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In a changing landscape of African American art, collectors talk about what drives them

George N'Namdi, Davida Artis, and Anthony Artis smile in front of a brick wall
April Van Buren
Michigan Radio
George N'Namdi (L) is the founder of the N'Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in Detroit. Davida (center) and Anthony Artis (R) have been building their collection of African American art for more than 10 years.

For a long time, the work of African American artists didn't get much recognition in the world of fine art. That hasn't stopped art lovers from building impressive collections of pieces by black artists. We talked to two collectors about their approach to buying, and how the business of African American art has changed over the years.

Anthony Artis is a pastor in Flint, Michigan. He and his wife Davida began collecting works by African American artists in 2009. Artis was in his 40s and working at the Ruth Mott Foundation when he caught the "art bug." The foundation allowed employees to hang art from Ruth Mott's private collection in the office. One day, Artis made a flippant comment to his colleague. He told her that that his young son could probably draw something better than one of the paintings on the wall. The colleague was a curator and encouraged Artis to look more into the piece.

It was a work titled St. Marc by painter Jacob Lawrence. It portrayed General Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution. Artis said he was taken with the story behind the piece: a group of black revolutionaries who had risen up and won their freedom.

“I was floored, and at that point I began to research Jacob Lawrence and began to realize he was one of the most prominent African American artists of all time. And I was ashamed, I was ashamed I didn’t know these people. And so when I went to work on Monday, I ate a big chunk of humble pie.”

an etching of young african american children by a river
Credit April Baer / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
This 1976 etching by artist Benny Andrews titled "Dreamer" is one of several pieces from the Artis family's collection featured in the "Wonderfully Made" exhibit at the Flint Institute of Art.

Artis and his wife now own around 80 pieces from various African American artists. Artis said they've focused the collection on works with a connection to "faith, family, and faces." Some of those works are currently on display at the Flint Institute of Art in an exhibit called “Wonderfully Made.”

Like Artis, George N’Namdi had no formal background in art when he started collecting. But he went on to build a decades-long career as a gallerist and art dealer in Detroit. N’Namdi, who is a psychologist by training, is the founder of the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art. When he opened his first gallery in 1981, he saw it as a way to bolster community mental health. At the time, N'Namdi said, there was a vibrant art scene in Detroit, but few galleries showcasing work by African American artists. 

When he was trying to sell work then, N'Namdi recalled, he would often have people who balked at the price. N'Namdi said he would go to people's homes, and hang art on their walls as a kind of trial period. He'd go back a month-or-so to see if they were interested in purchasing the piece. People would say it was too expensive, and so N’Namdi would start taking it down. 

“Then they would start seeing the void. Art changes your life, and you don’t know that it has, you know, so you don’t know that you’ve been living in this void with nothing on your walls,” N’Namdi said. 

Once they realized how much the piece had added to their home, N'Namdi said, they would be more open to the purchase. 

Today, auctions featuring work by African American artists are drawing more attention—and a lot more money—than they used to. But N’Namdi feels that the current art world is focusing too much on monetary value. The most valuable part of owning art, he said, is your personal connection to it. 

“Buy what you like and just enjoy it. Your investment is having the experience of having it in your life," he said. "And it changes your life, it changes how you look at things.”

Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

This post was written by Stateside production assisstant Olive Scott. 

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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