Two Works of African-American Art Arrive at the White House

Find out which artists the Obamas chose for the nation's most prestigious art collection.

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The late Jacob Lawrence in his Seattle studio. (Getty Images)

President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, recently added some color to the White House art collection, and African-American art collectors were thrilled. While there are only a few black artists numbered among the Obamas' selections, they did choose works by relative unknowns from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden: Glenn Ligon, a conceptual artist, and abstract expressionist painter Alma Thomas, who had the first solo show by a black woman, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in 1971.

Previously there were only five African-American-derived pieces among the 450 works of art in the White House. Those works were portraits by Simmie Knox of President Bill Clinton and now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, The Builders by Jacob Lawrence, Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City by Henry Ossawa Tanner and The Farm Landing, a landscape by Rhode Island artist Edward Bannister.

The Obamas' choices will not trigger a rush for black art. But it should increase the value of the works and artists on display, and inspire collectors to explore African-American-made art.

"The world can now look at the White House collection," says New York gallery owner June Kelly, "and note that art by African-American artists is getting attention and fetching good prices, both in private sales and at auction. It bodes well."

Kelly knows black art. Before opening her gallery in 1988, she managed the career of Romare Bearden for 13 years. She has also supported sculptor and printmaker Elizabeth Catlett and abstract painter James Little, and guided numerous African-American art collectors.

New York gallery owner Michael Rosenfeld is even more upbeat. A veteran promoter of black artists, he believes that the recession increases collectors' selectivity. "It's all about quality now," he says. "There are many great African-American artists, and more works are becoming available. Young collectors who once were only interested in young artists are getting excited about the historically important artists. Prices are higher than they have ever been. For instance, last year, Norman Lewis' works on paper sold from $8,000 to $35,000, and his paintings up to $450,000."

For decades, historically black universities, like Howard, Fisk and Hampton, supported black artists on their faculty, and their alumni took the lead in conserving their legacies and establishing collections. Howard acquired works by muralist Aaron Douglas and multimedia artist Lois Mailou Jones, and Hampton bought the prints and sculpture of Elizabeth Catlett.

The Studio Museum in Harlem joined the movement, and through its artists-in-residence program it has supported 100 graduates -- including Kerry James Marshall, gestural painter Julie Mehretu and versatile Kehinde Wiley -- who have gone on to highly regarded careers.

African-American Collectors

More African Americans also began to collect black art. On their honeymoon in 1949, Vivian and John Hewitt began assembling their distinguished Hewitt Collection of African-American Art. After taking a 10-year tour of 25 American cities, it is now housed at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture in Charlotte, N.C. "We started with prints," Ms. Hewitt says. "You don't have to be wealthy to collect. But they made us very happy."