Blacks in the Arts: Doing the Work

Artist Phoebe Beasley gives insights on diversity, creativity

a price based on not only who the market is, but what work you’ve done. You have to look at how much education you’ve had. Were you selling artwork when you were in school, in college?

Is training important for today’s artists?

Yes. It is as important for an artist to be trained as it is for a brain surgeon. It’s intuitive, but there’s so much you need to know about– not only the tools, but the trade [and] how art works. If you don’t understand what abstract art or a good composition is, at least you need some training to say, ‘I don’t even need this.’

But if you don’t even have an idea of the artists who went before you–why Romare Bearden is selling for what he is, or why [Jean-Michel] Basquiat is selling for so much more–you need to understand the art world of how things get to museums.

If you want to get to the next level, it helps if you’ve had training. If you spend time around artists, you begin to speak the language of artists who are trained–professors who understand where you can go with the artwork.

Some people have the perception that the art world is mostly a white world. What have been some of your challenges being an African American artist in the mainstream art world?

The perceptions are more the reality, in terms of the gallery and how they are structured. People who open galleries, who have that kind of discretionary income, are white women, so they go with what they know. So, most of them have a Eurocentric focus about the work. That’s what they grew up with and that’s what they were educated about.

So, you have very few galleries that represent or have African American artists on their roster. And they are saying that it doesn’t relate to their patrons.

But, [also] it was not something that our own people valued. We were raised with music by African Americans, but we did not have Jacob Lawrence on the walls. So that was the missing component. And it still is, in most African American homes, that you don’t have an appreciation or celebration of your own. So, it behooves us to get more involved in support of our own culture to make sure that we understand it, we celebrate it, that we live it, and that we celebrate it by having it in our homes.

And what advice would you have for collectors?

See if you can buy prints first. Go to original prints, serigraphs, and lithographs — maybe you can find a lithograph of Elizabeth Catlett for a few thousand dollars. It may sound like a lot or it may not, but what happens is we find the time and the money for the things that we think are important.

And so start with learning as much as you can about what it is you care about.  If you care about the works of African Americans, there are all kinds of books.

Make sure

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