The Art of Collecting African-American Art

Article excerpt

Thinking about art collecting should be like fact-finding between courtship and engagement. If the ensuing marriage is going to work, then you have to know what you're getting into long beforehand.

That is why experienced collectors, curators, gallery owners and art dealers--no matter their length of years in the business or the range of their artistic interest--concur on this one basic tenet of collecting art: Keep your wallet closed until you've opened a book, then another and then another. In addition, throw in some art magazines and gallery catalogs. Attend exhibits and cultivate learning relationships with contemporary artists, curators and collectors. Plan a vacation around an exhibit in another city. Whose work speaks to you? Whose leaves you cold?

Then, and only then, should you take the plunge. Like any lasting marriage, the effort put in before making a commitment will lead to a satisfying, enduring union--with artists whose work touches your heart.

Aspiring collectors looking to plow into the rich and fertile fields of work by African-American artists may have to search a little more diligently for the history books and the exhibits that will give them the information they need to make a start, especially if they do not live in a major urban center. But the historical texts do exist, and aspiring collectors will find the history of black artists in this country alternately maddening and inspiring.

A growing, committed and amiable network of collectors and reputable art dealers stands ready and eager to cultivate new peers and clients, and its members are as close as the telephone. Among them are the following people who, through their expertise and experience, have much to share.

Thurlow Tibbs is a dealer in and a historian of African-American art. "Dealer" becomes a rather skimpy description when Tibbs' other talents come into play. In addition to guiding private collectors as they assemble a body of work, he helps museums fill the gaps in their collections with African-American art, researches out-of-print publications for libraries, and conducts art appraisals. His gallery in Washington, D.C., houses a 19,000-item library that is open for academic research.

"With a new client, I will suggest a series of books," Tibbs says. Among the most comprehensive are American Negro Art, by Cedric Dover; Two Centuries of Black American Art, a catalog, by David C. Driskell, of a 1976 exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and Modern Negro Art, by James Porter.

Like many other experienced dealers, Tibbs sees art collecting as not solely the domain of the affluent, but rather as a worthwhile pursuit for anyone who recognizes the inherent value of having art enhance his or her life. His counsel? "Decide on an annual budget. If you want to spend $5,000, it would be stupid for me to show you something for $40,000. If you are open to contemporary art, you can do things for $500."

Contemporary art readily opens the field of African-American art to a wider range of enthusiasts. Works by the respected masters--the vibrant collages of Romare Bearden or lush landscapes of 19th-century painter Edward Bannister, for example--likely exceed by tens of thousands of dollars the average collector's ability to buy.

However, how about an Elizabeth Catlett lithograph or a limited-edition Jacob Lawrence print? Tibbs likes to recommend the lithographs of Grafton Tyler Brown, a 19th-century landscape artist who lived in California for most of his life.

Less expensive yet may be the work of an artist living, working and exhibiting in the region where you live. "Start out with contemporary artists who already have a craft," says Tibbs. "They have already proven something; there have been some exhibitions.

"Look long and hard for consistency and quality of execution," he adds, mentioning that he respects the work of emerging artists such as Louis Delsarte. …