MAJOR PAINTINGS by Norman Lewis, Sam Gilliam, Charles Alston, Edward Bannister, and Romare Bearden are among the auction highlights at Bonhams in New York this week. The premium works by key figures of 19th and 20th century African American art represent the legacy of a family and a longstanding Black-owned gallery.

Featured in the Post-War & Contemporary Art (Nov. 16) and American Art (Nov. 17) sales, the works are from the Estate of Sherman K. Edmiston Jr., a pioneering Harlem art dealer who died in May.

Four decades ago, Edmiston and his wife, Essie Green Edmiston, went into the art business, focusing on artists they regarded as Black masters. Mrs. Edminston died in 2000. In her obituary, the New York Times described how the gallery was established.

She “began showing art in her Brooklyn apartment in the 1970’s while running a full-time psychiatric social work practice. After meeting the painter Romare Bearden, she turned her attention toward art as a career. With a credit union loan she established the Park Plaza Gallery in Park Slope in 1979. This was followed by the Essie Green Galleries in Harlem in 1989.”

 


From left, Romare Bearden, Essie Green Edmiston, and Sherman Edmiston Jr., at Park Plaza Gallery in Park Slope Brooklyn, during a circa 1981 Beaden show. | Courtesy Essie Green Galleries

 

After his wife died, Mr. Edmiston helmed the gallery for another 22 years as the market and appreciation for art by African American artists ballooned. Now his children, Lisa Edmiston and Sherman Edmiston III are running the family business.

Lisa spoke with Culture Type on Tuesday. In the interview, she recalled growing up with an art gallery housed on the parlor floor of their home. “We always were surrounded by art and we would always go to art exhibitions,” Lisa said. “For my brother and I, it felt very normal to be around all the wine and cheese and the sparkling water and the very mature talk and the art. Our whole life was just art.”

In the 1980s, she helped out during exhibition openings, checking coats when she was in high school and tending bar when she was home from college at Howard University. After having artworks from the estate appraised by Bonhams, including paintings, sculpture, and photographs, the Edmistons consigned four paintings and a Bearden collage for sale with estimates ranging from $30,000 to $1 million.

“We’ve had a really good response to all of them,” Andrew Huber, head of Bonhams contemporary sale, told Culture Type. “We’ve not handled, I would say, a Sam Gilliam of this significance, or a Norman Lewis of this significance, or Charles Alston for that matter.” Huber said his expectations of the auction results are high. Lisa concurred.

“I’m looking at this Norman Lewis right now and it’s just so beautiful,” she said. “I expect it to, I think it’ll go for more than what is listed ($700,000-$1 mill). It’s worth three times that amount. But of course, again, you understand that you’re speaking to a person who’s still grieving.”

Lisa is the principal of Our World Neighborhood Charter School, a middle school in Yonkers, N.Y. She spoke further with Culture Type about her family, the gallery, and the artworks up for auction at Bonhams:

 


Lot 8: NORMAN LEWIS, “Untitled (Gathering),” 1955 (acrylic on canvas, 38 3/4 x 49 inches / 98.4 by 124.5 cm). | Estimate $700,000-$1 million. SOLD for $819,375 fees included

 

CULTURE TYPE: Can you share the origin story of Essie Green Galleries and explain the connection with artist Romare Bearden?

LISA EDMISTON: Sure. I’ll do the best that I can. I was very young. My father met Essie, gosh I don’t even know, nineteen something and they started a gallery in Brooklyn. We were at Park Plaza in Park Slope. It’s very similar to where the gallery is now on Convent Avenue. It was the parlor floor. There was just, obviously, art everywhere. Black masters, everywhere. One of my oldest friends in the world, Zahara Duncan, her mother also loved art. And she had, I don’t know what it was, like a program with artists, and Romare Bearden was there. And so my dad and Essie came and that’s how they met Romare Bearden. That’s where it all sort of began. They befriended each other and the rest is history.

