Collector and Philanthropist Pamela J. Joyner

 

THE J. PAUL GETTY TRUST announced the addition of Pamela J. Joyner to its board of trustees in February 2017. The influential philanthropist and art collector accepted the opportunity for one reason. She was intrigued by the possibilities of an ambitious idea the Getty Research Institute (GRI) was pursuing. How could it use its resources not to just amplify, but to transform the capacity and possibilities for research in the field of African American art?

In September, about a year-and-a-half after Joyner joined the board, GRI announced a $5 million African American Art History Initiative designed to establish the Getty as a major center for the study of African American art history. The news also included a major acquisition announcement. The expansive archives of Los Angeles artist Betye Saar, which span 1926 to the present, have been entrusted to GRI. What began as a high-minded vision has been organized into a comprehensive program dedicated to collecting, studying, and disseminating African American art history.

Andrew Perchuk, acting director of GRI, said Joyner played a key role in making the idea for the initiative a reality. He said, “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… She joined our board and that added a lot of enthusiasm and support.”

IN ADDITION TO HER INVOLVEMENT with the Getty, Joyner chairs the Tate Americas Foundation board of trustees and serves on the board of advisors for Art + Practice, the Los Angeles nonprofit co-founded by artist Mark Bradford.

Initiated in 1999, Joyner’s art collection focuses primarily on abstract works, mostly paintings, by artists of African descent. Today, the endeavor is a collaboration with her husband, Alfred J. Guiffrida. The couple had assembled more than 300 works by about 100 artists, including Bradford, Sam Gilliam, Norman Lewis, Richard Mayhew, Alma Thomas, and Kevin Beasley.

The expansive collection is documented in “Four Generations: The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection of Abstract Art,” a hefty volume published in 2016. A year later, “Solidary & Solitary: The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection,” a traveling exhibition showcasing the collection, was organized. On Jan. 29, “Solidary & Solitary” opens at the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago.

San Francisco-based Joyner considers herself an activist collector. “Ours is a mission-driven collection with no smaller ambition than to reframe art history and make certain to the extent of our capabilities and resources that our artists are put into the full context of a diverse canon,” she said in a 2016 TEDx talk she delivered in South Africa.

She has amplified her collecting activities by sitting on institutional boards where she can impact decision making; donating works to museums, directly influencing the canon; and hosting an artist residency at the couple’s property in Sonoma, Calif. In a recent interview, Joyner said “for any artist to get written permanently into the canon, you need the critical support and curatorial support and the underlying research associated with that over a long period of time.” The American Art History Initiative at the Getty Research Institute responds to the latter concern.

Joyner talked with Culture Type by phone in late September about her motivation for joining the Getty board, the vision for the African American Art History Initiative, and what it means for the field.

 


Pamela Joyner sits on the board of the Getty in Los Angeles where the Getty Research Institute (shown) has adopted a major African American art history initiative and will house artist Betye Saar’s papers. | via The Getty

 

CULTURE TYPE: You joined the board of the Getty Trust in February 2017. What about the opportunity interested you?

PAMELA JOYNER: It was this initiative or the plan for this initiative. I have a particular view toward boards which is it doesn’t make sense for me conceptually to go on a board where there isn’t a pathway for me to make a unique difference. I sit on a lot of boards and I am only willing to add one according to those parameters. I shared that with Getty when they approached me, and they did also share that they were planning to do this and so it kind of worked out.

The initiative was in the works when they came to you?

It was. It was. I mean they came to me just as a general board member and I shared my philosophy and they said, “Well, we probably have a job description for you then.” I do think it’s important when you sit on a board for you to know what your distinctive role is, in addition to doing the general fiduciary duties that board members do.

So to confirm, your interest in joining the board was because you knew they had the initiative in the making and you wanted to be a part of making it happen?

Yes.

When I spoke to Andrew Perchuk, acting director of GRI, he mentioned that obviously the Getty has historically concentrated on European art and had begun to focus more on American art and a part of that was recognizing they needed to strengthen their African American art. He said that when you came onto the board you added “a lot of enthusiasm and support.”

Well that’s nice. And that was the intent. And the effort has become more formalized in the last year. I think that’s been part of my role—working collaboratively with all of the people involved and we’re really enthused obviously about Kellie. (Columbia University art historian Kellie Jones has been hired by the Getty Research Institute to serve as a senior consultant to the initiative.) The Getty had holdings that were pertinent to African Americans, they just hadn’t formalized it into a strategy and an initiative. But they were thinking about it, so a group of us have been working together over the last year to put a plan in place and I must say that the plan came together much faster than I would have expected, particularly for an organization that is academy like in its operations. The academy takes a long time to deliberate and I think they took adequate time to deliberate, but they moved forward with all deliberate speed.

