African-American Artists, Artwashing & The Erasure of Black Art by Calvin Eaton | 29 Days of Little Known Facts About (Black) American History (V)

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African-American Artists, Artwashing & The Erasure of Black Art

It should come as no surprise that during the height of segregation in communities in the North and the South children growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s were not permitted inside museums like the Birmingham Museum of Art. This museum imposed the same Jim Crow laws that established “separate but equal” accommodations for blacks, or excluded them entirely. During the 1950’s and early 1960’s, African Americans were only allowed to visit the Museum on Tuesdays, the “Colored Only” visiting day.

In the days since the abolition of “separate but equal” Black artists and non-white artists of color’s work has routinely been left out of or erased from the collections and exhibits that occupy the walls and spaces of “mainstream” (code for white) cultural institutions, museums, and art galleriea. As recently as 1992, a proposed tour of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Jean-Michel Basquiat retrospective was canceled when no other museums came forward to take it.

As we have progressed into the 21st century the works and cultural impact of Black American artists have risen to the top of our cultural conversation and the tide is changing for how we as a nation values the art of Black artists like the aforementoned Basquiat. It was just last Spring that one of Basquiat’s paintings sold for sold for $110.5 million, becoming the most expensive work by an American artist ever sold at auction. This however is an exception and not the rule. Since 2008, just 2.37 percent of all acquisitions and gifts and 7.6 percent of all exhibitions at 30 prominent American museums have been of work by African American artists, according to a joint investigation by In Other Words and artnet News. The impact and achievements of Black artists and prominent creative figures have changed the landascape of our country yet most of our cultural institutions and galleries lack the diversity at the highest levels to ensure that the work of more black artists of the past and present are shown. Even worse ~ these same institutions are complicit in exploiting communities of color when art is used as a tool for place-making and development.

Artwashing and Gentrification

The value of culture and art in regenerating cities has long been recognized and in many cities, culture led redevelopment occurs organically. Artists, generally on relatively low incomes, move to areas of the city where rents are affordable. The presence of the artists make the area interesting, leading to more interest in property in the area, and ultimately, seeing the area develop. Sadly, this process usually ends with the artists having to move on, as rents increase.

Councils and developers in recent history are attempting to emulate these organic, artist-led processes, by purposefully moving artists in to areas of cities which they wish to see developed. The presence of the artists in this new contrived context is conceived, from the start, as an interim measure. In the worst cases, it is intended as a distraction from the dirty business of clearance of black bodies, erasure, and demolition.

“Artwashing has been described as a cleansing process in which the artists moving into a burgeoning area were treated by developers as a form of regenerative detergent”

This intentional exploitation of artists and their work for the benefit of reinvigorating a divested neighborhood with no intention of sharing equity with the artists or listening to what they want in their communities is the phenomena known as artwashing. These developments and conversions typically are taking place in areas that have been segregated and divested due to racist government policy and are now seen as “vital for reinvestment” by the same forces that decimated the community in decades prior. So often these communities are predominately poor and black. When white owned art galleries want to move into a poor neighborhood usually this is a red flag to anti-artwashing artists and community members that institutional forces are wanting to push them out. This practice is a tale as old as civilization.

Want to learn more? Attend 540WMain’s newest class on the subject: Understanding Artwashing & Gentrification

Saturday February 8, 12:15 PM

  1. African American Artists Are More Visible Than Ever. So Why Are Museums Giving Them Short Shrift? 
  2. Director Reckons with Art Museums Ugly Past 
  3. Art in the Time of Art-Washing
  4. Artwashing’ gentrification is a problem – but vilifying the artists involved is not the answer
About Calvin Eaton

(he/his/him) Calvin Eaton is a community educator, digital content creator, and social entrepreneur, whose area of expertise includes antiracism, inclusion, equity, curriculum writing, and higher education.

About 29 Days of Little Known Facts About (Black) American History

29 Days of Little Known Facts About (Black) American History is an annual blog campaign curated by 540WMain that has a mission to promote and share little known facts about Black Americans throughout history every day throughout the month of February. The camapaign highlights the life and work of past and present day Black American that are overlooked or underrepresented in our conversations about American history.

540WMain will celebrate its 4 year anniversary with a party and extravaganza on Saturday June 20, 2020. In just four years the organization has become a pillar in the Susan B. Anthony neighborhood and a convener and curator of important and vital community conversations, classes, and programs. Your financial support helps us scale up this work in 2020 and beyond with a year long fundraising goal of $40,000

Photo credit: Jean-Michel Basquiat (cover)

Published by Calvin Eaton

(he/his/him) Calvin Eaton is a disabled community educator, content creator, and social entrepreneur, whose area of expertise includes antiracism, equity, justice, instructional design, and program development. In 2016 Mr. Eaton founded 540WMain, Inc. a non-profit online and community-based organization for accessible education and events that promote justice for all.

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