From there on my father and Essie started acquiring Black masters. And my father was very clear, from the earliest time that I can remember about anything that had anything to do with art. He was very clear. “I’m only interested in Black masters. Black Masters is what we sell. That’s it. Nothing else.”

Over the years you helped your father at the gallery, growing up and even after you had your own children. What kinds of things did you do?

Well, [at exhibition openings] hanging up coats, probably in high school, and then obviously as I got older, in college, working the bar, and just doing whatever I needed to do for him. I would drive him to deliver art. Or I would drive my dad to get art framed. Essie would take my oldest son, Stefan, to do major art deals. I mean, she would take him to meet with people to talk about art. Because selling art is really about building relationships. And it’s about having a comfort level with the art that you’re talking about and having a comfort level with the person who you’re selling the art to. Right? And she would get in the car, take him wherever, to sell like a $90,000 piece of art. And he would be three.

I want to be clear about your family background. Essie was your stepmother. So was your mother your father’s first wife and then he later married Essie?

Yes. My mom is Patricia Banks. She’s actually (one of) the first Black airline hostess in the United States. That’s another story for another time. When my dad met Essie, they had already been separated. That’s when my dad lived in Brooklyn. When they got together, they moved to Plaza Street and the gallery started out on Plaza Street. And then several years later, my dad was like, “We’re moving to Harlem.” And we were like, “You’re crazy.”

Why did you think he was crazy?

Well, Convent Avenue has always been like an enclave of big hugs and love and trees and homes and families, and we’re going to the Vineyard and we’re gonna go to Fire Island. But you go to Amsterdam Avenue, or you go to St. Nicholas and you’re grabbing your purse. And it’s still like that, but especially when my dad moved to Harlem. I mean, it was like, who’s moving to Harlem?

My father was very clear that one of the challenges with Black people was that they always waited to move to a neighborhood when the neighborhood was good or had resources. But that white people were like, “Nope, I’m moving here. In five years, in 10 years, it’s gonna be the most incredible neighborhood. You’ll see.”

And so when he got the house in Harlem, I remember thinking, this man has really lost his mind because Park Slope was, I mean, we were on Plaza Street. It was like Seventh Avenue, the park and the museum. My high school was down the block. It was this Shangri-La. So we were all kind of questioning his sanity. Like, What are you talking about? You’re gonna sell million dollar art pieces in Harlem?

But he turned out to be right.

He did it, and we were all wrong. Yeah. And thank goodness, we were wrong. He knew what he was doing. He was a risk taker. You know, in order to be successful in this world, you’ve got to be a risk taker.

 


Lot 9: SAM GILLIAM (1933-2022), “Blue Unions,” 1972 (acrylic on canvas, 52 x 52 inches / 132.1 by 132.1 cm). | Estimate $600,000-$800,000. SOLD for $731,175 fees included

 

Who ran the gallery when it was in Park Slope and later when it moved to Harlem? Were they both active in running the gallery together. Or was it primarily Essie until her death and then your father played a more prominent role? How did that work between the two of them over the years?

I think Essie was more the primary person. The primary face of the gallery. My dad was an engineer, and he also was a realtor. He was doing a lot of other things. And then when Essie died, he took over the gallery completely.

When they were running the gallery, can you describe their relationship with Romare Bearden and then with other artists that they knew on a personal level and in terms of business?

They were good friends with Romare Bearden. I think that my dad even got involved with Nanette Bearden‘s dance company. (Essie was a member of the board.) They would visit Nanette and Romi at their house in the Caribbean (St. Martin). Having folks like that in the house, for us, was just like you having one of your girlfriends from college coming over and you guys just sat and talked and played Jazz 88.3 in the background the whole time.

And then Rodney Stringfellow, he would come over as well. I remember him just being very kind and he would even sit and talk with me. We would have conversations and he came with his red, sort of like leather outfit with his rings and his hat. He was larger than life and painted these amazing pieces of art. He was just a regular person that, again, would come to the house and spend time.

It wasn’t just that my father and Essie sold their art, which was very much a part of who they were as people, but they also had conversations. I feel like these days people don’t just sit down and talk for hours. But they were around and Les Gunter was there. As a child, for me, they were people that were really creative. I don’t think it was until I got older, in college, that I was like, “Wait, what?” I went to Howard and I had an art history class, and I was like, “Well, by the way, you know, he came to my house.” I got an A in that class, I had to. It was just normal and they were just were good friends.

How did your experiences with the gallery and these artists influence you? You are a middle school principal. Did you ever consider doing anything professionally related to the arts? Now that you are in education, has that influenced the curriculum or the way you interact with students in terms of what you try to expose them to?

I just think that my growing up around so much art has influenced my entire life. Where I’m at right now, we have what we call special classes. We have art, music, and films. And it has been prominent in my leadership that those classes aren’t just like, “Oh, well those are just those classes.”

Not at all. My kids just take those classes. Art is an integral part of the curriculum in our school. Music and film as well. We have students that get into the best art high schools in the city. I respect my art teachers, like I respect my math and language and literature teachers. Everything is about test scores. Right? And so, Oh, how did you do with your test scores? Well, kids that take art do better in math and ELA? So let’s talk about how we’re integrating art into our school.

 


Lot 10: CHARLES ALSTON, (1907-1977), “Abstraction (Yellow),” circa 1960 (30 x 36 inches / 76.2 x 91.4 cm). | Estimate $60,000-$80,000. SOLD for $101,175 fees included

 

In terms of the five works that are up for auction, were these part of the estate or are they from the inventory of the gallery?

I don’t know how to answer that question because I’m really figuring out the difference between estate and not estate. Because I’ve never had a parent pass away and have to deal with this. And so I’ll say that we know that my father was comfortable with us selling the pieces that we selected. And I know that it was really important when we partnered with Bonhams to have pieces that were telling a story about the greatness of Black art. And when I went to Bonhams to see how they had the pieces up, I just stood and looked and I was like this is just so beautiful and so incredible.

I hope that others also see the beauty of the pieces that are auctioning. It feels very personal to me. I’m actually getting a little emotional. It’s been tough these past couple of days for me because it’s like a piece of my dad is going to somebody. Because every piece of art that he has is a piece that he loved. It’s not just about the art, it’s also about the Black voice. Picasso is not the only dude that made great shit. You know what I’m saying? And so as Black artists always having to fight every, you know, it’s like this stuff is the best stuff the world has ever seen.

Hold on a second, I’m writing this down. That is quite the quote: “Picasso is not the only dude who made great shit.”

If I see it on a t-shirt, I’m gonna run you down. (laughs)

Can you tell me about these five works? Were they ever hanging in the family home or were they in storage or what was your experience with them?

The Norman Lewis. We got that out of storage. That was really funny because I said to my brother, “Well, I could just go pick it up because I work in Astoria.” (laughs) And my brother is like, “You can’t pick up a million dollar piece and put it in the back of the car.” You need to get security.

How about “Blue Unions” (1972), a brilliantly colored abstract composition by Sam Gilliam?

Well, the Sam Gillian, I think that when we looked at that, we had to decide which one. I think we were like, well, which one do we like the least? We liked them all, but which one speaks to us? It was very hard to part with all of them, but I remember us saying, we liked it. We think that others will sort of like what it evokes, if I remember it correctly. We thought it matched well, that they went well with each other, telling a story.

In the early years and then once the gallery transitioned to Harlem, who was their clientele? Who were they selling to?

Everyone. I think the beauty of Essie Green Galleries was that you did not have to be this six-figure sort of like bourgeoisie kind of elite Black or white. I know Whitney Houston frequented the gallery, so it could be folks like Whitney Houston or it could be somebody like a teacher.

