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Why Aren’t There More Black Artists in the White House Art Collection?

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If I told you that 66% of all the artwork by black American artists currently in the White House art collection has been acquired by the Bushes, depending on what side of the political aisle you stand, this fact may either raise an eyebrow from right wing nuts or some sort of conspiracy theory from left wing nuts.

But if I told you that there are only three such works (out of an estimated 375 pieces), both sides of the aisle should find that surprising… and maybe in need of attention.

Earlier on I reacted in an irate manner to having American artist Jacob Lawrence described as a great African-American artist, rather than just a great artist. And then Washington City Paper's scribe Kriston Capps, in the process of policing that whole issue and this subsequent squabble, comes up with an interesting fact.

According to Capps, Betty Monkman, the curator of the White House, revealed that, "while Lawrence’s painting isn’t the sole piece by a black artist in the executive mansion, it’s close to it — there are only two others."

That's now three out of "an estimated 375 total in the White House’s art collection."

Geez.

That implies that Simmie Knox's portrait of President Clinton is not considered part of the White House’s art collection, which doesn't make sense. Knox is a DC area artist by the way, and a brilliant painter.

So let's take the first century and a half off the acquisition process, which probably just focused on American artists from one of the four races, and somewhat reverse my stand on segregating artists by race, rather than just artistic merit, and let me take the uncomfortable side of trying to ask the question, "Why aren't there more works by black artists in the White House collection?"

Even if one ignores color, and just looks at the art and artistic achievement, there are plenty of great American artists, who happen to be black, who one suspects should be in the White House collection.

Some art greats, by artistic default, I would think, would have to be Black, or Asian, or Native American, not just Caucasian artists – after all, all four races of mankind create art and all four and their many mixtures, live in America.

And let's say that the White House's collection is not exactly, ah… contemporary, which would eliminate a lot of good modern choices; and after all, the White House is not an art museum, but it sort of feels that it should be a classy arts conglomerate where all things say "America."

Back in the 1980's, Jacob Lawrence was awarded the National Medal of Arts from President George Bush The First. Why did it take 27 years for one of his paintings to become part of the White House's permanent collection?

Capps identifies the other two paintings: "Henry Ossawa Tanner’s Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City (1885) also hangs in the Green Room, its home since 1996. And an 1892 painting by one “Bannister” (they likely mean Ed Bannister) acquired last year is currently undergoing conservation."

So two of the three have been acquired by the Bushes, and before 1996 there wasn't a single work of art by any black artist in the President's home, in spite of the fact that artists such as Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Sam Gilliam, Martin Puryear, Alma Thomas, and others are all just great American artists, period, and have even broken the National Gallery of Art code, and should all probably have been acquired by the White House years and years and years ago.

Makes my head hurt.

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About Lenny Campello

  • Raymond E. Johns

    Thank you Mr.Campello for speaking well as a just man.however,it is very sad that America still look down on great Black men,whom have given much,but.Mr.Bush-W-did work with the King family to get Rev.King on the DC grounds.maybe this will be an open door for future black art contribtions.thank you for caring.

  • http://Lovewhatsright.InGOD. Raymond E. Johns

    Thank you Mr.Campello for speaking well as a just man.however,it is very sad that America still look down on great Black men,whom have given much,but.Mr.Bush-W-did work with the King family to get Rev.King on the DC grounds.maybe this will be an open door for future black art contribtions.thank you for caring.