Artist Betye Saar, 1970

 

THE J. PAUL GETTY TRUST dedicated resources to “recover the historical record of art in Southern California” in 2002. Nearly a decade later, the endeavor led to Pacific Standard Time, a region-wide collaboration with more than 60 institutions that resulted in a sweeping series of exhibitions, programs and publications exploring art in Los Angeles. The Getty organized four exhibitions that drew on its collections. The shows featured a few African American artists, including Betye Saar, Melvin Edwards, Fred Eversley, and Ed Bereal.

Years before the first Pacific Standard Time came together, curator and art historian Kellie Jones spent a substantial amount of time at the Getty archives researching the history of African American artists in Los Angeles. Her research at the institution was critical to two projects she produced—the exhibition and accompanying catalog for “Now Dig This!: Art in Black Los Angeles, 1960-1980” (2011-13) and the book “South of Pico: African American Artists in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s” (2017). Saar’s work was explored in both volumes and appeared in the exhibition.

After training its lens on the deep heritage of art in Los Angeles, the Getty, which describes itself as “the world’s largest cultural and philanthropic organization dedicated to the visual arts,” has turned its attention to collecting, studying, and disseminating African American art history. In late September, the Getty Research Institute (GRI) announced a $5 million investment in an ambitious new program.

GRI’s African American Art History Initiative is a comprehensive undertaking involving multiple institutions and participation from a number of respected scholars, including Jones who serves as a senior consultant. GRI is also hiring a dedicated curator and a bibliographer; instituting graduate and post-graduate research fellowships; partnering with museums and universities; and conducting oral histories.

Collecting the archives of artists, curators, and other cultural figures is also a major component of the initiative. The announcement included news that GRI has acquired the archives of Saar, 92, who was born in Los Angeles and has spent her entire career in the city. Saar has rigorously documented her practice. Her papers span 1926 to the present and contain sketchbooks; prints and drawings; engagements with museums, galleries, and collectors; artist statements and letters; and records for all of her projects, including exhibitions, catalogs, brochures, and posters.

“…We talked to her about her archive for a number of years,” said Andrew Perchuk, acting director of GRI (above). “But, I think that the launching of the initiative was really an encouraging thing for Betye to make the final decision.”

GRI JOINS SEVERAL INSTITUTIONS nationwide housing and intentionally collecting significant African American artist archives, including the Studio Museum in Harlem (one of the Getty’s initial partners), Emory University, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art (AAA), which has an unrivaled footprint in the space. AAA holdings include the papers and oral histories of countless important African American artists, such as Emma Amos, Romare Bearden, Robert Colescott, Jeff Donaldson, Sam Gilliam, William H. Johnson, Jacob Lawrence, Kerry James Marshall, Howardena Pindell, Adrian Piper, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Alma Thomas, Bob Thompson, Charles White, and Jack Whitten, among many others. (The papers of key curators working in the field are represented in various archives, too.)

The Getty brings to bear its resources, foundation in research and archival practices, and commitment to collaboration. In late September, Perchuk discussed how the African American Art History Initiative came about, the multifaceted approach that distinguishes the program, acquiring Saar’s archive, and the institute’s existing holdings related to African American artists. He spoke to Culture Type by phone and provided responses to a few follow up inquiries by email.

 

CULTURE TYPE: What was the genesis for the initiative, how did it come about?

ANDREW PERCHUK: The Getty Research Institute, which is my part of the Getty, was not particularly strong in American art. It’s focus was mostly on Europe. Over the last 10-15 years we’ve been really trying to build that up and we recognized that African American art was an area that really needed strengthening. It’s something we’ve been talking about for a number of years and we have made some acquisitions and done some other things in a relatively modest way. I think the impetus for it becoming much bigger was Pamela Joyner, who you know is a collector and philanthropist. She joined our board and that added a lot of enthusiasm and support. So what we did about a year and a half ago is put together an advisory committee and brought them together and said what does the field need? What would you like to see happen?

What did they say?

They talked about, we talked about, acquiring archives, and obviously hiring a curator who would be responsible for building collections. One of the key things that I think is one of the key parts of the announcement is that we never saw this project as the Getty in isolation, but rather as a local and national collaboration with institutions that have a much longer track record than we do in supporting African American art. We’re starting with the California African American Museum and Art + Practice locally and Studio Museum and Spelman College nationally. But we will build up from there. The idea is you won’t have to come up the hillside of the Getty to access this material. We will share it both physically, but even more important, digitally, making it accessible to anyone with an Internet connection—archiving, cataloging, digitizing, and then sharing it collectively.

One of the key things that I think is one of the key parts of the announcement is that we never saw this project as the Getty in isolation, but rather as a local and national collaboration with institutions that have a much longer track record than we do in supporting African American art.


Featured in “Pacific Standard Time: Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture, 1950-1970”: BETYE SAAR, “The Phrenologer’s Window,” 1966 (assemblage of two-panel wood frame with print and collage, 18 1/2 x 29 3/8 x 1 inches). | Private collection, courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York, NY. © Betye Saar

 

Can you talk about the collaborations? What will you be doing with Art + Practice or with Spelman?

