Black buying power shows strength in art: growing incomes and more national exposure of African-American art translates into a widening base of art buyers

Black buying power shows strength in art: growing incomes and more national exposure of African-American art translates into a widening base of art buyers – news

Debbie Hagan

By all accounts, the size of the U.S. African-American population is growing–it increased 16 percent to almost 35 million between the 1990 and 2000 censuses.

It’s not this market’s size, however, but its total income after taxes that has retailers buzzing. That rose from $318 billion in 1990 to $688 billion in 2002. According to the Selig Center for Economic Growth, at the University of Georgia in Athens, the figure is expected to jump to $921 billion by 2008. In just 18 years, African Americans will have increased their buying power by 189 percent (compared to 128 percent for whites). By 2008, African Americans will be spending nine cents of every American dollar.

More buying power translates into more art-buying ability. Art dealers and publishers are keenly aware of this. But what they also need to understand is that while African Americans are looking to buy more high-quality art, they’re also looking to buy from dealers and publishers who understand them and will cater to them.

Income Growth

“African Americans have experienced double-digit growth in income for the last 12 years, which has enabled them to buy art,” said Ken Smikle, president of Target Marketing News, a company that specializes in African-American consumer research and produces a monthly trade magazine bearing the same name. “There have been more exhibits [of African-American art] in the last 10 years. Once these things get in the pipeline, then the trend is in place. It is hastened or slowed by economic factors, but once the snowball starts, it’s here to stay.”

Census figures show that the average household income for African Americans is $40,068. More than a quarter (27.8 percent) earn $50,000 or more.

Of the African Americans who reported owning original art in the 2002 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts conducted by the National Endowment of the Arts, 28 percent reported household incomes of $40,000 to $74,999. Another 28 percent reported earning more than $75,000.

In this same survey, the majority of African Americans who said they owned art also said that the family’s primary income earner was an executive, professional, manager or sales associate. The survey did not list “business owner” as an option, and 20 percent of the respondents said that the survey did not describe their profession. When interviewed, art dealers said that many of their African-American buyers are business owners. The importance of the business owner in the black community is further supported by the Survey of Minority-Owned Business Enterprises, released by the Census Bureau in 2001, which showed that the number of black-owned firms increased almost four times faster, between 1992 and 1997, than the number of all U.S. firms.

“They have money and have acquired comfort in their lifestyle,” said Lurita Brown, owner of Clinton Hill Simply Art Gallery in Brooklyn, N.Y., about her clients. Many are at the peak of their careers, approaching retirement, starting a second career or opening a business.

Brown, like many African-American art dealers, noted that women are either the main art buyers or highly influential in the final purchase. Bernice Robinson, general manager of Color Circle Art Publishing in Boston, said, “Based upon our demographics, our buyers are women between the ages of 25 and 45 with a certain level of income.” She said that they’re mostly professionals, married and living in their own homes in urban areas.

Home Owners

“When people make the investment in a home, they make the investment in art” said Cedric Smith, an Atlanta artist whose posters are published by Image Conscious. He sees it as “a graduating thing,” going from posters in an apartment to fine art in a home.

Indeed, the 2002 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts study that showed 67 percent of African Americans who owned original art also owned their homes. However, a smaller percentage of African Americans than whites own homes. A 2002 Fannie Mac Housing Survey showed that 48 percent of African Americans owned homes compared to 74 percent of whites. In a speech at Howard University in 2002, Franklin D. Raines, Fannie Mae’s chairman and chief executive officer, said that home ownership is the key to closing the $1 trillion wealth gap between African American and white families. “More Americans earn more wealth in home equity than they do in the stock market,” he said.

Public Awareness

“Education is key,” said Thelma Harris of Thelma Harris Gallery in Oakland, Calif., speaking about the inspiration behind buying art. “African Americans have always spent money on a lot of things, such as hair and clothes, but art–I think they’re spending more money on it because they’re aware of it.” Harris carries original work by contemporary African-American artists, including Cedric Smith, Kevin Cole, Alonzo Davis and Gene Pearson.

