The Other Columbus: When black art is a fire sale

Scott Woods
Smoky Brown's art

As a curator of art exhibits, the idea of access sits at the heart of my work. The same is true for every museum and gallery that exists, but until I was putting on shows I didn’t really grasp the entire picture.

When I opened the only exhibit I have done of my work as an artist back in 2009, the math seemed very simple: Make the event free and allow people to engage in the work. If any of it sold, fine. If not, fine. As an artist, all that really mattered to me was that people who might like my art got to see it.

As I began to curate shows on behalf of other artists years later, politics entered the mix. Spending hours haggling with artists about their always-too-low prices, tapping nails into the brick walls of the stalwart Art of Republic gallery, I began to sense a shift in the way the shows were being perceived. The exhibits were becoming noticed, which was great, but the work was being weighed, as well. I was used to artists perceiving their work as existing on a certain level, but it was different when those perceptions were being leveled by representatives from organizations and people looking to score new work by up-and-coming artists. And because much of the work I was presenting was by artists of color, there were other angles to it all.

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When I became a bonafide gallery owner a year ago, the issue of accessibility came full circle. I was choosing to showcase work and artists who were old and new, but exclusively local. My mission as an arts administrator is to define, build and maintain Columbus-based culture, and that part of the work has been easy. Columbus has no shortage of artists. Opening the doors to eager audiences has also been easy, as everyone likes a little taste of culture with their bar hopping. More challenging has been dealing with people for whom culture is a thing you use, not a thing you contribute to.

These politics were most stark with an exhibit I launched earlier this yearfeaturing the work of Smoky Brown.

Brown died in 2005, leaving behind a body of work spanning decades. He was a contemporary of Aminah Robinson, Elijah Pierce and Queen Brooks. He was one of the city’s best known artists, having work displayed in the Smithsonian. Smoky was the real deal.

Last year, his widow handed over all of the work still in her possession toartist Richard Duarte Brown, numbering somewhere in the area of 150 pieces. Some of the works were pieces Smoky had traded or been gifted by other now-famous artists. When Duarte came into possession of the collection, it was about a two minute conversation between us to decide if I would showcase the work and get it on my calendar. Smoky’s folk- and found-art style remains in high demand, and too many people outside of art circles had never had a chance to see his work in volume, if at all. For a famous artist, his work was exceedingly hard to find in the wild, even in his hometown.

The minute we opened doors on the exhibit, the politics came rushing in. People who had never been in my venue regaled me with stories about how they knew Smoky and had pieces of his art in their basements and garages. Numerous people told me how they scored pieces of his work for almost nothing. And because the exhibit featured work by other notable black Columbus artists, I was told stories about how their work had also been acquired for almost nothing.

I mention the value aspects of their stories because we were having these largely one-sided conversations. The work in my exhibit was priced at legend prices, meaning thousands of dollars per piece. It was pricing done to establish value, but to also draw a line in the sand about what Columbus black art should be worth. It was clear that some people came through to score some new Smoky piece they hadn’t seen before, that maybe no one had seen in years, as if I were running a fire sale. In hearing these stories one after the other, the message was clear: Black art isn’t supposed to cost this much.

All of the prospective buyers left disappointed. I was told more than once that much of the work wasn’t priced to move. As if the goal were to let it sit in the basement of a collector who long ago ran out of space on their walls, waiting for someone to write a book or have a museum retrospective so that they could apply the pricing that I was already using, treating the art as an investment, as stock. These are the kinds of bricks that lay the foundation for the kind of wealth that fund museums and politicians and corporate strategies. I guess the ’hood isn’t supposed to draw those lines, to be aware of those valuations, to crown their own masters, to know the history of their artists and see worth, and to decide who gets to keep the gates.

We didn’t sell any of those pieces I did not suspect we would but not a month goes by when someone doesn’t inquire after them. That’s what establishing history looks like, how culturalists begin to establish access and value, not just rich art stylists. If you want to know to what extent the old guard (museums, organizations, art flippers) will go to redefine and maintain control over culture, look up what happened to the Albert C. Barnes collection after his death, or the Scull sale of 1973, or the banishment of Alexander Dorner from the RISD Museum in 1941, or the 2018 aborted sale by the city of Chicago of a mural done by Kerry James Marshall.

There are ways to acquire art within any means. Engaging art is even cheaper. If it’s on a museum or gallery wall, you can experience it to your heart’s content. In a time when almost all art can be seen virtually, it becomes even more important to establish not only what the cultural and financial value of that work is, but who gets to determine that value. This is especially true in a city that has historically undervalued  the work of its black artists, yet finds itself in a time when these artists are more aware of the rub than ever before and learning to create their own platforms.