Different things with different people. In terms of Art + Practice, we’re probably going to do some joint exhibitions and potentially share some interns and things like that. They’re very interested in having some actual material from the archives to show in their space. California African American Museum is much more interested in working with us to document their history and make that accessible in a way that it isn’t at the moment. And then Spelman and others, they also have a lot of archival material that needs processing, cataloging, digitization. I can also see doing fellowships, internships, that kind of academic thing between the research institute and the college.

The special committee that organized the initiative, you said it was formed about a year and a half ago. Who was on the committee and is it ongoing?

The committee is growing and changing over time. We started reaching out to people some time ago, and were able to gather a number of experts together in January of this year (2018) for an initial meeting. That helped us refine some of our goals for the initiative. That group included Pamela Joyner, Katy Siegel (Baltimore Museum of Art), Mark Godfrey (Tate Modern), Andrianna Campbell (CUNY Graduate Center, New York), and Gary Simmons (artist). We’ve continued reaching out since then, and are pleased that Kellie Jones, Richard Powell (Duke University), Bridget Cooks (UC Irvine), Andrea Barnwell Brownlee (Spelman University), and Erin Christovale (Hammer Museum) will be joining us at our next gathering. We consider this group to be our advisory committee, though its membership will continue to develop. There are others who haven’t been able to join us yet, but plan to do so in the future.

You’ve hired Columbia University art historian Kellie Jones as a senior consultant and she was on the advisory committee that planned the initiative. Can you talk about her role?

Absolutely. Yes. Kelly was one of the first people we that contacted and you know her scholarship, her history in this, and so she’s helped in a major way in shaping our mission, strategic plan, all the different parts and also reaching out to people helping us recruit for the curatorial position, all these different ways.

During this planning process at what point did Betye Saar’s archive come into play?

Well, we’ve been talking to Betty. We worked very closely with her on the first Pacific Standard Time and she featured prominently in the exhibition that I organized at the Getty called “Pacific Standard Time: Crosscurrents in Painting and Sculpture 1950-1970.” We got to know her, obviously, and we talked to her about her archive for a number of years. But I think that the launching of the initiative was really an encouraging thing for Betye to make the final decision.

When did you actually get the archive? Have you been able to go through it all. I know you listed in detail some of the items that are in the archive in the announcement…

We made an agreement, but it has not come to us yet. We’ve looked at it very closely and made an inventory and all that in Betye’s studio, but it won’t come to the Getty probably for a few months.

When will Saar’s archive be available for scholars physically who want to come there and also in terms of digital access?

Well, probably a year physically and we digitize now at the same time. We think it’s an incredibly significant acquisition and we’re going to do our absolute best to make it accessible as quickly as we can.

You mentioned earlier, for instance with Art + Practice, that they have an interest an exhibiting some of the work, doing joint exhibitions. We’re only talking about archival material here, not art, right?

That’s correct. We don’t collect painting and sculpture, but for instance we have an extraordinary archive of video art and Art + Practice has started a video gallery and they are very interested in potentially doing some video exhibitions with us of some African American and Latino artists of the 60s 70s, even up to today. Then in terms of the future of the initiative, it would be archival material. But often, as you know, archival material can be sketchbooks and drawings and other things that are quite exhibitable.

 


For nearly 70 years, Betye Saar has maintained detailed hand-written records of her artworks, documenting their titles and medium, when they were made, who purchased them, and where they were exhibited. Shown, Selection from Betye Saar’s 1973 ledger. | Courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles

 

The announcement mentions that Betye Saar is not the first, but certainly the most comprehensive, archive you have and that you have some materials from Adrian Piper, Kara Walker and others, Lorna Simpson. Can you characterize what those things are? Is it just a few items?

Those are more individual things. An artist book, a print, an edition. Things that are not comprehensive. There are some beautiful things. We are very proud of those things, but they are not an archive like Betye’s. In some cases, we have a dozen things but not more than that.

Columbia University art historian Kellie Jones, who you mentioned is on the advisory committee and has been hired as a senior consultant for the initiative, spent a lot of time in the Getty archives, which I understood to be significant in terms of holdings, doing research for her exhibition “Now Dig This: Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960–1980” and her books. Given how you’ve described the existing resources they sound less robust. Can you summarize the GRI holdings related to African American artists in Los Angeles in the 1960s-1980s?

Kellie would, of course, need to address the question of what materials she found useful. I can say, however, that we hold artworks and related documentation from such artists as Mark Bradford, Ben Patterson, Adrian Piper, Lorna Simpson, Kara Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, Kerry James Marshall, Martin Puryear, and Betye Saar, as well as materials related to civil rights photography, the Black Panthers, CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality), and AfriCOBRA (a Chicago-based artists’ collective).

In 2008 and 2009, as part of our “On the Record: Art in LA 1945-1980” oral history series, we organized oral histories with Suzanne Jackson, Betye Saar, and Timothy Washington, focusing on Gallery 32; and with Meren Hassinger, Senga Nengudi, Ulysses Jenkins, and Barbara McCullough, focusing on their collaborative work in Los Angeles in the 1970s and 1980s. Kellie Jones, along with Judith Wilson, conducted the latter. We also have relevant materials within the archives from a wide range of internationally based artists, curators, critics, art historians, and collectors.