“When ‘The Bill Cosby Show’ aired and [Bill Cosby] had all the artwork on the set, it brought all the African-American artists into the forefront,” said Harris, reflecting back to 1987 when she entered the business. “People didn’t know there was so much African-American work out there. They thought, ‘I want my home to look like that. I want my home to reflect me and my culture.'”

As African Americans searched for $1,000 William Tolliver prints, they discovered paintings by emerging artists. “Wow, I can get an original for $600,” Harris said, echoing the sentiment of her art buyers back then. “Thus, they started buying originals.” This is how her gallery evolved, and this is how she envisions the wave continuing for African-American art buying.

Harris believes national exposure strongly impacts this market. With “The Art of Romare Bearden” opening last fall at the National Gallery of Art and continuing nationwide to four more major museums, she expects to see a rise in requests for Bearden’s work.

She predicts another national-touring show, “Something All Our Own: The Grant Hill Collection of African-American Art,” will inspire many new collectors. Basketball superstar Grant Hill has collected more than 75 works by Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, John Biggers, Hughie Lee-Smith and others. The show is open at the Orlando Museum of Art until Feb. 15 and will then head to six other locations. [Note: See the sidebar on page 38.]

“This is the first time that a major American athlete has exhibited nationally a personal collection of art of this magnitude,” said Dr. Alvia Wardlaw, curator of the exhibit and director of the University Museum at Texas Southern University in Houston.

“Grant Hill will have a definite effect on the market,” Harris explained. “People will say, ‘Well, Grant Hill had such and such.’ It’s like the Bill Cosby thing–it’s exposure.”

Figurative Images Still Strong

In looking at results from the five-year Public Participation in the Arts Survey, African-Americans art-buying habits appear to have taken a roller-coaster ride. Those who said they owned original artwork, numbered 11 percent in 1992, 25 percent in 1997 and 8 percent in 2002. One-third, in 2002, also said that had purchased art in the previous 12 months.

In a similar study conducted by Princeton University in 1999, titled the Arts and Religion Survey, respondents were asked if they had purchased an art or craft item in the last 12 months. One-third of all respondents said yes. Of the African Americans who responded, 15 percent said they had bought art. It’s important to note that the Princeton survey question included “craft,” which broadens the category. Also, surveys in 1997 and 1999 were conducted during strong economic times, which may also account for the much higher percentages than the 2002 survey.

The kinds of art African Americans are buying and the amounts they are spending vary widely, according to dealers. Harris’ average client spends $7,500 or more on original paintings, while at Artistic Impressions, a home-show selling program similar to the Pampered Chef, sales average $69 to $149 for framed prints.

Since kicking off in 1985, Artistic Impressions, named by Inc. magazine as one of the country’s 500 fastest growing companies, has sold 1.5 million prints. Customers are predominantly African Americans.

“It’s a lousy economy. The Africa-American marketplace has been hurt more than the general marketplace. There’s a fear of losing their jobs,” said Bart Breighner, president of Artistic Impressions. On the other hand, he noted, “If you have stuff that’s exciting enough, you can sell it.” He recommends that gallery owners not limit their offerings to figurative and Afro-centric art, but to follow current trends and look for new artists.

“Thirty to 40 percent of what they buy at our shows are landscapes, street scenes and abstracts that don’t have African-American people in them,” said Breighner.

Powell observes something different in his gallery. He acknowledges that abstracts are on the rise, referring specifically to work by Sam Gilliam, but he believes figurative to be the market’s mainstay. “We as African Americans like to collect images of ourselves in a positive light. I think we’re still fighting some battles of how we’re viewed,” he said.

Southern Strength

Fifty-four percent of all African Americans live in the south. Nearly 20 percent of all Southerners are African American, according to census studies.

The area to watch is Atlanta, which artist April Harrison described as “exploding” The Selig Center placed it on its top-10 lists for “largest” and “fastest-growing” black consumer markets. “The combination of size and growth rate makes Georgia an especially attractive and dynamic African-American market,” reported the Selig Center in its 2003 second quarter report.

Margaret Roussel-Kirton, who owns African Galleria ha Atlanta’s thriving suburb of Lithonia, sees more African Americans moving to nearby suburbs, specifically professionals, earning $60,000 or more. She said, “I see a lot of people from California being transferred here. Between the land and house, you get so much for your money here.”