“The Getty had holdings that were pertinent to African Americans, they just hadn’t formalized it into a strategy and an initiative. But they were thinking about it, so a group of us have been working together over the last year to put a plan in place and I must say that the plan came together much faster than I would have expected,…”

There was an advisory committee that came together about a year and a half ago. That’s the group you are talking about?

Right. Right. I did play a role in introducing the Getty to a lot of the members of that committee, but they also had some ideas of their own and brought people to the table. Some of whom I know, some I didn’t know. For instance, they felt it was important to have an artist involved in the advisory committee, the small working group that helped structure the initiative, and so big thanks to Gary Simmons for raising his hand and Andrew Perchuk for inviting him.

There are a number of components to this initiative. There are the partnerships, there’s the oral history project, hiring a curator, etc. Were there any particular components that you had as a priority or that you really wanted to make sure were a part of this initiative?

No. My approach was one, to bring thought leaders in the subject areas to the table whom Getty might otherwise not know. Also, in a lot of the activities I am involved around our activist collection, what we are trying to do is to mobilize and catalyze the thought leaders. I don’t have a doctorate in art history. I’m an MBA by training and so I really do love for the experts to do what it is they do. So I find, not only in my role on the board of the Getty, when you ask leading scholars to do what they do, whether they have a specialty focus and a long history like Kellie, or whether you have people who are more recently involved in the field but who have nonetheless become very expert, like Mark Godfrey of Tate Modern, they do what they are trained to do, which is create new knowledge.

You said that this came together much faster than you imagined, what about the substance of it? How does the initiative compare, what’s been announced, all the different components, how does that compare with what you envisioned when you embarked on this?

This is all meeting or exceeding my expectation. One, I wanted to see a comprehensive strategy, that was internally consistent, and I think we’ve got that. I did want to see a long-term substantive commitment in terms of resources on all levels—how the initiative is staffed, what kinds of resources are anticipated to deploy. We all decided when we had those early working group meetings that the archival part of this was mission critical for a couple of reasons. One, there are very few places people who are doing primary research on African American artists can go for primary source material and Getty has a unique history and ability to pull that kind of resource together. They are not duplicating things that other actors in the system are thoroughly ensconced in. However, they’re true to their roots, as an academy really, where the approach is collaborative with other institutions and experts. All of that is as hoped and anticipated.

We thought it was really important to get a substantial archive by a leading artist early to indicate to other artists whose archives we hoped to attract, and other partners whom we hoped to attract, and employees whom we hoped to attract, the notion was to broadcast that this a long-term committed resourced serious effort. The Betye Saar archive was front of mind for everybody. That actually is the definition of how we set out to structure the effort. That’s what I mean. I just can’t tell you how much I appreciate Betye’s willingness to work with us and though I haven’t physically seen any of the archive myself, what I am told is that Betye kept unbelievably detailed records of everything.

That’s my understanding too. That’s what Andrew said. And then I spoke with Julie Roberts, her gallerist, and she said the same thing. My understanding is also that she had been talking to Getty for a few years and what really made her say “yes” to her archive going to the Getty was the idea that it would be in combination with this initiative, that there was something around it.

And that’s what we were hoping. When we sat down in late summer 2017 to brainstorm about this there were about a dozen or 15 of us in the room and that was one of the strands of the conversation. It really has come together. I think these things can start a virtual cycle. Yes? I mean that’s the theory here. Right? We’ll get other people raising their hands and saying we want to participate as well.

What impact do you hope this will have on the field?

I do have a view that for any artist to get written permanently into the canon you need the critical support and curatorial support and the underlying research associated with that over a long period of time. You need, for a lack of a more elegant way to describe it, this is an MBA’s view, the distribution channel, so gallery support. And with the gallery support, part and parcel with that, comes the collector support. And so, when you look at the careers of African American artists, particularly before that generation that we would currently describe as mid-career, I am hard pressed to identify anybody who has had those three variables consistently. And the one the Getty has the unique ability to influence into the future is the critical/research aspect of this.

Right. Really important. In addition, location wise, having all of these resources in California is unique in the art field and in African American art in particular.

Yeah. And as you know, Southern California, not just Southern California, I would say Northern California, doesn’t get enough credit for the things that are done particularly around artists of color. I think the whole art world in California is undergoing a very invigorated aspect of its life cycle. What attracted me to the Getty is this research capability in the GRI writ large. The specific focus is world class. You could make an argument that it is the leading institution for research in the visual arts. One aspect of this whole initiative that is very difficult to replicate anywhere else in the whole art ecosystem is an ability to focus resources on the research, but also to digitize it and make it available. I have to believe that that will be constructive for the legacies of African American artists. Does that make sense?

