AMHERST, MASS. — Once thought of as a peripheral interest in the history of art, a growing number of African-American artists are entering the mainstream, their works sought after by white and black collectors who see them variously as highly skilled, a cause to be supported, undervalued, or all of the above.
"We're catering to first-generation African-American art buyers," says George N'Namdi, owner of art galleries in Chicago and Birmingham, Mich., that feature predominantly African-American artists. More people have disposable income these days, Mr. N'Namdi says, "and we're trying to get them to buy art."
Most of the attention is going to such artists as Romare Bearden (1914-88), Joshua Johnston (1765-1830), Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), Horace Pippin (1888-1946), and Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), whose major works sell in galleries for hundreds of thousands of dollars in private sales.
For works by Tanner, prices have reached $1 million.
The works of living artists have also reached high levels. N'Namdi notes that prices for the large canvases of Howardena Pindell (b. 1943) have neared $100,000.
Those of Melvin Edwards (b. 1937) have fetched $30,000-$35,000. Alvin Loving (b. 1935) "has topped out at $70,000."
In general, prices are "several times higher than they were just 10 or 20 years ago."
Buyers are both white and black. Many of the white collectors regularly purchase American art and have broadened their interest to include this overlooked area.
Black collectors "almost exclusively buy the work of African-American artists," says Halley Harrisburg, director of the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in New York, a white-owned gallery showing African-American artists as well as white artists. "For many, it is a personal mission: They want to expose their children to art by African-Americans...."
Says collector Bruce Gordon, president of retail markets for Verizon in New York, "As an African-American, I wanted to invest in my own culture. I like art, first of all, and I had an interest and reasonable resources to invest."
Mr. Gordon notes that he is "not on a mission. I'm not trying to accomplish something, but when I meet other African-Americans who should be interested in the art of their own culture, but don't know how to gain access to it, I introduce them to what I collect."
Galleries exhibiting the work of black artists have reached out to the African-American community, sponsoring talks and classes about art in order to "get people to realize that it's all right to collect art," says Sherry Washington, a gallery owner in Detroit.
The opportunities for emerging African-American artists are far better than a generation ago, and prices for the works of some artists born after World War II are higher than for those of earlier generations. Jean-Michel Basquiat, for example, emerged directly into the mainstream art world, finding almost immediate critical praise and buyers - as have Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems, and a growing number of others.
The resale market for the work of African-American artists has been growing, although slowly. An untitled 1982 wood sculpture by Martin Puryear (b. 1941) fetched $489,000 last year at Sotheby's, exceeding the $300,000 to $400,000 estimate.
Even higher prices have been fetched at auction by Basquiat (1960-88), whose 1982 mixed-media "Self-Portrait" sold at Christie's in 1998 for $3.3 million - a record for the artist - well above the $400,000 to $600,000 estimate.
But many other well-regarded African-American artists haven't done so well at auction. Part of the reason for the relatively low prices and paucity of works being offered is that African-American art has not been the subject of a theme sale at any major auction house, nor is there anyone on the staffs who is an expert in this field.
"Few people in auction houses know anything about historical or even contemporary African-American art," Ms. Harrisburg says.
Because of that, "It makes no sense to put work up at auction," she says.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor