A black visual arts explosion is reverberating through Washington, challenging the authority of white-owned art institutions and paving the way for black art galleries to become moneymakers.
Quality works by local black artists are in such abundance, according to gallery owners and artists, that 20 black art galleries, offering a wide selection, are now operating in the Washington area -- more than double the nine galleries in existence just four years ago. According to internationally known Washington abstract-expressionist artist Sam Gilliam, the District is "going through a phase of aggressive growth without comparison anywhere."
Black gallery owners who say they are turning the corner financially are doing so by actively pursuing black civic and community-minded clientele, by offering African and Afro-American crafts as well as paintings and sculptures, and by selling art in "house" galleries -- where some of the gallery owners live -- to cut down on high overhead costs.
Concurrently, suspicion and rage directed toward what some call the ruling white clique -- museums, galleries and the media -- by black gallery owners and artists has strained relations between the black and white art communities, which at best have been distant.
According to Adolphus Ealey, executive director of the privately owned 38-year-old Barnett-Aden Gallery in Northeast: "The white art establishment has been trying to crush us for years by determining who our artists are, but now we're around in such numbers that we can provide the space, set our own styles and values, and market our own product."
Marvin Kelley, director of Vision Inc. at 413 H St. NE, a company that organizes and promotes black arts and crafts, said: "We have more black art galleries than New York and Chicago and all the other major cities combined trying to harness all this burgeoning energy. The Sun Gallery has shown that it can be done by running a profit-making operation that makes this art accessible to a public not known for being art consumers."
The Sun Gallery, at 2324 l8th St. NW, was cited repeatedly by gallery owners and artists as the ground-breaker for the new wave of black art recognition in Washington. Barely four years old, it has met with success from the beginning by seeking out the black clientele, capturing it and keeping it.
"Our clientele is 98 percent black," said Sun's gallery manager Debbie Donelson, "because we've developed an appreciative audience by speaking to civic groups and social organizations, conducting tours and doing whatever was necessary to turn people on to this black bounty."
The Sun Gallery makes money. So does the Miya Gallery, soon to move into the Lansburgh Building at 418 7th St. NW, but presently located at 720 llth St. NW. "Do we make money?" Sun Gallery owner Vernard R. Gray asked rhetorically. "How could I own my own computer and print a black arts newspaper?"
Despite the growing success of black art galleries, some galleries are using handiwork not usually offered in traditional galleries to lure clientele. Sun and Miya have sweetened the pot by selling craft items: jewelry, leather, baskets. Sun has an African goldsmith on the premises; Miya uses its large display window for cornrowing hair and selling fabrics worn by models to attract customers off the street.
"Our commission on art work ranges from 30 to 40 percent," said Gray. "That the large commission and our functional crafts appeal to the people because it is about them and out of them. Our buyers feel spiritual connections."
Kelley, an art promoter, plans to establish a coalition of black gallery owners, visual artists, and crafts people to develop ways to take the "stigma and fear," as he put it, out of black art. He views the gallery's money-making phenomenon this way: "The artists and gallery owners are up against a cultural backwardness so pervasive that Washington has adopted the values and orientation of a country town. Washington's black community does not have a reputation of being supportive of its art and its artists. The fact that some of the galleries have succeeded speaks to their determination and commitment."
Commitment put Florene and Jesse Jones and their artist son Brian in the art business. "Our family goal was to open a gallery that would provide space for our struggling young local black artists," said Florene Jones. The Jones family has operated the Gallery House at 1219 O St. NW for two years, giving exposure to dozens of local artists.
"We haven't been that successfull financially," said Florene "but we feel very, very rich."
In this town, black art historically has had great difficulty finding a showcase, getting exposure, garnering recognition. Last spring, Jane Livingston, associate director and chief curator of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, met with area artists at a gathering that she recently labelled a "confrontation".
"They wanted us to present more local shows, give them more exposure," Livingston recalled, "but it takes time for institutions to change."
Sam Gilliam, who attended the same meeting, said he presented the grievances of dozens of local black artists who felt left out of the Corcoran's shows and exhibitions.
