Marketing Afro-American Artists

There are many numerous reasons, some political, some economic, others social (very few, however, aesthetic) why those who wish to “market” the work of the Afro-American artists find it so difficult. For starters, the recent rather silly flap over the inclusion of non-white and female writers on a reading list for a Western Civilization course at Stanford University illustrates pervasive attitudes regarding the value of the cultural contributions of non-whites and women. Afro-American artists will never get their fair share of the market until and unless white males, who control almost all the major cultural and academic institutions in our society, finally accept the well documented fact that “Western Civilization” would not exist were it not for the contributions of most of the human beings in the world.

A report issued last May by the National Endowment for the Arts, “Toward Civilization,” sheds more light on the marketing dilemma. The report also points the way toward understanding the minimum which must be accomplished if Afro-American artists are ever to be competitive in the art market. According to the Endowment report, in 1982 61% of American adults did not visit one art museum or gallery nor did they attend a single jazz, classical, or operatic performance, or theatre production. These statistics serve to reflect and highlight the low priority placed on all cultural activities in our society. The report states, “basic art education does not exist in the United States today.” I suspect the lack of interest in culture in the United States will continue until we insist our schools develop and teach a multi-ethnic basic arts curriculum. If cultural interest continues to lag, I suspect that marketing the work of Afro-Americans artists will continue to be problematic.

Most Americans view cultural activities as play. The art professional (unlike, say, the sports professional) whether doing administrative or creative work is viewed as one who is engaged in an occupation unsuited for “serious” adults. Perhaps this attitude persists because, for most, culture and the arts is a leisure time activity, and art education is so hobby focused. Consider these statistics: According to the Cultural Assistance Center, New York’s art industry is larger than its advertising, hotel/motel operations or management consulting industries. The arts have a 5.6 billion-dollar impact on the economy of the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area; more than $2 billion in personal income and over 117,000 jobs are generated. The famed art galleries and art auction houses of New York City alone have a total impact of 360 million dollars on the local economy. And that figure excludes the values of art bought and sold.

When it comes to fine arts the view is not that the object represents years of training, study and in many cases sacrifice, but rather it is an object purchased to fill the void over the sofa. Unfortunately, the purchase of fine art is approached in much the same way in which one approaches the purchase of, say, a dishwasher, but with much less thought and study. Middle class Americans think nothing of spending $300 an hour for the services of an attorney, yet balk at spending $3000 for a work of art which may have taken months to produce. The notion of culture as a non-serious, non-essential endeavor, the equation of a work of art to kitchen appliances and the attitude that artists are, at best, children at play all contribute to the economic standing of artists in general and the Afro-American artist in particular.

The organization of the art establishment has several distinct and important segments which impact on the success or failure of the Afro-American artist in the marketplace. At the low end of the spectrum we have the manufacturers or the producers of art—artists both living and dead. Next come merchants—the middle men. Agents and galleries set the price as the artist comes into the marketplace, work to keep prices up, publicize the artist and negotiate with other sectors of the marketplace on his behalf. In the merchant category, there are also auction houses who after an artist has been established are called upon to negotiate the resale of the artist’s work. The sale price of art work at public auction is usually the accepted value of the that work.

The consumers, the fun bunch more popularly known as collectors, run the gamut from systematic to compulsive. Some are curatorial in their approach to collecting, focusing on a particular artist of period, while others are eclectic, buying whatever strikes their fancy. Individuals, corporations and public institutions all play this very dynamic role in the art market.

At the very top of the heap are institutions that validate artists. Museums, universities and the media are included in this group. Curators, journalists/critics and historians also have an impact on the market. Artists, unlike other manufacturers and producers, depend more on the good will of a select group which determines taste and access to works of art than they do on the good will for the general public. The politics of artist selection must certainly be factored into any analysis of why Afro-American artists are not in the mainstream art market.

Lowery Sims, associate curator for 20th century art of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, had this to say about artist selection in Black Enterprise:

The number of talented, innovative and exciting artists has fast outstripped the number of potential collectors. Therefore, the art establishment limits the number of “profitable” artists by nurturing the market values of a few, through a judicious sequence of sale, re-sale (inevitably at public auctions), and placement in prestigious public and private collections. Potential collectors are guided to this limited pool of artists by means of skillful advertising, capitalizing on the relative insecurity of most people with regard to artistic matters.

For further insight into why Afro-American artists continue to be locked out of the marketplace, a look at how advertising and marketing impacts the individual artist might help. In the art world there is a persistent tendency to deny that economics or marketing are even a part of the business. The notion of non-promotion in the art world persists even though marketing attempts by artists, collectors, galleries and museums can be well documented. Museum shop T-shirts of Auguste Rodin and Pablo Picasso and “suitable for framing” posters come readily to mind. The rule seems to be that if the general public, rather than the art establishment, is seen as the target audience, or it an attempt to make money is seen as the rationale for the marketing or publicity to make money is seen as the rationale for the marketing or publicity efforts, then there is much pooh-poohing and sometimes even backlash.

