, both painted by the artist Julie Mehretu. They were commissioned by the museum for an unknown price in the millions and installed two years ago. SFMOMA committed to using a large part of the $50 million received from the recent sale of a Mark Rothko painting as a means of acquiring new works to diversify their collection. The Getty Research Institute also launched its African American Art History Initiative last year to boost the collection of archives and historical records of artists that had not been represented by major museums or galleries. This initiative will assist museums with the research needed to host exhibitions about African American artists.
Hopefully, this is not just a “trend” in the art market and African American artists continue to be increasingly recognized for their work, both in the art market and in museums.
As stated previously, African Americans artists have always been creating work, and the spaces that nurtured and supported these artists when the mainstream art world did not are being celebrated as well. Linda Goode Bryant, a filmmaker and activist, opened her gallery, Just Above Midtown (JAM), in 1974 and helped launch the careers of artists like David Hammons and Howardena Pindell. Bryant and her gallery were recently celebrated at Frieze New York and will be the subject of an exhibit in 2022 at The Museum of Modern Art.
With any demand in the market, there are those who would take advantage as well. A rise in forgery has accompanied the recognition and demand for the artwork of African American artists, exploiting of the lack of scholarship. Galleries that represent African American artists now have to keep “fake files” to compare for each new purchase, and even then they hesitate to authenticate for fear of being sued if it is a fake. Museums are also affected now that more exhibitions showcasing African American artists are being staged. A prominent art dealer has even recently encountered a forgery of an artist that’s included in the Soul of a Nation exhibit, Bob Thompson.
Because of this, a strong provenance is so important when buying or selling artwork, and appraisals are invaluable in determining authentication before buying, selling, or insuring. Having artwork authenticated and appraised not only officially ensures that it’s real and can provide a more accurate value, but that art owners and collectors are not unknowingly purchasing or selling forgeries of these artists that are finally being recognized for their work. The Getty Research Institute’s African American Art History Initiative can be of assistance with authentication research, and the galleries that have nurtured these artists before there was high demand for them would also be invaluable to counter the lack of information on these artists.
It’s always unfortunate to learn about imitators taking advantage of others’ successes, especially when that success is long overdue. To prevent further fakes from entering the market and tainting the achievements of African American artists, provenance and authentication are crucial when buying, selling, insuring, and donating artwork.