Hot Black Artists, Hotter Scene at Art Basel

Venturelli/WireImage; Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for HL Group;Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images
Venturelli/WireImage; Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for HL Group;Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images

By any standard, four sales for one gallery in the opening hour of an art show is impressive, but when all four artists are black, it's just short of amazing. The Tilton Gallery chose to show more than half a dozen black artists during the Art Basel Miami Beach show, something gallery associate Ryan McKenna said "is more than we would normally show," but he added that these are the "artists we're really interested in right now." McKenna said it is not just black artists who are hot right now, but "multicultural is the new direction of contemporary art."  (See The Root's slideshow of selected works by black artists.)


Welcome to the 10th year of ABMB, which took place in Florida's Miami Beach Convention Center from Dec. 1-4. It is considered one of the most prestigious art shows in America, where six- and seven-figure sales are not uncommon, and black artists from all over the world have a strong foothold. More than 260 top galleries from North America, Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa took part, showing works by more than 2,000 artists. The show attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year and is a "must do" for anyone and everyone in the art world.

One of the big stars of ABMB this year is Theaster Gates, a multidisciplinary artist who works with sculpture, performance and urban planning as well as other art forms. Every Gates piece that the Kavi Gupta Gallery displayed sold out, including 24 sculptures shown outside the convention center in the Collins Park public space, which went for $30,000 each. Gates, who was partying it up with several other black artists at an event thrown by New York gallery owner Jack Shainman — where shrimp cocktail, ribs, coleslaw and potato salad were served — said "he's humbled" by his success.

Shainman, who represents some of the biggest black contemporary artists, noted that there were so many galleries around his own in the convention center showing black artists, it was like "a small ghetto."

He meant that in the most endearing way.

Shainman has been a go-to-guy for African and African-American artists seeking representation. He remembers his first ABMB in 2002, when, he said, very few dealers aside from him were bringing black artists to sell. Now, he said, black artists are "finally getting the recognition they deserve," and not only are people buying their work, but they're buying at the same prices that white artists command.

Hank Willis Thomas' iconic photographs, which often merge race, history and popular culture, are sold by Shainman for $30,000 each. It was Thomas' first trip to ABMB seven years ago that convinced him to become an artist. Of that time he said, "I didn't know that my work would be worth as much." He also said that success for one black artist means success for all in the tight-knit community where they often encourage one another along.

It's not just the presence of black artists that has increased at ABMB. There are more black collectors, dealers, art advisers, curators and celebrities making the scene. Not only did Will Smith make it to ABMB, but P. Diddy was also there, throwing parties and, as he said while in the convention center, "taking it all in."


Pharrell Williams was there headlining several events and trying to add to his art collection. The N.E.R.D. front man was disappointed to find out that something he wanted had already sold. When asked about being a bona fide collector among peers who don't all follow his lead, the entertainer said, "Art is an acquired taste."

That appetite has put him at the nexus of music and art, and he has collaborated with Takashi Murakami as well as other notable fine artists. Nas, Solange Knowles and Naomi Campbell also participated in various side events during the week.


This year, longtime attendee Russell Simmons and his brother Danny Simmons, who is a painter and co-founder of the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation, joined forces with Bombay Sapphire to launch a nationwide art competition. It culminated with the winner being announced in Miami while ABMB was in full swing.

Their Rush Arts Gallery also held a show of alumni work entitled "15x15" in Miami's famed Design District. The 15th-anniversary exhibition featured 15 standout artists, including Sanford Biggers and Wangechi Mutu, along with a portfolio of prints available for sale. Not to be left out of the party game, the Simmons clan threw their annual brunch, which brought together celebs, artists, dealers, curators and collectors.


Naomi Beckwith, who curated at the Studio Museum in Harlem before moving on to the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, said that what is interesting to her this year is "not just the art on the walls, but how active black artists are outside the gallery system." One example is Nick Cave's alliance with Fendi. Beckwith said, "You see the broader cultural world becoming more aware of artists of color outside of just the realm of their commercial value." She added that they are taking the lead in the social scene as well.

One of those artists is Kehinde Wiley, who not only is a top seller  — his painting Terence Nance, with an asking price of $100,000, sold on the first day of the fair — but also threw a darn good fish fry to close out ABMB. Wiley, a Rush alum, said, "As recently as the early '90s, the art world would only allow a certain amount of artists of color to be part of the critical and cultural conversation. Right now I think the broader community is very excited to be able to see this level of diversity."


But perhaps Wiley best summed up not just the increased black presence in all aspects of the art world but also the allure of that world itself when he said that for so many, art consumption is now "sexy."

Julie Walker is a New York-based freelance journalist. She has been attending Art Basel Miami Beach since 2004. Follow her on Twitter @jwalkreporter.