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.
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 Knoxof 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."