A case in point is the bad mouthing Mary Boone experienced after she launched the neo-expressionists in her Soho gallery. She did an end run around the establishment and went directly to the media, shoes and all. The arguments against what she did were couched in aesthetic and technical terms rather than marketplaces ones, since in the short run Mary Boone Gallery’s promotional activities paid off handsomely.

Art world transactions are conducted in the kind of hushed secrecy usually thought reserved for corporate takeovers. Unless the work being traded is auctions publicly the means of exchange is just not discussed, thus perpetuating the aesthetics/taste mystique, absent monetary, social or political considerations. The artist and even the gallery owner who would attempt to bypass the art establishment and take a message directly to the general public will more than likely be cut adrift from the mainstream. This may be true even if the artist’s work meets established aesthetic and technical criteria and even though the public endorses the work through purchase.

These factors place individual artist at a distinct advantage, more so for non-white artists existing as they do in a far different milieu than the art establishment. For while they manufacture the art, they have little or no control of the distribution channels. They do not set prices and usually do not have access to those who do, especially those who articulate the values which determine attitudes and lifestyles in the art world.

Afro-American Artists are doubly isolated, for they are also often cut off from their community. And even if they were not cut off from their own constituency, their numbers in the art establishment are so few that they have little impact on the marketplace. Affirmative action backlash must also be factored into this equation. Present day minority artists are placed in the curious position of having to fight the concept that they come to our attention not because of ability but rather because of ethnic background. This myth persists even though many Afro-American artists are educated in the same academies as are white artists who dominate the field. Paradoxically, white artists gain success using techniques first introduced to public attention by minority artists. This is especially troublesome when one hears white artists and the establishment justify this co-option with the dubious artistic philosophy of “appropriation.”

While Afro-American artists are cut off from the mainstream, collectors and validating institutions are cut off from this pool of creative and talented artists. Howardena Pindell delivered testimony in June 1987 at the “Agenda for Survival” conference at Hunter College which included statistics on the numbers of non-white artists represented by major New York galleries. Of the 65 galleries she surveyed 54 represented no non-white artists. The other 11 were not much better. (Semaphore, the gallery with the best minority representation, has since gone out of business.) It should be noted that some galleries who do not “represent” non-white artists occasionally “show” artists of color. The distinction is important because in this kind of set-up artists can be shortchanged, in that they do not receive the full benefits like publications and continual promotion they might receive if they were fully represented by the gallery. In addition, these artists may be precluded from showing in other galleries, thus further limiting their exposure and income.

Pindell’s testimony also included a survey of exhibitions mounted at seven New York museums between 1980-1987. Pindell asked the museums to delineate the focus of the exhibitions schedule based on these characteristics: African, Afro-Caribbean, Afro-American, Asian, Asian-American, Latin American, Central American or Caribbean, Latin or Central American Indian, Native American or Pacific. The museum survey is as dismal as the gallery survey. One museum mounted 73 group exhibitions none of which included any artists of color during the period surveyed.

Now about the media. No major daily newspaper treats the arts as the big business it is. Coverage is relegated to the Lifestyle section (formerly called the Women’s pages) of the paper. Unlike the federal Departments of Health and Human Services or Housing and Urban Development, the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities are covered randomly at best and rarely if ever in the “A” sections of the papers, even when newspapers report on congressional appropriations and allocations of grants.

The media have a stunning impact on the art world. The “newspaper of record,” the venerable New York Times, has probably the largest impact. But every daily worth its salt has a reviewer who wields enormous power in that market. I’ve been a successful publicist for more years than I admit I am old; I still have not figured out the rules. And I’m considered a quick study. My own experiences in publicizing activities at the Studio Museum in Harlem may serve to illustrate the contradictions and ambivalence which exist in the media when it comes to Afro-American cultural institutions and artists.

Item 1: In 1977, while researching coverage of the Museum, I came across a generally favorable review in the New York Times by John Canady of African artist Mbari Mbayo. I was struck, however, by this curious aside in the review:

It should be humiliating to artists of any group when a critic relaxes his standard in judging their work, and yet special dispensations are implicitly expected in the cases of ethnic groups when they are partitioned off in special exhibitions in special museums. The implication is never that the work is set aside by its superiority, but simply that it cannot make the grade against normal competition.

The Studio Museum in Harlem was conceived by the Junior committee of the Museum of Modern Art as a working space for artists—black and white. The Museum evolved, like many other established institutions, into what it continues to be—one of the few exhibition spaces available to artists of color. Where, I mused, did Mr. Canady place artists exhibited at New York’s Jewish Museum?

