Supporting African American Art Galleries: Four Reasons to Take Care of Creative Genius

After the recent publishing of the New York Times article about black art dealers, a number of black gallerists voiced their concerns about the writer’s research gaps and crafting of an incomplete narrative about the history of black art dealing. Confronting such journalistic work means transmuting the false into a celebration of the efforts by African American art gallerists to support black artists. ZuCot Gallery, the largest African American art gallery in the Southeast, has been a major driving force within the black art community for almost 10 years; and has served the community in a number of ways, with their educational Art Tasting℠ series as a recent example.

Each month, The Henderson family—ZuCot gallery partners Onaje Henderson and Omari Henderson and their father Mr. Aaron F. Henderson who is an artist—add to their longstanding history of arts education by teaching the community about collecting art. On August 18, they explained the difference between professional and emerging-level art materials, offered critical questions and practices to consider when purchasing art, and emphasized the need to prioritize investments in African American art. “We have to become more interested in caring about our culture…we have to own it through the lifespan.” These words from Onaje continue to resonate with me and inspired my questions for this blog post. As we grow more committed to owning our culture, what are some of the ways we can support African American gallerists who do this work? More broadly, why should we support African American galleries? Consider the reasons listed below when visiting a gallery, attending ZuCot’s next Art Tasting℠, or purchasing work from an African American artist.

1. Gallery professionals challenge the undervaluing and subjugation of African American art, while championing artists who visualize humanity through the experiences of black people. A number of Black art galleries were established during the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements—a time when artists were depicting the struggle for racial justice and were often denied the opportunity to display their work in white-owned galleries. This need for support bred the emergence of galleries whose staff shaped the careers of countless African American artists. These galleries have mostly crafted their mission statements around supporting African American artists and making their art accessible to black communities. To support these galleries means replenishing the efforts of those who teach, sell, and promote work by African American artists.

2. Measuring the heartbeat of the art economy. A gallery typically offers exposure to artists when their work is valued at a relatively accessible buying price and precedes the economic barriers often put in place when the artist reaches the height of their career. This level of support deems African American art galleries as referents for the current heartbeat of the art economy and a space for artists to sell their work at accessible price points.

3. The gallery as the classroom. Telling our stories through art is essential; but how do we assess the meaning of art in the proper context? ZuCot Gallery’s Art Tasting℠, school tours, and community outreach efforts are representative of the ways African American art galleries have consistently closed educational gaps and dispelled the fear and intimidation many people feel when engaging with art. By learning about the role art plays in capturing our history, we develop the knowledge to assess its value and feel more comfortable using the language necessary to explain why we enjoy it.

4. Custodians of African American culture. The transition from artisan to artist marked a major turning point in the African American historical canon. Unfortunately, our ability to know the full history behind African American creative practices during slavery is highly unlikely—making our responsibility to hold onto the cultural genius and creative efforts of African American artists more pressing than ever. Our history cannot be lost in translation or sold to those who do not value the visual legacy of African American people. Art galleries have the ability to monetize artists’ work and place it in the hands of those who intend to share our history in a positive light. Unlike a car or a designer handbag, art appreciates in value. It is a cultural commodity, needing to be collected and valued as such, with the gallery functioning as the custodian of African American culture.

As the African American art community continues to evolve, so will the reasons to support a gallery. ZuCot Gallery strives to promote the work of African American artists and welcomes those who are committed to serving the black art community in all capacities. To receive more information on how to support Zucot, you can follow us on Twitter and Instagram and subscribe to our newsletter.

If you are in search of galleries farther north or even west, check out Galerie Myrtis in Baltimore or stop by Papillion gallery in Los Angeles to gain a up close look at the work being done by black art dealers and gallerists throughout the US. You can also stay up to date with black art news by following Black Art in America and learn more about art collecting from author Halima Taha in her book  Collecting African American Art.