Does it matter who owns Black art?
We talked to a Black art collector and a curator about the ethics of cultural ownership
Black Light is a column by Governor General Award-winning writer Amanda Parris that spotlights, champions and challenges art and popular culture that is created by Black people and/or centres Black people.
In 2017, Jean-Michel Basquiat's Untitled skull painting was purchased for $110.5 million US by Japanese entrepreneur and billionaire Yusaku Maezawa. The historic purchase joined a growing number of works by Black American artists that have skyrocketed in value on the art market. These astronomical prices are frequently in the headlines, but I have also been curious about the collectors who choose to own these pieces. Who buys Black art? Why do they buy Black art? And does it matter who owns these works?
To grapple with these questions and more, I spoke virtually with Dr. Kenneth Montague, one of the most noted Black art collectors in Canada. Earlier this year, Montague published As We Rise: Photography from the Black Atlantic, a book by Aperture containing select photographic works from his extensive collection. It's a moving assemblage of images that invites the viewer to witness an array of intimate moments in the wide expanse of Black life. According to Montague, Aperture was interested in putting together a book not only featuring the work of Black artists but specifically highlighting pieces that had found their home within a Black-owned collection. "That was really special and really kind of foundational for me. I didn't really want to deal with a company that didn't get that important fact." Montague notes the soaring prices of work by many of the artists featured. "[Today] I couldn't even afford many of the works in my collection," he tells me. "In a way, we're trying to hold on to something and keep something for ourselves, and I think Aperture understood that."
I've been reflecting on Montague's desire to "keep something for ourselves." An early title for the book was "Black Owned" and I am curious about the implied assertion that who owns the art may hold just as much significance as the question of who made the art.
For Montague, who began purchasing works in the late '90s, collecting is a form of storytelling, and he believes the works he acquires are engaged in a constant dialogue with each other. Each one contributes to Montague's personal curatorial mission: to explore the multifaceted variations of Black experience. "I'm connected with the works and with my collection," he told me. "It's very much about figuration and portraiture. It's about people. I see my own family. I'm very connected to the work spiritually because this is my community. I'm not saying that someone outside of the community can't appreciate work by Mickalene Thomas or work by Dawit Petros or Sandra Brewster. I'm just saying that it's extremely visceral and very intimate for me because these are my people."
When I reached out to Julie Crooks, curator in the department of Arts of Global Africa and the Diaspora at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and asked her if there was a need to interrogate who owns Black art, she was adamant that "everyone has the right to own art." However, she added the caveat that the purpose and intention behind the purchase was also important. "If you're just collecting it to then put it back on the market, like in an auction, to kind of flip it, to make a profit — and a profit for which the artist doesn't benefit — I don't know if that's with good intention." The transactional nature of art collecting is one that both Montague and Crooks flagged. It is an inherent part of an art market that frequently requires considerable capital to participate in. As Crooks noted, "Collecting is tethered to wealth. It is about a class bias."
I'm connected with the works and with my collection... it's extremely visceral and very intimate for me because these are my people.- Dr. Kenneth Montague, art collector
According to Montague, there are two different kinds of art collectors. The first is one he calls a "shopper." This collector is driven by what is hot and trendy in the market. "[They often] have this very disparate collection that doesn't really say anything other than 'I've got money.' It doesn't tell any stories." The second kind of collector, the kind Montague identifies himself as, is driven by a "burning" connection to the work that needs to be extended beyond a visit to a gallery. "You see work and you want to spend longer with it. You want to have a longer conversation with it."
Works by Black American artists are being auctioned off for larger and larger numbers — numbers that sometimes don't lead to any direct monetary gain for the artist themselves. In the absence of a royalties system, once an artist has sold their work, they are not directly entitled to any forthcoming value it may accrue. When we talked about the transactional nature of the art market, Crooks invoked the memory of the historic auction block where Black labour and creativity was bought and sold. This conversation is complicated by the fact that there is also an increasing number of Black art collectors who are paying the big bucks for works by Black artists.
In 2018, music mogul Sean "Diddy" Combs made headlines when he paid over $21 million US for Kerry James Marshall's monumental painting Past Times, the highest price ever paid for an artwork by a living African American artist. The sale was reportedly orchestrated in part by music producer and art collector Kasseem "Swizz Beatz" Dean, who convinced Diddy that the painting "has to stay in the culture." However, I'm curious what that means. Is it still "in the culture" if it lives on the walls of Diddy's mansion as opposed to being exhibited in a gallery available to the public? Is it still "in the culture" if the artist, Marshall, received none of the money from the historic sale?
