Gerard Gaskin explains how ethics, rejection and transsexuals,

influenced his 20-year photo essay about intuitive performance artists

Three months before Gerard Gaskin’s first photography book rolls off the press, we linked up via Skype to touch base amidst the flurry of activity around his monumental moment.  He was in Syracuse, New York, his new home.  I was at a juice bar in North Miami.  In the twenty years we’ve known each other, we’re more familiar with chatting long distance than in person.  Before the book launches I wanted to tour his mental journal for insights to his process while developing his documentary project into the book, Legendary: Inside the House Ballroom Scene (Duke University Press; U$45).

A book symbolizes the pinnacle of a photographer’s career.  Gaskin, originally from Trinidad and a graduate of Hunter College in New York, has been devoted to honing his craft and shaping his legacy.  He won a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum, and his work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of the City of New York.  He began documenting the House Ballroom scene in 1993, it’s now a book because he won the 2012 Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize.

We’re both at that station in life where paying forward our knowledge is a priority.  In that spirit, Gaskin, 45, shares insights from his experience creating this work to serve aspiring documentary photographers in and beyond the Caribbean.

First, here’s an indoctrination to the culture Gaskin embraced to record ‘Legendary’:  The House Ballroom scene dates to the 1970s and was born in Harlem, New York.  The vogue dance style branded by this subculture, started as the Pop Dip anmy book 5119710a28a copyd Spin performed by gay inmates at Rikers Island.  Today, House Balls are where gay black and Latino city kids, who are often high school educated intuitive artists, stage theatrical battles in the wee hours of the morning to earn street creds for having an incomparable avante garde aesthetic.

House Balls borrow the choreographed storytelling of Broadway to present the gratuitous exhibitionism of Miami Beach and the narcissism of Paris Couture Week, in order to elicit the spirited frenzy of Rio Carnival.  House Balls start at midnight and require seven hours to allow contenders from various Houses in four categories: Butch Queens, Femme Queens, Butches and Women, to work the judges for the coveted ‘10’ scorecards.  There aren’t any deep-pocket sponsors of the arts invested in validating the dramatic portrayals and dance battles that unfold on makeshift runways as performance art.  Yet, House Balls have spread across the U.S. like kudzu and have over 30,000 followers.  Gaskin has photographed Balls in Los Angeles, Boston, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.  Here are his shoot notes, each packed with a useful take-away:


Follow as Inspiration Shifts: “I would hang out on 42nd Street (in NYC), near a peep show on 8th Avenue; it’s a place where the ‘girls’ of the Ball scene worked.  The Ballroom project started with me wanting to do portraits of femme queens (transsexuals).  At that point the hottest photographer in the US was Annie Leibowitz, she was doing amazing Amex ads and work for Vanity Fair.  I wanted to do Vanity Fair portraits of femme queens—very stylized.  It wasn’t supposed to be very documentary driven.”

Establish Mental Focus: “I always think that access was the thing every photographer tries to get.”  (It took Gaskin six years to attain full access in this community.)  “Going to the Balls, I try not to think about too much.  When I started photographing the Balls all I did was shoot as much as I can.  When I started laying out pictures, I started to figure out what I don’t have. That became a routine.  What iconic image do I want to create.  Then I would get one, but if I didn’t like it.  I would go back and ask where do I need to be to make the image better.  Those were things I thought about before I got to a Ball.  I like to get to the Ball early, when the doors open I want to be there.  Sometimes I just photograph trophies on the stage or [folks] getting ready.  Being there for the duration was what I was there to do.”


Define Your Motivation: “The thing that drove me to the Ballroom scene is my exploration around sexuality.  I have a cousin who was born on the same day, he lives in Toronto and he came out.  He was shunned by my family.  It’s interesting how my family dealt with sexuality.  My family is a really religious catholic family.  Homosexuality is a really strange thing.  In turn, I wanted to deal with that idea.  That was the beginning of me seeking out the project.”

Rejection Isn’t Defeat: “There are 30,000 ‘kids’ in this scene, one ‘kid’ saying no doesn’t cancel a project.  I just turn my camera away, and walk away.  I have photographs of people who allowed me to take their picture, but when the book was coming around and I was [seeking] permission to use their picture in the book—they flatly told me no!  Balls are still a scene where people are afraid to be seen.  Though many are much more comfortable with having their picture taken [than ten years ago].”

Identify Ethical Boundaries: “The idea of the photo essay has changed Imagebecause of how scripted reality TV is, it’s more structured to tell a point.  [Editors] are not interested in allowing people to do what they want to do.  When clients call me, a magazine is not going to send you to shoot somebody for two weeks.  They have structured ideas that they ultimately want from that person.  [They might] say, we want them getting ready in the morning, so we literally stage that idea.  Or they want them interacting with children, we stage that idea, too.  If someone is putting on makeup and they’re done and ready to go, but I wanted that image, I ask them to re-do it.  They don’t need to take off their makeup and put it back on.  But I want them to act like they’re putting on makeup again.  In the ’90s I wouldn’t do that.”