Dealer Bond

According to some artists and art dealers, African Americans prefer to buy art from other African Americans. “I would put myself in that camp,” said Smikle of Target Market News. In part, it’s a matter of patronizing other African Americans, he explained. In part, it’s a matter of trust and bonding.

“After all, who owns black art?” asked Smikle. “Would you buy an African carving from a white dealer? It’s like buying a book on a black subject matter by a white author.”

As unfair as it may be, he continued, an emotional component is part of the thought process that African-American consumers go through when buying both aesthetic objects and commodities.

Harrison voiced a slightly different opinion, “The only place that you used to be able to buy African-American art was from African-American dealers. What African Americans want is quality from anyone who is offering and showing it.”

However, she also admitted that she looks for diversity in publications that she reads and in the advertisements and promotions that catch her eye. “If it’s one-sided I stop reading it,” she said.

Brown of Clinton Hill Simply Art Gallery said many black Americans become frustrated when looking at art promotions and publications that don’t include African Americans. She said many of her collectors are saying, “Show me, me, and I won’t be afraid to buy from you”

Addressing this issue, Earl Graves, publisher of Black Enterprise, announced in the October 2003 issue that he plans to expand the magazine’s lifestyle section to include more upscale consumer options–a direction he sees the African-American market headed.

In his monthly column, he encouraged other marketers to follow his lead and recognize the untapped potential of the upscale African-American consumer. “As other industries (most notably the world’s automakers) have already learned, we will handsomely reward those companies that do not take our spending for granted and work with us to build mutually rewarding relationships,” he wrote. “Recognizing and catering to the changing needs and interests of our growing and increasingly affluent audience is good business. It’s too lucrative to ignore.”

Two Magazines Target African-American Buyers

The African-American art market now supports two national magazines: Valentine New York, The Magazine, and Images. Both target African-American art collectors.

Michael Valentine, chief executive officer of Valentine New York, a Brooklyn-based company that publishes limited edition prints and organizes African-American art exhibitions, introduced Valentine New York last year. Valentine said that his goal for this quarterly is to achieve an Architectural Digest type of look while featuring African-American artists and art dealers. His fourth issue hit North American bookstores last month. At 88 pages, Valentine is perfect-bound and has a circulation of 30,000. Annual subscriptions are $19.99. For more information, visit www. or call (212) 502-0688.

Images, published by artist Charles Bibbs, is beginning its seventh year. Also a quarterly, Images features articles about African-American art collectors, artists and Art on Tour. It has 10,000 readers and is available by subscription only for $20 a year.

According to Nedra Myricks, managing editor, Images kicked off as an artist’s newsletter and evolved into a full-fledged magazine. Bibbs, owner of B Graphics and organizer of African-American exhibitions, known as Art on Tour, said that he started up the magazine to give national publicity to underexposed artists. For more information about Images, visit www.the or call (909) 697-4754.


Metro Growth Areas


Metros with African-American populations

exceeding 200,000 and African-American

population growth exceeding 20 percent

2000 African-

Growth American

Metro Area (2) Rate (2) Population (3)

Orlando, Fla. 62.2 232

Atlanta 61.9 1,202

Miami-Fort Lauderdale 43.4 798

Tampa, Fla. 36.8 248

Charlotte, N.C. 34.7 311

Columbus, Ohio 34.6 219

Jacksonville, Fla. 34.3 241

Boston 33.8 320

Raleigh-Durham, N.C. 33.1 274

Dallas-Fort Worth 31.7 732

Indianapolis 27.3 231

Greensboro, N.C. 26.1 255

Milwaukee 23.3 261

Norfolk, Va. 22.0 494

Houston 21.8 795

Washington-Baltimore 21.4 2,035

Richmond, Va. 21.1 304

Memphis, Tenn. 21.0 495

Jackson, Miss. 20.3 201

(1) Metro areas refer to CMSAs, MSAs and(in New England) NECMAs.

(2) 2000 African American population minus 1990 Affair American

population as percent of 1990 African American population.

(3) Includes non-Hispanic African Americans that identified one or more

races in the 2000 census.

Source: Population Studies Center, Institute for Social Research,

University of Michigan, 2001.

