The unveiling of the portraits of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama has created an unprecedented surge of interest in both portraitists, especially
, whose work was relatively new to the market before her commission.
For Sherald, a 44-year-old Baltimore painter who produces roughly a dozen works a year, the demand is so strong it’s basically blown up the waitlist for her paintings, which had been growing ever since demand spiked for the artist’s limited number of works, following her first solo show at Monique Meloche Gallery in Chicago in 2016.
“We don’t even say the word ‘waitlist’ here anymore. There’s not even a waitlist, we just say there are conversations to be had,” said her Chicago gallerist Monique Meloche. The gallery has been fielding around 50 inquiries a day since the portraits were unveiled on Monday
, up from a dozen a day since Sherald was awarded the commission to paint Michelle Obama in October.
To be sure, Meloche said, not every one of these swarms of inquiries comes from a serious buyer. However, she has heard from collectors from places such as the United Kingdom, South Africa, Canada, Mexico, and across the United States, including major established collectors with whom the gallery has not yet worked, as well as a few art-collecting celebrities. Sadly, for at least some of those would-be buyers, the list of people who want a Sherald painting now surpasses the artist’s expected lifetime output given the pace at which she produces. Sherald’s output is mostly due to her difficulty finding the right subjects for the portraits, Meloche said, and also to her health. Sherald lives with a replacement heart after getting a transplant in 2012.
Meloche has no hard and fast rules on how to handle the overwhelming demand, but said the priority for Sherald is to see the works eventually land at a public institution.
“Her whole goal and our whole goal is to get these pictures to be in museums where young people of color who look like her can see people who look like them,” she said. That typically means a collector will pledge to ultimately bequeath it to a public institution as a condition of sale, although the collector will first want to live with it.
Meloche has tried sourcing works from Sherald’s earliest collectors to free up supply, but no one is willing to part with a painting. They tended to be long-time supporters of the gallery, who bought her works for between $8,500 and $10,000. (Sherald had sold some of her work herself before she started showing with Meloche’s gallery, a relationship that began with a group show in 2015 and the solo show the following year.)
The lucky early buyers included collectors in Chicago, one from Seattle, and a collector in Sweden who could not make it to Chicago see the work in person, but trusted Meloche to buy from the electronic image. At Chicago’s art fair Expo Chicago in 2016, two works by Sherald were pre-sold to collectors, but museums expressed strong interest. By spring of 2017, her works sold for $35,000 at a pop-up show in New York’s Lower East Side during Armory Week, and in December, following the announcement of her presidential commission, they’d reached $50,000
at Art Basel in Miami Beach.