According to Bloomberg, the art market has suddenly “discovered” the work of black artists, by which is meant that whereas their art has always been acknowledged, it has to a very great extent also been ignored, thus keeping prices low. Now, they are the artists that museums and collectors are scrambling to acquire, a trend that is sending prices rocketing.
Whereas art market enthusiasms usually turn out to be fads that quickly fade, the current interest in black artists – at least as far as the United States is concerned – is being given major support by the purchases being made by high-profile museums and collectors, and events. For example, the MoMA has acquired some 430 works by black artists since 2010, says its painting and sculpture chief curator Ann Temkin. And it too is enjoying a high-profile moment since the painting by Chris Ofili of a black Madonna featuring elephant dung entered the museum’s permanent collection. The work hit the headlines in 1999 when New York’s mayor at that time, Rudy Giuliani, attempted to have it removed from an exhibition. It was recently donated to the museum by hedge-fund manager Steve Cohen.
A moment that everyone will remember added fuel to the fire in 2018: the official portraits of former President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle were both commissioned from black artists, Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald respectively. No greater endorsement could be made of either the artists in question or the place that black art should occupy, and the portraits immediately boosted attendance figures dramatically at Washington’s National Portrait Gallery. Now Amy Sherald’s works are eagerly awaited and she has a retrospective booked at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 2020.
The prices for works by such artists as Barkley Hendricks, Kerry James Marshall, Sam Gilliam, Mark Bradford and Simphiwe Ndzube are booming. In the words of Lisa Melandri of the Contemporary Art Museum St Louis, “It’s a watershed moment”.