For the last few days, I have been thinking about my approach to this piece, and though I have built my brand on being completely honest and raw, I feel as though another angle is needed. I will still be completely honest, but I do not want my honesty to come off as bitterness because, truthfully, I am in a really good place in my life and career.
The space I am in has afforded me the ability to speak candidly about the state of Atlanta’s African American fine art scene with clear eyes and a clear voice.
For nearly 20 years, I have dedicated myself to my craft as a multi-disciplinary artist in Atlanta. I have experienced local and national levels of success as a spoken word artist, painter, musician, graphic designer, creative director, magazine publisher and even recently I added chef to my list of credentials.
Art is art, and the power of being an artist has given me the mutable abilities to seamlessly shift into any creative role. Right now, I am about to shift into the role of a critic who has had a very close and personal relationship with Atlanta and the life of a Fine Artist who has made Atlanta his home.
For the sake of time and focus, I will not go on about my professional accomplishments in some attempt to prove that I am a credible artist to you. At any point in time, you can stop reading this report and google “Okeeba Jubalo” to get a feel for who I am.
This piece is about the African American Fine Arts culture in Atlanta, and the best way to tackle this subject is by breaking it up into three sections.
As we look at these three groups, you should gain a clear picture of the plight of Atlanta’s African American fine art scene.
Let’s start with the art galleries that serve as staging points for the Black artists to display and sell their work. I am trying to gather up a line of professional sounding words that will not reduce this message to silly name-callings, but all that I can think of is tired pimp.
When I look at some of the available venues here, it honestly makes my stomach ache. There are galleries on the south side of Atlanta that have been open for some time, and I am not exactly sure why or how. Some of these galleries actually have a good selection of work, but the location and management style of the gallery does not serve them well. Their lack of knowledge about the art business, poor connections, and passive eyes will do very little for their bottom-line and for artists. Their cheese and cheap wine approach is dated and needs an upgrade to pull in the next wave of young collectors.
The solution to this phase of Atlanta’s African American fine art dilemma is for these galleries to set up satellite locations in more prominent areas, even if the locations are much smaller. It is better to show this work to those who can afford it, rather than have a space in a community that cannot and will not support the artists.
This is a double-edged blade because some will argue that our neighborhoods need to be exposed to fine art, but the real truth is that the business of our art will not survive as a non-profit. We should even entertain the idea of the handful of African American gallery owners in the city forming a collective group to open a gallery in one of the more prominent areas of the city, centering it around those who will patronize fine art. This will require a large amount of organization and a minimal amount of ego to get this done.
We would also have to establish a new business model for how our art is sold and presented. We should consider adding a leasing option to the business of our art to create residual money for the galleries and artists who build up stockpiles of work over their careers. In addition to a leasing option, a section of the work has to become mobile and taken into prominent neighborhoods by curating a luxury art block party with other luxury brands that compliment the lifestyle of affluence. The production cost of these events will be covered by corporate sponsors who wish to connect with this demographic.
It would be of benefit to have a cover charge at the gallery art openings, so the public can be conditioned to understand the monetary value of our art.
Regarding the relationship between artist and gallery, it would be better to pay artists to show their work in addition to providing financial advances to the artists for creating the work. Business partnerships always work better when both parties have flesh in the game. This current system places the burden on the artists to finance and create the work, then the gallery comes in on the back end to make a profit off the work once it is created.
This pimp and hooker arrangement is even worse than being on the street corners selling your flesh. At least on the streets, a hooker has the chance of becoming an entrepreneur of sorts by building a relationship with his or her tricks. With this fine art structure, the gallery keeps all of its clients away from the artists and only exposes them when it is convenient to the gallery. This is like having a pimp who has trained his or her hookers to pull their underwear off while backing up and then bending over. . .pressing up to the hole in the wall that has a trick on the other side.
There is no shortage of extremely talented artists who have made Atlanta their home and workspace. By coming of age in this scene, I now have the skills to compete on any world stage, regardless of who may be in the building. Being in the midst of such a diverse group of artists here, it is nearly impossible not to elevate your craft.
The cost of living affords most artists the room to create their work, but the lack of a viable art scene makes it very difficult to flourish in this market. Due to the distance between Atlanta, New York City and California, marketing our work outside of Atlanta is very difficult to do on an independent level. Because of the cost of transporting larger paintings from state to state, most local artists have a limited amount of national mobility.
This structure has created a bubble that is filled with hometown art heroes who can barely afford to keep gas in their cars and food on their tables. I do not question the amount of art that is created here, but I do question the amount of African American art that is sold in and out of
Atlanta. Since creativity is not an issue for me or my peers, then it must be something else. That something else would be a combination of factors, including the high volume of work created here, the artists’ lack of sound business sense, strategic long-term planning by the artists, and the lack of an advocacy organization focused on the compensation of local artists.
