“When I see what’s happening at the Met, it’s almost extraordinary,” says Lowery Stokes Sims, referring to the increasingly diverse holdings and exhibitions of the New York museum, where she became the first black curator in 1975. “And to have Noah Purifoy at LACMA, and Archibald Motley at the Whitney. This has been a long trajectory,” she adds.
Sims, who went on to hold executive positions at the Studio Museum in Harlem and New York’s Museum of Arts and Design, is quick to point out, however, that while the field for contemporary African-American artists has developed steadily, and works by more historical figures have become increasingly sought-after by museums and collectors, there is still much work to be done.
Indeed, only a small group of African Americans occupy curatorial positions at mainstream museums, relatively few African-American artists have been given major solo museum shows, and works by 19th- and 20th-century African-American artists are undervalued by the art market relative to those by white artists of equal standing. Change doesn’t come organically, however. It takes individuals. And there is a contingent of curators, collectors, artists, dealers, and others who are working to advance racial diversity in the art world. We spoke to those with a history of activism around the representation of African-American art in the United States and a younger generation of artists and professionals who are reaping the rewards of their forebears and continuing the movement toward a fairer—and more culturally rich—art world.
Revising the Canon