You could just be a regular person that liked art or somebody brought you along, because you knew you were gonna have a great time and if you saw something that you liked, maybe it was a print and you worked out a deal. My father was great at working out deals. Even myself. When I had to buy something, he wasn’t giving me any break. He’s like, “What’s the deal? What can you put down?”

 


Lot 16: ROMARE BEARDEN (1911-1988), Untitled, 1968-70 (acrylic and collage on panel, 22 3/8 x 12 1/4 inches / 56.8 x 31.1 cm). | Estimate $80,000-$120,000. UNSOLD

 

Tell me about your decision to sell the paintings at Bonhams. How did you choose Bonhams?

We we’re doing this whole estate thing and our attorney is familiar with companies such as Bonhams. So we met with them and really liked their energy. We really liked how they respected the tender place that we’re at as a family when it comes to the arts. When they came and assessed all the pieces, they were very respectful every step of the way. Just very respectful, very professional, and we felt as a family, very comfortable using them.

What are your expectations from the sale?

I’m looking at this Norman Lewis right now and it’s just so beautiful. I expect it to, I think it’ll go for more than what is listed ($700,000-$1 million). It’s worth three times that amount. But of course, again, understand that you’re speaking to a person who’s still grieving. I expect it all to go far beyond what’s being asked.

The naive me is saying that I just really pray that whoever gets any of these pieces, that it’s a piece of their spirit is why they’re getting it, and that they care for it better than we have. Of course, we’ve given it the best care, but the best that they have to offer. I think it’s going to go well. I can’t imagine it not going well. This is the best the world has to offer. People that have that eye, that have that drive, that have that love for really good art are all on the edge of their seats right now ready. Part of me is excited and part of me is just really sad.

Why are you selling the art?

My dad wanted sell it. My dad was like, the Norman Lewis, I want to sell it. He’s like, let’s sell this. He wanted to sell these pieces, he was a businessman at the end of the day. He could love it until he was blue in the face. But he was a businessman. People would come in the house and be like, “Is that for sale?” He’d be like, “Well that’s mine, but no offer is off the table.” Right? He said to Dan and my brother, “These are pieces I want to sell.” So we’re, we’re selling them.

What is the status of the gallery now?

Dan Moreno was my father’s right hand man and he’s still the point person right now for the gallery. The gallery is still up and running. People can buy art, by appointment only. The show that we have up now is really beautiful. But everything right now is still day-by-day because it’s still all really new, my dad not being here. But as far as my brother and I are concerned, it’s gonna still be there for as long as we can make it happen. CT

 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

UPDATE (11/16, 11/17/22): Auction results added

 

FIND MORE Essie Green Galleries at 419A Convent Avenue in Harlem, is open by appointment

FIND MORE Sherman Edmiston was among the Black gallery owners who spoke to the New York Times in 2020 about the challenges they face competing in the wider art market

 


Lot 17: EDWARD BANNISTER (1828-1901), “Figure on a Pier at Edge of Lake,” n.d. (oil on canvas, 20 1/4 x 30 1/4 inches / 51.4 x 76.8 cm). | Estimate $30,000-$50,000. SOLD for $48,255 fees included

 

BOOKSHELF
“Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis” by Ruth Fine was published on the occasion of the first major museum retrospective of Lewis. “Sam Gilliam: The Music of Color: 1967–1973” and “Sam Gilliam,” published last year by Pace Gallery, explore the work of the Washington, D.C.-based artist who died earlier this year.
Also consider “Charles Alston” from The David C. Driskell Series of African Amerian Art, “An American Odyssey: The Life and Work of Romare Bearden” by Mary Schmidt Campbell, “The Romare Bearden Reader” edited by Robert G. O’Meally, and “Race and Racism in Nineteenth-Century Art: The Ascendency of Robert Duncanson, Edward Bannister, and Edmonia Lewis,” a recent volume by Naurice Frank Woods Jr. In addition, “Romare Bearden: Patchwork Quilt” is forthcoming in January.

 

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