Within today’s story in the Wall Street Journal about the Obamas’ interest in bringing Contemporary art to the White House, there’s an interesting sub-story about the prospects for African-American art during the Obama presidency. Prices for African American art have been rising. Some ascribed it to Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey’s effect on the market. But recent sales have shown real interest in buying artists like Beauford Delaney from the original collectors. Bonhams has done nicely initiating this category. The Obama’s interest clearly raises the stakes as illustrated in this passage:
Many of the same deep-pocketed collectors who helped Mr. Obama fund his presidential campaign are now offering works. E.T. Williams, a New York collector of African-American art who has sat on museum boards including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is among the would-be donors.
Earlier this month, Mr. Williams, a retired banker and real estate investor, strolled through his Manhattan apartment and stopped in front of the jewel of his collection, a smoky-hued portrait of a man in a fedora by Lois Mailou Jones. The painting is appraised at $150,000 but he says he would happily donate it to the White House permanent collection. He also says the Obamas can “borrow anything they like” from his collection, which includes works by Romare Bearden and Hale Woodruff.
Mr. Williams says that although a loan or donation to the White House could boost his collection’s profile, his offer is motivated by a desire to support the president. A White House spokeswoman says that any potential donations to the permanent collection must go through the curator’s office.
African-American collectors, in particular, snapped to attention when word spread that Mr. Obama might want to borrow art, says Bridgette McCullough Alexander, a Chicago art advisor who went to high school with the first lady. She says some of her collector clients have expressed interest in loaning works to the White House.
“For collectors, it was as if a call went out that the Obamas needed to fill their fridge. The grocery list of artists just rolled out,” she says.
Displaying African American painters at the White House goes beyond “filling the fridge.” Visibility and stature is what many of these painters need. Though visibility doesn’t necessarily have a positive effect on prices, as this story shows:
In 2007, the White House Acquisition Trust, a nonprofit which funds art acquisitions approved by the preservation committee, paid $2.5 million for Jacob Lawrence’s rust-colored collage of workers at a building site, four times its high estimate and far surpassing the artist’s $968,000 auction record at the time, says Eric Widing, head of Christie’s American paintings department. The purchase may have given the Lawrence market a boost. The next spring, a collector paid Christie’s $881,000 for a different Lawrence, the third highest price ever paid for one of his works.
The 1995 acquisition of Henry Ossawa Tanner’s Atlantic City beach scene had the reverse effect. The White House purchased the work from the artist’s grandniece for $100,000, significantly below the $1 million asking price of similar Tanners. The modest price of the highly publicized purchase sent the price of Tanners plummeting, several gallery owners say.
Don’t worry about Tanner’s prices. But as the Obamas continue on this campaign, the question is whether they can move African American painting into the mainstream of 19th and 20th Century American art:
Next month, the Obamas will consider borrowing four works by African-American artist William H. Johnson including his “Booker T. Washington Legend,” a colorful oil on plywood depiction of the former slave educating a group of black students, from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The Art Institute of Chicago plans to send as many as 10 works for the first family’s consideration, including pieces by African-American modernist Beauford Delaney and abstract expressionist Franz Kline.
Obama is Changing the Art on the White House Walls (Wall Street Journal)