Learn Guerrilla Marketing: “When I started shopping this book I had a box of photographs, an artist statement, a book proposal answering certain questions: who’s going to buy the book, who’s my target audience.  People would say, we’re interested but what does it look like.  Around 2006, I made the dummy, [it] was 6” x 8” with 50 pages.  Almost everything in the dummy is in the final book.  You need to create a dummy digitally.  Publishers want you to have an audience, they want pre-sale.  You have to have a timeline and raise money yourself.  It’s easier to do guerrilla marketing yourself than to have some marketing firm think they know your audience.  I was about to launch a video [to post on] Kickstarter.  They told me not to launch between Christmas and February because no one gives money then.  I was waiting to launch my Kickstarter project, and Duke called and said I won.”


Photography courtesy Gerard Gaskin.

TipSheet: Old Money

Collecting money never loses popularity

and can earn you a pretty penny

Preservation, rarity, and demand comprise the elusive trifecta sought by coin collectors and dealers.  “When you get that combination the value of the coins goes through the roof,” says David Neita, director of sales for California-based American Heritage Minting (800-800-2184), “the first year of issue of any denomination is always in demand,” rarity matters little without demand.  “Any bust half-dollars, dimes, quarters from 1796-1838…anything from the early beginnings of this country is very much in demand,” shares Neita, who sources gem-quality coins for his wholesale dealership, but advises, “buy the level of preservation that you can afford.”

Neita, a former CBS Morning News (1968-1973) journalist, fell in love with coins while researching for a Mint Masters catalog he produced in 1986 for a dealer.  “It’s a high-risk high-reward business.”  The famed King of Siam coin set, including a specially minted 1804 dollar, sold for $10 million last year.  Coin dealers operate like stockbrokers, they aim to buy low, sell high and keep the difference to grow their business—and they are instrumental in negotiating for collectors.  At this year’s Florida United Numismatists Show in Orlando, auctions hammered $85 million, not including millions traded on the bourse floor, which hints at why this is a very secretive and close-knit community, adds Neita who hails from Brooklyn, New York.

“It took us 20 years to establish contacts in France before they would sell to us.”  Neita, 59, is primarily self-trained and specializes in US, English, and French coins.  He studied how to grade coins, the history of US gold coin varieties, and counterfeit US gold coin detection at the American Numismatic Association, “but there’s nothing like being on the bourse floor at a tradeshow, going from table to table studying coins,” he says.  “You have to be outgoing and like a sponge to soak up information.  The death in this business is the day you think you know everything.  It’s impossible to be an expert on every coin, find an area of specialization.”  Neita offers us what every numismatist (student of the coin) should know:

Theme strengthens a collection.  Before spending a dime on a Buffalo Nickel, Indian Head Cent or any coin buy the book advises Neita.  There are books on every US coin that provide dye varieties and historical insights including where the coin was struck.  “I own slave tokens made in 1793 and 1838, colonial paper money (issued by the Continental Congress to support the revolutionary war, some of it was made by Benjamin Franklin), and currency that bears the signature of somebody who signed the Declaration of Independence—that’s my kind of money!”

Preservation elevates value. Transport coins in a lightweight plastic flip that allows for carrying many coins at once.  “When handling coins always grip by the edge, never place a finger on the coin,” cautions Neita, “[being] thumbed or fingered effects the level of preservation, cotton gloves help.”  Storage should reduce exposure to moisture and dust.  Neita recommends a safe deposit box for very valuable coins, and abhors applying chemicals for preservation.  Coins converted to jewelry can never be a coin again.

Investing takes patience.   If exploring US coins for investment Neita suggests holding them for 3 or 5 years—or longer.  “Hold foreign coins for 5 to 10 years, but avoid investment grade if you might be forced to sell before these timeframes because you’re setting yourself up for the fall.”  The Guidebook of US Coins: The Official Red Book by R. S. Yeoman (Whitman Publishing; $16.95) is an annual guide that lists mintage (how many were made) and dollar value indicators.  Have coins graded by a third party like the Professional Coin Grading Service or Numismatic Guarantee Corporation.  Grading is key to authentication.  Reputable dealers guarantee their coins are genuine and will repurchase any coin at the highest price for that grade if the coin is found to be counterfeit.

