Why African-American Art Is So Hot

By Adams Susan,

Hanging in Robert Johnson’s den is an oil from the 1930s by an African-American artist named Palmer Hayden. The painting depicts a black American businessman getting his shoes shined.

The subject is nattily dressed in suit and spats, a little like Johnson himself, who is sporting a crisply pressed blue shirt and a shiny yellow tie.

Johnson may be known for the low-budget comedy routines and booty-shaking music videos that drove the success of BET, the cable channel he founded that turned him into America’s first black billionaire in 2001.

But in his private moments he is moved by art that documents the struggles and achievements of black people in America. Since the early 1980s Johnson, 62, has assembled some 250 pieces by 19th- and 20th-century African-American artists.

Though Johnson’s collection is probably worth only a couple of million dollars, it includes some of the most famous names of the genre: cubist-inspired collage artist Romare Bearden (1911-­88); modernist Harlem painter Jacob Lawrence (1917­-2000); and Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859­-1937), who studied under Thomas Eakins in the 1880s and was the first black painter to gain international acclaim.

Son of a Mississippi factory worker, Johnson started his channel in 1979 with a $500,000 investment from John Malone. He sold it to Viacom in 2001, receiving $1.5 billion in stock for his 63% share. Today he owns an NBA team, North Carolina¹s Charlotte Bobcats, and runs RLJ Investments in Bethesda, Md., which includes hotels, car and motorcycle dealerships, a bank and a nascent hedge fund and private equity arm. (Johnson’s current net worth: perhaps $700 million.)

In Pictures: Where To See African-American Art

In Pictures: Black Masters

Though mainstream museums and galleries have been slow to appreciate work by African-Americans, the black community has been collecting for decades.

Bill and Camille Cosby have built a collection of 400 works, including artists like Bearden, Lawrence, late-19th-century landscape painter Edward Mitchell Bannister, self-taught 20th-century artist Horace Pippin and 1960s abstract painter Alma Thomas.

Basketball star Grant Hill owns a collection of midcentury work. Entertainer Harry Belafonte has been collecting African-American art since the 1950s and Oprah Winfrey has been buying a mix of work, including pieces by contemporary artists like Whitfield Lovell. Spike Lee, Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Richard Parsons and Kenneth Chenault also collect.

Now white collectors and institutions are discovering these long overlooked works.

“What’s happened in the last five years is a paradigm shift,” observes Steven L. Jones, 61, an African-American dealer in Philadelphia. “This means that the best work is going up exponentially in value.”

Last year Swann Auction Galleries in New York became the first auction house to create a department of African-American art and in February sold a 1944 modernist oil by Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas for $600,000.

Johnson bought most of his art in 1998, when he learned that a significant body of work, the Barnett-Aden collection, was for sale by the Florida Education Fund, along with the building where the art was housed, the National Museum of African American Art, in Tampa. Johnson acquired 222 pieces, including 68 drawings, paintings, prints and sculptures from the original gallery. The rest of the pieces, all by black artists, were added by the museum. Johnson says he doesn’t recall what he paid, but a dealer familiar with the sale pegs it at $400,000. Two dealers who know the collection say it’s tripled and possibly quadrupled in value in the last decade.

Prices continue to climb for quality pieces, even while other collecting categories founder.

Manhattan dealer Michael Rosenfeld says business is strong; he made three six-figure sales during two weeks of stock market turmoil in November. The highest prices for artwork by African-Americans come in the still overheated contemporary art market, where Andy Warhol protégé Jean-Michel Basquiat is the reigning star, with a 2007 auction record of $14.6 million. Kara Walker, 39, who makes large cut-paper silhouettes containing sexual images and black stereotypes like pickaninnies, stirs controversy and commands prices over $400,000.

Johnson, who plans to stage a Washington, D.C., exhibition of his art this February, believes the works should be displayed separately from those of white Americans.

“This is work by artists who were influenced by the fact that they were African-Americans living in America and dealing with all that that means,” he argues.

Sometimes they provocatively exploit racial stereotypes. Example: a 1940 canvas hanging in Johnson’s office by Archibald Motley. Called “The Argument,” the painting depicts a street scene and a couple of men who look like minstrels in blackface, with oversize red lips. Johnson doesn’t have a problem with this picture.

“It’s just black folks being black folks,” he observes, smiling. “They’re talking about what happened in the club last night,” he adds. “Or maybe they’re talking about when they’re going to have a black president.”

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