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African-American Art:  Nigel Freeman and Swann Galleries’ Innovative Auction Initiative

“There is no Negro Image in the twentieth century—in the 1960s…Each person paints out of the life he lives.”  —Felrath Hines, artist and member of the 1960s black artists’ club, The Spiral Group.

Nigel Freeman seems an unlikely hero:  no cape or masked identity for him.  Instead he comes to the auction world armed with a passion and deep commitment to African-American art.  Swann Galleries broke stride with its long tradition of dealing works on paper in order to initiate an African-American art department, under Nigel’s direction.  More than merely a business risk for the well-known auction house, it represented a unique opportunity to showcase a previously-overlooked body of American art; and to educate the collector regarding the extraordinary power and beauty awaiting discovery amid generations of a little-known, often marginalized, artistic genre.

I had the opportunity to speak with Nigel Freeman regarding his involvement in this specialized field, as well as the growth of his department since its founding in 2006.  I admitted to expecting a chipper ‘Brit,’ with precise answers to my many questions.  But, found instead, a charming and unassuming individual with a rapid-fire rationale for his department’s steady success in this, their sixth year, and an encyclopedic knowledge of African-American art.

RF: Tell me about your background.

NF: I was born in Britain, but came to this country at an early age.  I’ve lived in the U.S. since 1975, grew up in Texas and moved to New York in the mid-90s.  Somewhere along the way I lost my English accent.  I have been with Swann for fourteen years and for the first eight, I dealt mostly in paper: prints, watercolors, drawings, and so forth.

RF: What prompted you to propose the move to African-American art?  Not only was it a departure for Swann, but surely it was an untested market for any auction house.

NF: It just seemed to me that there was a very narrow secondary market for this work and an even narrower understanding, outside of a small group of collectors, regarding the importance of this work.   For earlier generations of black artists, in particular, there were many obstacles to overcome, as well as tremendous resistance from the established art community to view their work as legitimately mainstream.  I’m talking specifically about late 19th and early 20th century, with Jim Crow segregation, the Depression and the Euro-centric focus of most museums and serious collectors during the `50s and after, when post-war acquisitions really began to pick up.

RF: So how did you set criteria for where to jump in?  There was more than a hundred-years’ worth of art to choose from.

NF: When I took into account the full range of African-American art out there, I focused, but didn’t necessarily limit myself to those from North America.  We don’t handle Caribbean or Latin American artists, but do consider those African-American artists who may have left the U.S. to live and paint elsewhere—expat artists like Beauford Delaney and Sam Middleton, for example.  Also, we exclude folk art or ‘outsider’ art.  After eliminating these categories, our focus is on those African-American artists who have followed a traditional path with their painting and sculpture, perhaps with some formal training along the way.

RF: That certainly helps to narrow the field.  With those limits in mind, where did you start in 2006?

NF: We actually had a surprisingly rich field to select from.  The best known African-American painter of the 19th century was Henry O. Tanner.  One of his works is in the White House collection.  But there are also notables like Edward Mitchell Bannister, Charles Ethan Porter and Robert Scott Duncanson, many of whose works regularly appear in our auctions.  Later, the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and `30s empowered a new generation of African-American artists, who found each other and were able to speak in an organized voice. This ‘New Negro Movement’ included a range of black intellectuals, but in the visual arts arena, there were artists like Jacob Lawrence, Augusta Savage, Elizabeth Catlett, Charles White, Hughie Lee-Smith, Lois Mailou Jones, Sargent Johnson and Norman Lewis, to name a few.  As you can see, the field of available work for consideration at auction was growing. Many of these same artists found paying work—and an audience—in Roosevelt’s WPA, art-in-public-spaces program during the `30s.

You can then track a number of very accomplished black artists through the post-war years—and here I would include Romare Bearden (perhaps one of the best know African American artist of the period), along with some previously-mentioned names.  But, then too, the field continued to grow, with artists like Alma Thomas, Al Loving, William T. Williams and Sam Gilliam, along with Bearden, Lawrence and Lewis, selected by New York galleries for exhibitions of their work and sales to support their continuing creative efforts.

