COLLECTING CONNECTIONS Younger African Americans are finding value in acquiring “legacy pieces” by black artists.

POSTED: December 17, 2006

Saniah Johnson hopped from booth to booth at the 21st annual Philadelphia International Art Expo last month, taking in the plethora of paintings, sketches, serigraphs, sculptures and dolls created by African American artists.

While Johnson, 32, appreciates the works of the Eakinses and Wyeths, she feels drawn to the richness of art from her culture. She already owns two pieces by Andrew Turner, the prolific Philadelphia artist who died in 2001, and is eager to expand her collection.

“It was one thing to own a poster in college,” said Johnson, an assistant vice president for financial planning and reporting at Delaware Investments. “Now I’m finding myself wanting to own originals. I’m looking for legacy pieces.”

Johnson is one of a growing number of young African American professionals who have been drawn to collecting black art, making moot the generalization that serious collecting starts at about age 40 or older.

With good jobs, more disposable income, and more places to experience art, they are realizing that art fits nicely in their upwardly mobile lives and homes, and often turns out to be a good investment.

“After some people buy the first piece, they are scared to death. They can’t drive it and they can’t live in it,” said Lamar Redcross, 34, director of the October Gallery, which produces the Philadelphia International expo.

But, Redcross said, the new buyers “get over it” and come looking for more.

“Some of them grew up in families that didn’t have a lot of money but they knew there was this one piece in the house they weren’t allowed to touch,” he said. “Now these young people have careers and are educating themselves about art.”

Celebrities have brought cachet to the practice as well. Basketball star Grant Hill’s collection of African American art, including works by Romare Bearden, John Biggers and Elizabeth Catlett, appeared in museums across the country on a three-year tour that ended in July.

A few weeks back, hip-hop honcho Jay-Z reportedly dropped $2 million on a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting, a gift for girlfriend Beyonc.

And some artists, such as Kehinde Wiley, whose Old World-meets-hip-hop-styled paintings of young African American men have been snapped up by the likes of Denzel Washington, have themselves become celebrities. Wiley, 29, is featured this month in the art issue of Vanity Fair.

Some collectors say the increased exposure to the wide array of work by black artists shows there are often affordable “true” art options to the inexpensive prints and velvet posters that some grew up with. And others recall seeing their parents host or attend “art parties,” events held in homes that brought together small groups to view and buy black art.

For some new collectors, such as Racquel Bruton, 34, a clinical trials manager from Lansdowne, collecting began out of the notion that art “brings an identity to one’s home.”

When she was growing up, one side of her family displayed family portraits. The other side, she said, “would have the white Jesus on their wall.”

“Going to art galleries and expos showed me there’s art that truly expresses my interest,” said Bruton, whose collection includes a work by Ernie Barnes. “The art I have on my walls is a reflection of who I am. When people come to your home they see your art and they can tell.”

It is clear from the walls at Sterling Johnson’s South Philadelphia home that he has an affinity for African American art.

At 47, he has amassed more than 200 pieces; the first was a Sylvia Walker watercolor purchased in 1991. Other artists include Bearden, Allan Edmunds, Charles Smith and Joe Barker.

Johnson goes beyond mere collecting, as he has developed relationships with artists so he can find out “what goes into” the works. He also educates his friends about art, and organizes visits to galleries along the East Coast throughout the year.

“As soon as I graduated from college and realized I could purchase art, I was hooked,” said Johnson, a civil engineer. “Before that, it just felt like something you’d look at in a museum.”

Gallery owners have taken notice. At Collectible Art & Frame, owner May Allan said that customers have upgraded from unsigned prints to more original or limited edition works from artists such as Charles Bibbs, Annie Lee, Alonzo Adams from New Jersey, and Philadelphian Laurie Cooper.

At Allan’s well-stocked Chestnut Street gallery, about 95 percent of the works are by African American artists, including several from the Philadelphia area. Originals sell for as much as $15,000, but buyers spend an average of about $4,000 for an original and about $1,500 for a limited-edition print.

“They’re not just looking for decorative pieces,” said Allan, who has seen an uptick in younger clients. “People used to come in and ask for the painting with the woman sitting in church or the man on the park bench. Now they know the names, they are looking at value, and they want to know more about the artists.”

The galleries have also become popular social outlets, serving as meeting places for young professional groups, fraternities and sororities, and alumni outings. Museums, too, such as the African American Museum in Philadelphia, have formed groups for young professionals.

Shawn Benjamin, 38, got bitten by the art bug while attending a Cornell University black alumni fund-raiser at October Gallery. There, gallery founder Mercer Redcross (Lamar’s father) gave one of his famous art-appreciation lectures, explaining the difference between various forms and teaching attendees how to recognize pieces that would appreciate in value.

“At that time, my apartment was decorated with posters from Ikea,” said Benjamin, a Realtor from Wynnefield Heights. “After hearing him, I said, ‘Not only can I beautify my home with art from people who are showing our culture in a beautiful way, but there could be an added bonus.’ . . . I bought a piece that day.”

Benjamin now owns “well over 20 pieces” by black artists, including five original Turners and a $3,500 limited-edition Bearden from the “Prevalence of Ritual” series. Four years ago, he had the Bearden appraised – for $10,000.

“But the real value is not in the dollar amount,” Benjamin said. “This is art you’re connected to.”

Contact staff writer Dwayne Campbell at 215-854-5315 or dcampbell@phillynews.com.

Finding African American Art

Art Around Gallery

2011 Chestnut St. 215-972-1644

Art on the Avenue

3808 Lancaster Ave. 215-387-0401

Brandywine Workshop

730 S. Broad St. 215-546-3675. www.brandywineworkshop.com

ArtJaz Gallery

53 N. Second St. 215-922-4800. www.artjaz.com

Collectible Art & Frames

2044 Chestnut St. 215-629-8654. www.collectibleart.com

Dupree Studios Inc. Gallery

703 S. Sixth St. 215-413-3884. www.dupreestudiosinc.com

October Gallery

7175A Ogontz Ave. 215-629-3939. www.octobergallery.com

Perfect Touch Gallery

50th Street and City Avenue. 215-879-1879.

Sande Webster Gallery

2006 Walnut St. 215-636-9003. www.sandewebstergallery.com

The Young Friends Society of the African American Museum in Philadelphia can be reached at 215-574-0380, Ext. 222.

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