Prior to this initiative, the GRI’s holdings of materials related to African American art and artists tended to be dispersed between multiple other collections. We didn’t have full archives, though we did have rich material that invited connections between collections. Moving forward, we plan to focus on full archives—but are pleased that the Betye Saar Papers, and others, will find multiple points of contact with our current holdings.

It sounds like the initiative is a significant undertaking for the Getty. What is the scale of it compared with some of the other work the institute is doing?

It’s quite large for the research institute as opposed to the big Getty. The largest project the Getty does is Pacific Standard Time in which, especially the first one, African American artists featured prominently. But this is definitely our largest initiative in any one area at the moment in terms of a major research initiative.

The largest project the Getty does is Pacific Standard Time in which, especially the first one, African American artists featured prominently. But this is definitely our largest initiative in any one area at the moment in terms of a major research initiative.


From left, Collector and philanthropist Pamela J. Joyner joined the board of The Getty to help organize the African American Art History Initiative at the Getty Research Institute (GRI); Artist Betye Saar donated her archives to GRI in large part due to the development of the initiative; and Columbia University art historian Kellie Jones is serving as a senior consultant to the initiative. | Photos Courtesy The Getty; By Ashley Walker, Courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles; Courtesy Kellie Jones

 

Is the $5 million an initial amount for one year or is that over five years? I know you are going to raise more money. What do you imagine the annual budget for this will be to maintain it at the level you’ve described?

Well, the $5 million will return about $250,000 a year but that’s just the initial investment and I think it will be significantly ramped up as the project gets going and the partnerships become formalized and we acquire more material.

The $5 million is from the Getty’s own budget?

Correct.

When you say it will return $250,000 a year, that means $250,000 will be dedicated each year?

At a minimum. Yes. The general nonprofit thing is to figure 5 percent of whatever the number is. But let me stress, as we said, that’s just the floor. The initial investment.

When you say ramped up, does that mean raising money from donors or maybe other foundations?

Yes. We will do some. We feel that this is a national thing that should be supported, and the Getty shouldn’t do it alone. But we will also, I am certain, we will contribute more from our own endowment as well.

So in addition to individual donors that might be interested, do you imagine say the Ford Foundation or Mellon or some other philanthropic institution might be interested in coming on board?

I can’t speak for them, but we wouldn’t say no to any of them as partners.

This is a national initiative but are you going to have any kind of priority in trying to archive and preserve the legacy of California-based artists?

We always made California a priority, but it is very much national. In fact, we are starting our big oral history project, which is one of the major components of the initiative, in New York.

You are starting with New York artists?

New York artists. Even though we will do California as well, the first group will be New York artists. We’ll do California next and then, because there are great artists in many other parts of the country, look to the Midwest, the South, and other regions as well.

When we first spoke, you said you were in talks with other artists about acquiring their archives. Has the announcement advanced those talks or opened up conversations with additional artists? Can you name any names?

Our conversations with artists develop organically over time. It’s not unusual for us to talk with an artist for several years before we reach the point of acquisition. Also, those conversations can have positive outcomes beyond acquisition—we may be able to help an artist think about what constitutes their archive, or help them connect with other people and organizations, even if the collection doesn’t ultimately come to us. We don’t discuss the artists with whom we are in conversation, both as a matter of policy, and as a way of protecting those relationships. That being said, we are committed to developing our resources in this area and expect the Betye Saar Papers to have good company soon.

Is there anything else you would like to share about the African American Art History Initiative?

I just think about the exciting possibilities of really pulling together scholarship, both in terms of bringing people to the Getty, but also making material related to all these great artists accessible, which has been very difficult in the case of many artists. I think it has the potential to really make an impact and change art history. CT

 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

IMAGE: Top of page, Betye Saar, 1970 | Photo by Bob Nakamura, Courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles; and Top right, Andrew Perchuk, then deputy director of The Getty Research Institute, discusses “Pacific Standard Time” exhibition at opening in Berlin, Germany (March 14, 2012). | Photo by Adam Berry, Getty Images

 

FIND MORE about artist Betye Saar’s legacy and ongoing work

FIND MORE about collector and Getty board member Pamela J. Joyner’s role in initiative

 

BOOKSHELF
Two catalogs document Betye Saar’s recent institutional exhibitions. “Uneasy Dancer” complements her first exhibition in Italy, at the Prada Foundation in Milan. The volume features a comprehensive timeline of Saar’s life and practice with essays from the curators and contributors Richard Powell, Kellie Jones, and Deborah Willis. In addition to “South of Pico: African American Artists in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s,” Kellie Jones is the author of “EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art.” She also published “Now Dig This!: Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960-1980,” and co-edited “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties.”

 


The Getty Research Institute has adopted a $5 million African American art history initiative and will house artist Betye Saar’s papers. | via The Getty

 

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