Unmasked At Last

After a half-century of effort, local African-American artists are emerging to the forefront of the arts, both in Houston and nationally

Michelle Barnes says that problem persisted for years. "There were not a lot of places to show what I wanted to produce. There was a real lack of support, even in my family, in terms of helping me carve out the time and the space to produce…So I wanted to create an environment to support the art that I knew was out there."

Things have changed. Kermit Oliver will be the subject of an upcoming show at the MFA. Barnes's Community Artists' Collective, housed in a Midtown building on Elgin, is raising money to expand throughout the block. Floyd Newsum teaches at the University of Houston - Downtown. George Smith is a professor at Rice.

Lott's work is also out there. "I haven't integrated into the art community; the art community has integrated with me," Lott says. "I haven't changed what I'm doing. The door was barred when I got there. Now the door is open, but not because I opened it." He explains that black art has now proved to be a good seller. "Once, it was a category of restriction, and you were put into that category to be limited. Now, you're put there so people can make money."

Sculptor Lott says Houston always had great black art -- for those who knew where to look.
Deron Neblett
Sculptor Lott says Houston always had great black art -- for those who knew where to look.
TSU art museum director Wardlaw says the next step is to generate interest from collectors.
Deron Neblett
TSU art museum director Wardlaw says the next step is to generate interest from collectors.

Lott and many of his contemporaries emphasize the importance of "collectorship," developing a network of people who consistently buy art. "It's the body of work that people are impressed with, not the person," Lott says. "Collectors are the ones who present work to the curators and the public and keep the legacy going."

Smith, Graham & Company floats atop the city on the 69th floor of Chase Tower. The investment management firm controls more than $2 billion. Pension fund clients include Houston municipal employees, Hermann Hospital, Continental, Dynegy, Reliant and public employees across the nation.

The first thing visitors see at Smith Graham is art. It's visible from outside the glass front door. The lobby is filled with African art enclosed in transparent cases. The deeper you go into the offices, the more art you see. Most of the paintings are Biggers's; the firm commissioned the artist before it opened in 1990. Founder Gerald Smith is a graduate of Texas Southern University. While earning his pinstripes in New York City during the go-go 1980s, he caught the collecting bug. He has since amassed a huge collection of early Houston art, including 15 Biggers originals.

"I always viewed art as something you can enjoy, and you can also view it as a long-term investment as well. Being a guy with an investment background, clearly that's part of this," Smith says. "There are other assets that you put away in a vault or something, but you can't enjoy it…There's a quality of life that art brings to all of us."

When Smith says "all of us," he means it. "The biggest collectors of African art are Europeans, primarily, not black folks. Why is that? Because the art does transcend," he says. African art can command prices ranging beyond $1 million. "I had a dealer that just flew in the other day to show me a couple pieces. A nice Chokwe mask; he wanted $50,000 for it."

No African-American artists command such amounts. "I've seen a Bearden collage offered at over $500,000," Smith says. "I've seen some Archibald Motleys in that price range. And they should be. They probably should be more. John Biggers's pieces should be more. And they will be."

You can't put a price on history, however. Smith talks about his collection from the Nok tribe of Africa, terra-cottas more than 2,000 years old. "My kids, they said, 'Dad, this stuff was born before Jesus Christ! And it was done by black folk! And this stuff is beautiful!' We have no idea that we have such a legacy, such history."

Smith's love of this legacy is why he is chairing the effort to build the new museum. Shortly after taking office in 1998, Mayor Lee Brown decided Houston should have a world-class institution dedicated to black art. The mayor assembled an 80-member advisory panel and asked Smith to spearhead the fund-raising. The group separated from the city to incorporate as a private nonprofit organization. It has raised $500,000 from five corporate donors -- Chase, American General, Compaq, Enron and Ocean Energy -- to locate a site and begin design of the museum.

Irene Johnson, the project's planning director, says the museum will go far beyond traditional limitations. It will include fine arts, history and genealogy, as well as the performing, media and literary arts. She explains the effort to take it beyond the typical cold "mausoleum" atmosphere of a museum. "Wouldn't it be great to take down that barrier and make it a more welcoming, invited-into-the-home experience? That Afrocentric feeling of coming into the home and wrapping your arms around a person."

There have been at least two previous efforts to establish a Houston African-American museum. In 1971, philanthropists John and Dominique de Menil led an effort that refurbished two Fifth Ward theaters into space for a black art exhibition and performing arts production.

After the show, organizers felt it would be a shame to let these two new spaces go to waste, says Ellena Huckaby, who worked with Dominique de Menil on the project. Huckaby, now an MFA trustee, and others started a movement for a Black Arts Center in the theaters. It thrived briefly before being overwhelmed by logistical and financial demands.

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