Characteristics of

African Americans Who Own Original Art

Own home 67.2%


some college 41.2%

bachelor’s degree or higher 34.4%

Activity most interested in attending

jazz performances 34.4%

art galleries and museums 13.7%

Income over $50,000 48%

Went to museum 1-2 times this year 47.2%

Major occupation of manager, professional,

administrator, sales executive 54.2%

Source: Survey of Public Participation in the Arts 2002

10 Cities With the

Highest Percentage of

African Americans


Gary, Ind. 85.3%

Detroit 82.2%

Birmingham, Ala. 74.0

Jackson, Miss. 71.1

New Orleans 67.9

Baltimore 65.2

Atlanta 62.1

Memphis 61.9

Washington, D.C. 61.3

Richmond, Va. 58.1

Source: Bureau of the Census, Census 2000


* African Galleria, (770) 482-8686

* Artistic Impressions, (630) 916-0050

* Clinton Hill Simply Art Gallery, (718) 857-0074

* Color Circle Art Publishing, (617) 437-1260

* Image Conscious, 800-532-2333

* Kuaba Gallery, (317) 955-8405

* Orlando Museum of Art, (407) 896-4231

* Portfolio Gallery and Educational Center, (314) 533-3323

* Target Market News, (312) 408-1881

* Thelma Hands Gallery,(510) 654-0443

RELATED ARTICLE: Grant Hill’s other passion.

Grant Hill bought his first piece of art when he was a college student–a print titled “Duke Fast Break” by Ernie Barnes.” He’s the one who did the painting on ‘Good Times’–the party scene,” Hill said.

He saw the piece in a gallery near the Duke University campus, where he was majoring in history and burning up the court as one of college basketball’s top players. The art-work’s basketball theme attracted him, and he needed to fill the walls of his apartment. Starting a collection was not on his mind.

But the painting sparked something in Hill. His next purchase was a Jacob Lawrence print of the 1976 Olympics. Since then, he has amassed more than 75 works of art, including many by African-American artists such as Barnes, Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden, Hughie Lee-Smith and John Biggers.

Hill also knew Barnes’ work through his parents, both avid art collectors. His father, Calvin, gave him three Barnes prints from the 1984 Olympics when Hill was in junior high school.” As a child, my dad dragged me to and from galleries. So I went under duress–and the passion and love for it rubbed off on me,” he said.

Hill studied African-American history, particularly the Harlem Renaissance, in college. Beginning his collection was the next natural step, he said. “You can look at it as a snapshot of African-American history through the eyes of artists,” he said.” It’s a genre I think is under-appreciated.”

A new exhibit called “Something All Our Own,” featuring 45 of Hill’s pieces opened in Orlando in November and will travel to six more museums. The works include many images of women by artists such as Catlett, Biggers, Hughie Lee-Smith. Other works by John Coleman, Edward Jackson and Arthello Beck Jr., portray black men, both famous and ordinary. Many of the themes, from worshipping in church to dancing to working in fields, are part of the African-American experience, Hill said. But they are a part of a broader experience as well. “Go back a few generations and, no matter where we are, we all come from that [experience],” he said.

He is a particular fan of Catlett and said if he decided to commission a work it might be from her. He likes her portrayals of women as, “the backbone of the African-American family.”

Hill bought 15 Beardens at once from the artist’s estate and recently purchased another, but he still wants more. “He’s not always easy to get at a good price,” he said. His method of acquisition varies. He visits galleries, but he also works with art dealers to find pieces. He declined to say how much he has invested in his collection so far. “We’ve spent pretty good money. I will say that.”

At 31, Hill is happy with the collection, and he and his wife. Tamia, plan to add to t. As we evolve and we grow, I’m sure we will continue, and it will be a reflection of where we are in a particular point in our lives.”

Currently with the Orlando Magic, Hill has been unable to play a full season since 2000 because of an ankle injury. He and Tamia have been working on the exhibition for four years.

In conjunction with the show, Hill established a scholarship program for students interested in visual arts. He is hopeful his collection will draw children who didn’t have the arts influences he had growing up. “I think it had a lasting effect on me, being exposed to a whole other world in a sense, and hopefully I can do that as well,” he said.

–Megan Kamerick

COPYRIGHT 2004 Advanstar Communications, Inc.

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