Scarcity and quality are the keys to being able to create a demand for a luxury item. Most of our artists do not understand they are creating luxury items. Their hunger and desperation have moved them to approach creating their master works as if they are peddling socks at the local flea market. On any given weekend, you can find hundreds of our artists in the streets and at parks with their art for sale. Some of the work is actually good, but by taking this approach, they have reduced their value and are training the public to see them as talented street beggars.
As we explore the business sense of most artists, it is easy to see why most of them will end up homeless and broke, even if by some slim chance they do strike it rich somewhere down the line.
Another disturbing fad is that some of our artists have started to print their paintings onto t-shirts and sell them as limited editions. This is a ridiculous ploy to mask the fact that their actual paintings are not selling, so they are trying to make fast money with these shirts. This is such a backwards way of thinking and marketing our fine art. This is one of the many reflections of no long-term strategic planning that will have an adverse effect on the art scene as a whole.
Like so many other professions, it would be great if we formed some sort of local artists' union to protect the rights of professional artists. I know this sounds far from where we are, but this type of vision and movement is needed to turn Atlanta’s African American fine art scene into a thriving community.
Speaking about collectors is a very touchy subject, and honestly, my reflections on this subject may rub the few Atlanta based collectors that we do have the wrong way. Collectors in this scene can be broken up into two categories: one being the established collector who is in his or her early to late 50s to the 70 and up crowd. This group has seen Atlanta’s Black art scene evolve and dissolve over the decades, and they are a very tight, yet competitive group. There are some who have done a large amount for this scene and with their connections and financial support, artists like Radcliffe Bailey and Kojo Griffin have reached national and international recognition.
I have had the pleasure of having some of these cornerstone collectors support my creative process. While at the same time, this art scene is still controlled by a collective group of non-Black people who do not understand the importance of telling the story of the Black artist unfiltered. So, this group’s power seems to be limited, due to the lack of avenues they have created for the Black artist who needs a higher venue to display his or her work, showing that the artist has “arrived.” Even while being supportive of these Black artists, there is still an under- tone and an overtone of calculated exploitation. While having the means to purchase artwork at gallery prices, most of these collectors make a point to buy the work directly out of the artists’ studios. To the starving artist, this may seem to be some sort of blessing, but to the experienced artist, this is a terrible business practice.
What is actually happening is that “The Collector” is banking on the artist’s desperation, expecting that the artist needs to move the work because of his or her lack of resources and gallery representation. So, they will approach these artists with substandard prices and flattery to actually exploit the artist.
To a certain degree, direct sales are needed, but it is also very bad for the artist and our art scene. Art galleries are in the business of selling art, and if collectors are buying art directly from the artist, then “the gallery” won’t see any real value in representing the Black artist. These galleries are moved by hype and sales. It would be much better for these collectors to buy the work from the gallery so there will be a commercial value placed on the artist’s work.
However, they will not do so, because it is much easier to exploit artists than to truly support them.
On the other side of the fence, there is the new collector who is not even aware of the fact that he or she is “The New Collector.” These are the new money Blacks who have their homes and condos decorated with cheap art prints inside expensive frames. This group is totally clueless about the business of art and the importance of collecting.
They would much rather purchase cars, handbags, and other mobile items that flaunt their economic status. This crowd is totally clueless and will spend endless amounts of money on items that will give them some delusional sense of self-confidence and accomplishment.
This younger crowd needs to be mentored by the older collectors, so they can develop an appreciation for collecting Black fine art. Without this understanding, the future of collect- ing Black fine art in Atlanta is destined to become obsolete. With this new generation of collectors, Black fine art must be marketed as the new mobile status symbol.
Their public and peers will have to be made aware of their purchases of Black fine art. Black fine art has to become a fashion piece or luxury accessory. The fine art openings will have to be grand with a red-carpeted entrance to give the appearance of exclusivity.
Though this concept is accurate when dealing with this crowd, the cold reality of our future in Atlanta’s Black fine art scene is a hard one. To make this vision a reality, it will take a very large amount of resources and support for this to happen. The optimistic side of me believes that this could happen with small steps over the next decade. The realist in me knows that our fundamental core is so far away from the importance of collecting art that this may not happen.
In closing, there are a number of overlapping issues within Atlanta’s African American fine art scene. If they continue to go unaddressed, this neglect will create a greater cultural void. Eventually, it will lead to a dire situation, reaching a low from which it will be impossible to recover.
I thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to read this, and I hope your power of influence can help to foster a ground that is more fertile for the African American artists who have made Atlanta their home.