Mr. Canady’s words were on my mind when I wrote Hilton Kramer, then critic for the New York Times, regarding an exhibition of work by Al Loving and Randy Williams at the Studio Museum. My feelings on the matter have not changed. Here in part is what I said:

If the Studio Museum is to continue to grow as a viable cultural institution which serves not only the Black community but the larger community, as well, it is important that the shows we mount are impartially reviewed by institutions, such as yours, which the community respects… We, at the Museum, do not seek special consideration because we are Black. Rather, we ask that the work exhibited be considered on its own merit. Without reflection, minority artists or any other for that matter cannot survive and grow.

To his credit, Mr. Kramer reviewed the work, on its own merits. But I think Mr. Canady’s attitude still prevails.

Item 2: Ten years later, in 1987, I was again contracted to do some work for The Studio Museum. This time my assignment was to energize the Washington, D.C. community. I arranged for the then director, Dr. Mary Schmidt Campbell, to have lunch with Paul Richard, the art critic for the Washington Post.

Journalistically, it seemed simple enough. The Studio Museum in Harlem is the premier museum in the world devoted solely to the study, documentation, collection, preservation and exhibition of the art and artifacts of Black America and the African Diaspora. The Washington Post is the preeminent daily in the capital of the Western world where the largest concentration of Afro-Americans in the United States resides, in addition to very many foreign nationals from the Caribbean and Africa. In nearly twenty years, the Post had never written about the Museum, not even when Washington’s preeminent resident artist, Sam Gilliam, was given a show there. Armed with rave clips, we made our pitch, to no avail. Mr. Richard told us, “The Washington Post is a local paper”—even though the Post carries articles about other museum exhibitions worldwide.

There are more than 100 periodicals devoted to reporting on the fine arts, artifacts and “collectibles.” No respectable daily is without its “Lifestyle” section where museum and gallery shows are reviewed. However, I know of only three Afro-American journalists who are employed full time to write about culture for any major daily. I know of none who write primarily about the visual arts.

The big three Afro-American magazines, Ebony, Black Enterprise and Essence, offer no critical analysis by recognized historians or critics of the work of Afro-American artists. Their coverage of art professionals and artists of color is cursory at best. Even American Visions, the magazine about Afro-American culture supported by the Smithsonian Institutions, uses journeyman reporters rather than art historians and critics when they publish articles about the visual arts. Unless there has been a recent policy change, Black Enterprise does an issue on the arts only every five years.

I am not an advocate for the school of thought which insists only minorities should cover minorities but I do think that there would be a much more balanced picture in the media and minority artists would get a better shot in the marketplace if more of the major media institutions recruited, hired and nurtured minority writers and editors with art history backgrounds to write about the visual arts.

The televising of Alex Haley’s Roots in the late ‘70s caused the Afro-American community to awaken and rediscover their very rich cultural heritage. Simultaneously, marketing and entrepreneurism captured the imagination of the American public. This, coupled with news of record prices paid for bine arts, caused a new cottage industry to emerge—“marketing black art” by self-styled “art consultants,” both minority and white. The concept seemed to make sense. However, it was doomed from the start. Most of these nouveau art consultants did not understand basic marketing principles or, worse yet, the art market. Further, most had done little or no homework, has almost no knowledge of art history or the peers (white or non-white) of contemporary Afro-American artists. Consequently, they were unable to place the artists they attempted to “market” in either the aesthetic or historical context. They also failed to take into account the great debate raging in the Afro-American artistic community regarding the “Black Aesthetic” and its impact on the marketing concept.

They believed there was a large Afro-American middle class ready to support their efforts. Ultimately, they found that while this class had income, they did not have wealth. Many in this class had their disposable income, the income that was left after food, clothing and shelter, tied up in education their children or in supporting a particular lifestyle. The consultants touted the investment potential of Afro-American artists without making distinctions between unique works of art and reproductions or without understanding that “Black Art” is not a monolithic product.

Obviously, there is much to be done if those Afro-American artists whose talent, creativity and dedication warrant it art ever to achieve parity. Even though the picture is bleak, I do see some hope. There is at least one art consultant, June Kelly, who broke away from the pack. Her gallery opened last year and she seems to be developing a strong multi-ethnic stable of artists. There are some young curators and historians, like Kellie Jones, Deidre Scott, Judith Wilson and Beryl Wright who are organizing provocative shows and publishing insightful critical analysis.

No one group has all the responsibility for rectifying the abysmal situation which exists in the art world today. However, if we all, as admonished by the Afro-American educator Booker T. Washington “cast down our buckets where we are,” we may one day see an art market where, to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., an artist’s work is judged by the content of the art not the color of the artist’s skin.