We have yet to see these historic sales happen for Black Canadian artists and there is little infrastructure (and few Black millionaires) here to create the kind of Black art stars that we see south of the border. It's partly why Montague pushed so hard to include Black Canadian artists, such as Michèle Pearson Clarke, Jalani Morgan and Anique Jordan, in his book alongside more internationally-recognized names, like Gordon Parks and Kehinde Wiley. His hope, he told me, was to introduce these Canadian image-makers to a wider art community. "This insertion is not to say we're as good as, just to more sort of say we have our own thing going on here."
Although Canada may lack the headline-grabbing auction sales happening in the U.S., there have been recent projects that inspire another way of considering Black art collecting. The Art Gallery of Ontario's Montgomery Collection is a fascinating case study in Montague's notion of "keeping something for ourselves." It is an invitation to consider the possibilities of Black ownership and art collection in Canada in a way that is not limited to private acquisition, but rather a possibility for collective mobilization and public offering.
In 2018, Crooks and curator Sophie Hackett were invited to check out a private collection of Caribbean photography that had been assembled by filmmaker and photography collector Patrick Montgomery. The astonishing collection of more than 3,500 prints, postcards, daguerreotypes, lantern slides, albums and stereographs included works that were taken between 1848 and 1940 across 34 countries. "As he was pulling out these boxes, my heart started beating really wildly," Crooks told me. "It blew our minds." The images are an important documentation of the region, capturing faces and moments that we rarely get to see on gallery walls. But most of these images were not captured by the subjects themselves. They were frequently taken by outsiders to the region. It was clear to Crooks that this archive required critical and thoughtful interrogation as well as appreciation and care.
Over the next few months, Crooks, Montague (who serves as a trustee at the AGO) and others began working towards the purchase of the collection. They saw the moment as an opportunity to shake up the way things are typically done at the AGO and begin cultivating new relationships between the institution and Caribbean communities. "It had to have some kind of ownership by our community," Crooks stated. "It had to be a kind of legacy building." Sidestepping the usual processes for fundraising, they tapped into their networks, building relationships with individuals who had the interest and the capital. "I petitioned people of means in the Black and Caribbean community," Montague told me. "Let's do this one for us, by us. Let's not wait for one of those big five names that you always see all over Toronto — these families that are very wealthy, that do great work. But what a difference it would be to have this work, featuring and reflecting people in our Caribbean community, bought and paid for by Caribbean and Black people of Toronto." Crooks admits that once they showed sample photographs to potential donors, it took very little convincing to get people to come on board. "As soon as folks saw those images, the immediate response was, 'Oh my gosh, that's Jamaica! That's my parish! Those are the hills that I played in as a child." That recognition was all the spark that was needed.
In 2019, the AGO announced the acquisition of the Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs thanks to a group of 27 donors, largely from Toronto's Black and Caribbean communities, who quickly and collectively raised over $300,000.
In the fall of 2021, the groundbreaking exhibition Fragments of Epic Memory presented over 200 photographs from the collection. I went to see it with my family and was moved to tears, not only by individual pieces, but because I'd never seen such a monumental artistic exploration of the Caribbean in a Canadian institution. Curated by Crooks, the archive was crucially placed in dialogue with paintings, sculptures and video works by contemporary Caribbean artists. "I didn't want to tell the story simply from the colonial archive, the colonial lens, the perspective of European photographers or American photographers who go to the region," Crooks said. "I wanted to interrogate, problematize, contest, while also understanding the archive."
The acquisition of the Montgomery Collection and its exhibition in Fragments of Epic Memory is a powerful example of Black investors choosing to work collectively to acquire important works in order to share them with the community. For many of these investors, this was their first time purchasing art and it has ignited a desire to become ongoing patrons and collectors, sparking a potentially long-lasting cultural shift in the Canadian art market. The experience has led Montague to reconsider his own direction. "As a collector, where I'm headed is more about institutional change. I'd like to sort of keep putting the foot on the gas for institutions to come over to broadening their collections and for the audiences to start experiencing the kind of joy I experience in my own personal life as a collector."
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.