"Nothing came of it," said Gilliam, whose works have been featured at the Corcoran as well as other white-owned galleries. "We look to the Corcoran as our parent gallery," he said. "They'll listen, but as far as viable changes are concerned, they have yet to come across."
Rodney Donahue, who runs the Raku Gallery and Sculpture Park at 310 Seventh St. NW with the help of his wife, father-in-law, and brother-in-law, rails against what he calls the "white clique."
A sculptor and a former art instructor at the University of the District of Columbia, Donahue called media coverage of the newly developed art scene on Seventh Street NW "racist." "The Post praised the white galleries, but ignored us, despite the fact that we were the first professional gallery to open on the street. We don't wish special treatment," he said, "just equity."
George Nock, a former Redskins running back and a painter since the age of 6, accused local white-run galleries of locking out black artists.
"Even though I've exhibited in white galleries in New York, Chicago, Baltimore, New Orleans and Las Vegas, I can't crack the white galleries here," he said. "Since they set the standard through the media and word-of-mouth, I feel they have an obligation to make black art an integral component of all the works they offer."
Peggy Cooper, chairperson of the D.C. Commission on Arts and Humanities, blames racism for some of the lack of exposure for black art and artists. "Racism generates from the gallery structure -- the problem with black art is that it hasn't been seen. In addition, black people are rarely invited to local gallery and museum openings -- one or two couples and that's it."
Not all white-owned galleries have shunned black art and artists. Franz Bader, owner of the gallery of the same name, is one gallery owner who began featuring black artists here 29 years ago.
Bader, who emigrated here from Vienna in 1939, prides himself on charting his own course. He explained recently why he opened up his gallery at 2001 I St. NW to local black artists Richard Dempsey and the late Alma Thomas: "Very simple, they were artists."
"I can't speak for other galleries," Bader said, "but I judge an artist as an artist -- whether they are good, whether they are current. I may go a year without a black artist because the competition to get into a gallery is enormous -- local artists cannot understand that."
Some black artists say they understand the pressures. And at least in one instance, gallery and artist are being hooked up. Nock's paintings will get some exposure this fall at the Raku Gallery and Sculpture Park. Nyangoma's Gallery at 2335 l8th St. NW, also a year old, has developed a plan described by director Lusetha Rolle as a "building program for unknown or unrecognized Third World artists." Founded by three black women -- Rolle, her sister JoAnn Rolle-Katabaruki and Constance Hamilton -- Nyangoma's will feature shows with the original work of acknowledged black masters sharing space with the work of a relative unknown. The gallery now is exhibiting selected works from the 50-year career of Hale Woodruff alongside those of his less well-known son Roy.
Yet another year-old venture is the Evans-Tibbs Collection at l9l0 Vermont Ave. NW, a house gallery that includes an archival and reference service on black art and artists. House galleries account for ll of the 20 black art galleries here. Thurlow Evans-Tibbs explained why: "We don't have to pay the absurd rent and tremendous overhead costs of fashionably located galleries . . . we just pay our taxes. House galleries are a significant development because they offer an artist space that otherwise would not be available."
James C. and Helen Mason started the Smith-Mason gallery, at 1207 Rhode Island Ave. NW, 14 years ago to give exposure to contemporary black artists. "Over the years we've given shows for hundreds of local black artists when no one else cared about them," said James Mason, who said he is "over 75." He said the gallery presently is undergoing repairs. "After which," Mason said, "we'll start all over again."
Many of the black-owned galleries exhibit works by white artists. Raku's Rodney Donahue underlines this point: "We have two extremely talented white artists on exhibit at this very moment. Our objective is to quit being isolated as ethnic oddities. We believe in strong visual statements that show black influences; Picasso qualifies in this respect."
Barnett-Aden's Adolphus Ealey concurs. "We must show how our culture influences other cultures -- Modigliani, Miro, Picasso and others used our motifs. It is up to us to chronicle the diversity and vitality of the black artist."