As I mentioned, Romare Bearden was one of the most widely-recognized, mid-century artists and we had a number of his pieces at auction in the early years of this program.  As an experimental modernist and innovator, he certainly helped us break into this market.  Last year was the centennial of his birth and the number of retrospectives exhibitions and articles about his life and work helped a lot.  He co-wrote a history of black art with Harry Henderson and we had the opportunity to auction his high-profile collection.  This helped by impacting values, while raising public awareness.

RF: What other trends do you think have increased the profile of African-American artists?

NF: I think one of the most important has been the growing trend by institutions and museums to acquire work by African-American artists for their permanent collections.  It’s not just the impact on dollar value for these artists, but a recognition that they deserve to be part of the American art narrative—to be included in the canon of American art history.  For example, a Norman Lewis piece was recently acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and similarly, by other important collections, like MoMA and the National Gallery.

RF: How about the issue of value?  Museums must be collecting African-American art because they see the value proposition.  How are galleries and auction houses affecting this trend?

NF: Well, it’s kind of a Catch 22. There have always been great collections of African-American art.  Gallery sales are private events, so great work by black artists—both traditional and contemporary—come-and-go, with the world being none the wiser.   The secondary market is a different story.  For years, auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christies limited themselves to the ‘Big Three’ black artists: Bearden, Tanner and Lawrence.  Auctions set impressive values, which, in turn, demonstrated collectability.   This cycle set in motion a reaction in the collector marketplace.  Auctions being public events—and particularly now, with pricing data available on the Internet—the search was on for artists in this space that might offer quality and value for the collector.  There have been impressive leaps in fair market value for an expanding group of African-American artists, as a result.  But, by-and-large, this art is still relatively undervalued.

RF: You created the African-American department at Swann just prior to the economic down-turn.  The chain-reaction of financial events associated with this protracted recession has impacted the traditional art market at all levels.  How have you fared?

NF: The recession has affected everyone.  I think for African-American artists, it was an undervalued market to begin with, and with two auctions a year, right through that down period, we managed to keep the focus on value and quality.  Our sell-through rate remained healthy and we saw our audiences continue to broaden and deepen their interest in the first-rate works we brought to the block.

RF: The term ‘Post Black’ has been applied to this contemporary generation of African-American artists, now making waves.  How do you understand this movement and its impact on the marketplace?

NF: There is a group of young African-American artists who emerged quite rapidly on the scene, given the number of previous generations that labored without the recognition they deserved. The ‘Post-Black’ generation is thematically and emotionally connected to those that came before, but their work is quite different.  Cultural values have changed and they have much more content available to work with.  I would include such artists as Kara Walker, Radcliffe Bailey, Glenn Ligon, Betye Saar, David Hammons, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas and Kehinde Wiley, to name a few.

‘Post-Black’ would suggest to me that race is less a factor in determining the importance of their work, but ethnicity, black culture and the impact of the art on the viewer becomes an effective means to promote awareness and, ultimately, it can open a dialogue between blacks and whites—which can only benefit the community-at-large.

The recent exhibit, Now Dig This: Art in Black Los Angeles—1960-1980, at the Armand Hammer Museum in California, is an important statement about the role of African-American artists in mainstream contemporary art.  This new generation of artists’ work is finding its way into major institutional and private collections around the world.  Black art is now being judged on its merits alone.  That represents tremendous progress from where we were just a few years ago.

RF: Do you think the market presence Swann Galleries African–American department and your efforts over the last five years have had anything to do with the lowering of these boundaries?

NF: I don’t know. I hope so!  We continue to call attention to the diversity and richness to be found in this work.  From that comes recognition by collectors and the general public that there is tremendous value of all kinds to be found here.  I’d like to think we’ve made a difference.

RF: Thank you for your time. We look forward to your presentation in February.