Prices for African-American art on the rise

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Published on: 07/22/2007

Brenda Thompson flew down from Connecticut to attend Embrace, the fine art fair of the National Black Arts Festival. By Saturday afternoon, she had her eye on several pieces she wanted to show the otherhalf of her collecting team, her husband, former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson.

"I remember when we started collecting 30 years ago, Larry bought a piece for $300, and I thought thatwas so much money," she laughed. "But now I look around here ..."She paused in front of an abstract by painter Norman Lewis.The price? $135,000.The dealer came over. "If that were a Jackson Pollock," said Bill Hodgesof New York, "that would be going for $10 million."And therein lies a conundrum.

Prices for African-American art have shotup along with interest, dealers and collectors at the fair said, but they stilllag well behind their white counterparts. Which is one of the reasonsAfrican-American art shows aren't just engaging and educational, butnecessary."This is work that could be in the Metropolitan Museum of Art," said MarkKarelson, whose Mason Murer Fine Art gallery hosted the event.

Heticked off some of the big-name artists represented in the fair, which runsthrough next Sunday: Benny Andrews, Romare Bearden, ElizabethCatlett, Jacob Lawrence.Embrace started last year when Karelson and others realized that theNABF needed a higher-end art show to go along with the more popularofferings at the artists' market at Greenbriar Mall.

Twenty-eight exhibitorsfrom as far away as Canada and Paris came to this year's secondinstallment, which is being held at Mason Murer, a spacious gallery in anindustrial pocket on Armor Drive, off I-85 in Atlanta.Juan Rodriguez, a New York dealer, saw hopeful signs that businesswould exceed the inaugural fair."I didn't do so well last year," he said, "but it takes time to grow an event. Isee more people and more interest this year."Several hundred collectors milled around the galleries Saturday, a diversegathering that looked almost evenly split racially.

As soul music filled the hall, they lingered over all manner of art depicting the range of blackexperience, from slavery to segregation to religion to jazz and hip-hop.There was even a portrait of James Brown.Not to mention Coretta Scott King.

The event prompted some exhibitors to think hard about what belongedin an African-American art fair."What is African-American art?" asked Atlanta dealer Uri Vaknin. "Is it artby African-Americans? Is it art about African-Americans? I have a whiteartist who did a whole series about black people, and I decided it wasinappropriate to bring that work here.

"Instead he showed some of the most provocative pieces in the fair, by young artists like Fahamu Pecou, Kojo Griffin and Okeeba Jubalo, whoseoversized Confederate flag — studded with ironic wordplay — dominatedone wall.The prices ran from $1,500 to $395,000, for "Baptism," a collage creation.