 

“What attracted me to the Getty is this research capability in the GRI writ large. The specific focus is world class. You could make an argument that it is the leading institution for research in the visual arts. One aspect of this whole initiative that is very difficult to replicate anywhere else in the whole art ecosystem is an ability to focus resources on the research, but also to digitize it and make it available.”


Featured in “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” at the Brooklyn Museum: Installation view of SAM GILLIAM, “Carousel Change,” 1970 (acrylic paint on canvas and leather string). | Tate Modern, Promised gift of Pamela J. Joyner and Alfred J. Guiffrida (Tate Americas Foundation). Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

That makes lots of sense. The digitization is critically important. The other notable aspect is the collaborations with different institutions. The Getty is intentionally reaching out to institutions that have a much deeper history working with African American artists than they do. How important are the collaborations with other institutions?

They are really important. But look at who it is. You’ve got Art + Practice, and I am not objective because I am a board member there. But Art + Practice has a unique position and has a unique ability to impact Los Angeles and the broader art world. Mary Schmidt Campbell is one of the leading lights in art history. A lot of people didn’t even realize she was an art historian. Right? But she has a longer history than just about anybody in this field. She’s got the skill, the history, and this newly resourced Spelman effort. She just thinks about this in a way that is rigorous, disciplined, and experienced. Kellie Jones speaks for herself. And so, yeah, I think when you get the best and the brightest working on the problem, you solve it.

What about sustainability? This is currently a $5 million initiative and there will be a minimum of $250,000 spent each year and potentially more annually as things go along. Do you think you are in a good position to sustain the initiative long term based on enthusiasm from the Getty and the initial resources?

I think this is a great start and, yes, I do think it is sustainable. I would not be as enthusiastic if we had all these people organized and all these collaborations organized, and this archive purchased, and there are two curators hired, and there is no long-term plan to fund. What I would say is the Getty has throughout its entire history, when they embark upon an initiative they put resources behind it and they can.

“I would not be as enthusiastic if we had all these people organized and all these collaborations organized, and this archive purchased, and there are two curators hired, and there is no long-term plan to fund. What I would say is the Getty has throughout its entire history, when they embark upon an initiative they put resources behind it and they can.”

Is the Getty open to donations from foundations and individual donors along the way?

Absolutely. Absolutely. We are going to participate as individual donors in this effort because I think it is important and I am sure we will find other individual and institutional donors to help. But, on a stand-alone basis, Getty also has its own resources, so there shouldn’t be any resource challenge here.

Beyond the Getty do you have anything else that you are currently working on?

We’ve been working on our own collection show. It’s about to more than double in size when it goes next year to the Baltimore Museum of Art and that is pretty exciting to me. CT

 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: A greatly expanded version of “Solidary & Solitary: The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection,” will be presented at The Baltimore Museum of Art next fall, from Sept. 29, 2019-Jan. 5, 2020. Works from the Joyner/Giuffrida Collection will be shown alongside works from the museum’s collection and other private collectors, including a couple of works Joyner and Giuffrida own jointly with the Rennie Collection in Vancouver.

 

IMAGE: Top of page, Pamela Joyner with Kevin Beasley’s “Untitled (Panel 4),” (2016), at the Casey Kaplan booth at Frieze London 2016. | Photo by Linda Nylind, Courtesy Brooklyn Museum; Above left, Betye Saar in her Los Angeles studio in 2015. | Photo by Ashley Walker, Courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles

 

FIND MORE about how the GRI initiative came about

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

 

BOOKSHELF
Initiated by influential collector Pamela Joyner, the extensive holdings in the Joyner Giuffrida Collection include more than 300 mostly abstract works by about 100 artists of African descent. “Four Generations: The Joyner Giuffrida Collection of Abstract Art” documents the collection with full-color images and a foreword by Mary Schmidt Campbell. The volume also includes incredible conversations—salon sessions at the San Francisco home of Joyner and Alfred Giuffrida, Thelma Golden talking with Glenn Ligon, Charles Gaines and Mark Bradford engaging each other, and an interview with the collectors conducted by Courtney J. Martin.

 


This video captures the installation of MARK BRADFORD’s “A Private Stranger Thinking about His Needs,” 2016 (paper and other found materials), “Solidary & Solitary: The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection,” Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University (Feb. 22-July 15, 2018). | Video by Nasher Museum

 

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