THE HISTORIC ARCHIVE of Johnson Publishing Company (JPC) was sold to a consortium of four foundations—the Ford Foundation, J. Paul Getty Trust, Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for $30 million. The purchase was made through an auction process that commenced July 17 and concluded yesterday. The final sale is pending approval of the Chicago bankruptcy court.

Documenting the African American experience over the past seven decades, the archive includes more than four million photographic prints and negatives, along with video and music content. WBEZ, the Chicago public radio affiliate, first reported the new owners. WBEZ’s report was based on court documents filed Wednesday night.

 


Adam Clayton Powell and Malcolm X attend school boycott rally in New York City, March 1964. | G. Marshall Wilson/Johnson Publishing Company

 

The consortium is donating the archives to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), the Getty Research Institute (GRI), which is a subsidiary of the Getty Trust, and other leading cultural institutions for the public benefit. In a joint statement, the foundations said the arrangement is designed “to ensure the broadest access for the general public and use by scholars, researchers, journalists, and other interested parties.”

Ford Foundation president Darren Walker said in the statement, “We’re thrilled with the outcome. This archive is a national treasure and one of tremendous importance to the telling of black history in America. We felt it was imperative to preserve these images, to give them the exposure they deserve and make them readily available to the public.”

“This archive is a national treasure and one of tremendous importance to the telling of black history in America. We felt it was imperative to preserve these images, to give them the exposure they deserve and make them readily available to the public.” — Darren Walker, Ford Foundation

James Cuno, president of The J. Paul Getty Trust said in the statment, “There is no greater repository of the history of the modern African-American experience than this archive. Saving it and making it available to the public is a great honor and a grave responsibility.”

JPC FOUNDED EBONY AND JET MAGAZINES in 1945 and 1951, respectively. The publications were sold to an Austin, Texas-based private equity firm in 2016. The auction of the photography and media archive came in the wake of Johnson Publishing filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in April. Miriam R. Stein, the trustee of the bankruptcy estate, was put in charge of the company’s assets. Hilco Streambank conducted the sale on behalf of the trustee.

Beginning in the mid-20th century, the archive documents African American history and culture during a period of unprecedented progress and change. JPC magazines focused on African American news, culture, and society, reporting on civil rights actions in the South, challenges facing cities, and the experiences of the black middle class. Coverage included African American firsts in science, business, sports and the arts.

 

Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Coretta Scott King consoling her daughter, Bernice, at the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr., in April 1968 was taken by Moneta Sleet Jr. The veteran EBONY photographer, became the first Black man and the first Black photographer to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1969. | Courtesy Johnson Publishing Company, LLC, All rights reserved

 

The publications pushed cultural norms by featuring interracial celebrity marriages and also published images that illustrated to the nation and the world, the hatred of white racism and the lethal actions that were going unpunished. Photographs of 14-year-old Emmett Till’s mutilated body lying in an open casket were published in the Sept. 15, 1955, issue of Jet magazine. After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., longtime Ebony magazine photographer Moneta Sleet Jr. (1926-1996), captured a sorrowful Coretta Scott King at her husband’s funeral in 1968.

When the public sale of the archive was first announced at the end of May, speculation began to percolate in the cultural and academic communities. There was concern the collection, an arguably unprecedented record of black life dating to the 1940s, might end up in private hands again, inaccessible to the public. The hope was that a museum or library would acquire the archive enabling it to be preserved, studied, and utilized for future projects. In this regard, the acquisition outcome is favorable.

The consortium is a uniquely positioned group with formidable resources and complementary missions and programming, making the joint acquisition possible. Once the court proceedings are concluded and the transaction is finalized, the archive will be transferred to the Getty Research Institute and National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of NMAAHC and secretary of the Smithsonian, described the collaboration among the consortium and the institutions as an “important endeavor to preserve and share the richness” of Ebony and Jet magazines. The publications “helped shape our nation’s history, allowing Americans—of all colors—to see the full panorama of the African American experience,” Bunch said in the statement.

“Ebony and Jet magazine helped shape our nation’s history, allowing Americans—of all colors—to see the full panorama of the African American experience. Together, our organizations will ensure these images, stories and the history of these publications are well-preserved and available to the public and future generations.” — Lonnie Bunch, Smithsonian


Entertainer Sammy Davis Jr.and members of the Rat Pack, 1960. | Moneta Sleet, Jr. EBONY Collection, Johnson Publishing Company

 

“It’s a privilege for the Getty Research Institute to participate in making the archive accessible to scholars everywhere, and to have the opportunity to work with other institutions, particularly the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, to secure and share this central American narrative,” Mary Miller, director of the Getty Research Institute, said in the statement.

A status hearing on the sale was scheduled in Chicago bankruptcy court today at 11 a.m. The consortium issued its statement shortly after 2 p.m.

THE CONSORTIUM INCLUDES the Ford Foundation, Getty Trust, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Mellon Foundation. Historically, Ford has supported the arts and individual artists, such as Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence, early in their careers. Under Walker’s leadership, Ford has focused on challenging inequality. Among its arts initiatives, the foundation underwrites many exhibitions and manages grant making for the Art for Justice Fund, a five-year initiative confronting mass incarceration.

The Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation directs its support toward “building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world” and is best known for recognizing transformational figures various fields with its annual “genius” grants. “This iconic and unique collection will stand the test of time, documenting an essential part of American history over an extraordinary period. We are pleased to collaborate to acquire the archive and to preserve it for the benefit of scholars, the public, and future generations forever,” MacArthur president Julia Stasch said in the statement.

A staunch supporter of the arts and humanities, the Mellon Foundation has been at the forefront of efforts to diversify museums-curatorial staffs, leadership, and boards. Elizabeth Alexander is president of the Mellon Foundation. An author and poet, she previously oversaw support for the arts, film, and journalism at the Ford Foundation and wrote the essay that accompanies “Lorna Simpson Collages,” a volume of portraits based on images from Ebony and Jet magazines.

“The preservation and accessibility of this singular and remarkable photographic archive exemplifies Mellon’s values and is of immeasurable service to picturing the vast and varied range of African American life,” Alexander said in the statement.

“The preservation and accessibility of this singular and remarkable photographic archive exemplifies Mellon’s values and is of immeasurable service to picturing the vast and varied range of African American life.”
— Elizabeth Alexander, Mellon Foundation


Aretha Franklin receives valuable music advice from her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, in this undated photo. | Isaac Sutton/Johnson Publishing Company

 

The Getty Trust in Los Angeles describes itself as “a cultural and philanthropic institution dedicated to the presentation, conservation, and interpretation of the world’s artistic legacy.” Last week, the Getty Trust announced Spelman College President Mary Schmidt Campbell, an veteran arts administrator and former curator, had joined its board. Under the umbrella of the Getty Trust, the Getty Research Institute commenced a major African American Art History Initiative last year focused on collecting, studying, and disseminating African American art history. The work includes acquiring archives, conducting oral history interviews, digitizing collections, and collaborating in a range of capacities with other institutions, such as Spelman.

GRI HOUSES ONE OF THE LARGEST public libraries of art archives in the world. It has the institutional knowledge and experience necessary to process, manage, and care for the JPC archive.

“This is a huge, complex archive with millions of photos and negatives (many never printed), business records and much more. The GRI has the capacity to handle that, and to do the work of assessing, cataloging, and digitizing this material, making caches of it available online in waves for years to come,” a Getty spokesperson told Culture Type.

“So it will physically be here, at least in the short term, but that doesn’t mean that NMAAHC doesn’t own part of the material. We house many archives with shared ownership. And some may be transferred in the future. I would expect that NMAAHC will be publishing and exhibiting much of the works in the future, as will we.”

“This is a huge, complex archive with millions of photos and negatives (many never printed), business records and much more. The GRI has the capacity to handle that, and to do the work of assessing, cataloging, and digitizing this material, making caches of it available online in waves for years to come.”
— Getty Spokesperson

At the National Museum of African American History and Culture, photography plays a vital role in telling the story of the black experience in America. The museum’s photography collection includes more than 25,000 items, with images by Cornelius M. Battey, Arthur P. Bedou, Charles “Teenie” Harris, Danny Lyon, Gordon Parks, P. H. Polk, Addison Scurlock, Lorna Simpson, Aaron Siskind, James Van Der Zee, Carrie Mae Weems, and Ernest Withers, among others, represented. The JPC archive will expand exponentially NMAAHC’s holdings.

Spencer Crew, acting director of NMAAHC, recognized the generosity of the consortium and the foresight of the founder of Johnson Publishing.

“We pay homage to the vision of John H. Johnson and his commitment to bringing to the nation and the world, the story of the African American experience—in all its complexity and all its richness. Ebony and Jet were the only places where African Americans could see themselves. They were the visual record of our beauty, humanity, dignity, grace, and our accomplishments,” Spencer said in a statement from NMAAHC.

“Being the steward of the archive is an extraordinary responsibility, and we are humbled to play a critical role in bringing new life to these images. With the depth of its curatorial expertise and the technical skills in digitization, the Museum stands ready to marshall its forces to make this archive accessible to the widest possible audience. We are honored to work with our recipient colleagues to make this gift to the nation possible.” CT

 

This story will be updated when additional information becomes available.

 

UPDATE (07/25/19 @ 8:30 p.m. ET): Revisions include the incorporation of statements from the consortium of foundations, Getty, and NMAAHC regarding the sale and future of the JPC archive

 

READ MORE about the Johnson Publishing Archive auction on Culture Type

 

BOOKSHELF
“Theaster Gates – The Black Image Corporation” accompanies the artist’s exhibition exploring the Johnson Publishing archives, which was organized by the Prada Foundation. Published to coincide with the exhibition, “Speaking of People: Ebony, Jet and Contemporary Art” features full-color images and contributions from Studio Museum in Harlem Director Thelma Golden, curator Lauren Haynes, and artist Hank Willis Thomas, among others. “Lorna Simpson Collages” features collage portraits inspired images from Ebony and Jet magazines.

 


Boxing great Muhammad Ali is photographed in full swing against opponent Floyd Patterson in December 1965 fight. | Herbert Nipson/EBONY Collection

 

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