Attend the premier coin show in the US, American Numismatic Association World’s Fair of Money or the Long Beach Coin and Collectibles Expo to sample the thrill of the bourse floor.  For a starter’s tipsheet refer to Helpful Hints on Enjoying Coin Collecting by Bill Fivaz (Stanton Books; $15.95) and A Guide Book of United States Type Coins by Q. David Bowers  (Whitman Publishing; $19.95), more research available via


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15 Minutes: Pedigree Perfection

A Primer for the Pedigree Enthusiast

Michael Brown was on a leisure drive with his dad Michael, and Chinney, a Siberian Husky, when he came across a dog show.  Since that introduction to the sport of pedigree dog exhibitions, Brown has bred Chow Chows and competes in 70 shows per year.  From his home in historic Lambertville, New Jersey he unleashed the dogs for 15 minutes to offer this primer to assist your pedigree pursuits.

Michael Brown with Trudy and Shirley.

BREED RESEARCH.  Investigating genealogy is a matter of priority for pedigree breeders.  Before acquiring Marchwind Miro’ de Ca’nquet, a six-month-old Italian Greyhound, Brown says, “I went back ten generations looking at photographs of Miro’s ancestors…reading what owners had to say.”  Brown’s ideal breed type had to have correct size and silhouette, a hound-like head and high-stepping strut.  Dog World newspaper, specialty books and breed-specific Websites and kennels were instrumental to Brown’s research.  Visiting major kennels (including some in England) to learn the types of dogs they produce informed his analysis.  When creating your own kennel type you should be firm on how inbred or outbred you want to be—by adhering to either a small or broad gene pool.  “You can have a successful breeding kennel with two or three very good brood bitches,” adds Brown, who never buys dogs for breeding from pet shops.

SOCIAL TRAINING.  “First thing I do in preparing a dog for show is to get it a complete veterinary physical.”  This screens the dog for parasites that provoke weight loss, and coat and skin deficiencies.  Next, Brown sources a handling class at a respected kennel club to familiarize the dog with being around other dogs and humans.  “These classes are the best simulation of real dog show conditions.”  He and Champion Tudors Diamonds Are Forever (call name Shirley), a five-year-old high-strung Italian Greyhound, attended two 30-minute sessions per week for four months.  “I worked to socialize her, I took her wherever I went [and] I made sure to expose her to children, the elderly and people in wheelchairs, so that no social encounter would faze her.”  Weekly coat conditioning and teeth cleaning were coupled with networking with handlers at shows, and practicing

Michael with Emma.

postures and walking patterns required in the show ring.  Brown recommends budding handlers join the Owner Handler Association of America , as well as a club for their specific breed.

SHOWTIME.  When the AKC/Eukanuba National Championship awarded $50,000 and a 2004 Suzuki XL-7 for the owner of the Best in Show winning dog, and a $20,000 purse for best dog shown by its owner/breeder, debate flared, says Brown, “insiders felt that dog showing should remain an amateur status sport.”  “No award money is given at prestigious shows like the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York or Crufts in Birmingham, England,” which attracts 20,000 dogs for its three-day extravaganza.  “No one does this for the money,” said Eugene Blake, a revered handler and prominent African American show judge with over 50 years experience.  Blake judges sporting, hound, toy and non-sporting categories and emphasizes that “we judge on breed type…without that you don’t have a [potential champion] what makes the dog breed is the way they move not the way they look.”  Blake believes the sport is very accepting, “I’ve been involved since before the civil rights movement when places were segregated.”

At annual National Specialty, prizes for competitors who win points toward championship ranking range from $25 – $125.  That’s nibbles ‘n bits compared to the princely penny enthusiasts invest.  Brown incurred a $6,000 vet bill for orthopedic surgery on Shirley’s broken leg, show entry fees range $22 – $50, and buying a healthy Italian Greyhound pup can cost $1,300, while a show quality pup can fetch $4,000.  Cultivate your curiosity, visit the American Kennel Club a comprehensive information emporium.


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Courting Contractors

A first-time home remodel almost

becomes a costly nightmare

“Hands down I was sold on the house when I stepped onto the deck and saw the beautiful meadow and creek,” recalled Alvin Adell, M.D.  “I was sold on the setting, the house itself needed some love.”  For Adell, 46, an attending anesthesiologist, the appeal of his 3,200 square-foot Center Hall Colonial in Colts Neck, New Jersey includes being a 60-minute train ride from New York City and Atlantic City, and 35 minutes from Newark International Airport.   “I travel often, convenient access was a major selling point.”   In April 2000 Adell began financing the TLC his home needed.  His remodel project had three priorities: create the feeling of a luxe spa on a homey scale in the master bath, build-out a secondary level for the master suite (with fireplace, walk-in-closets and patio), and modernize the kitchen with a heated flooring system and open floorplan onto the dining room and deck.  “I love to grill,” shared Adell, “sometimes in the winter, so easy access to the deck is important.”

Dr. Alvin Adell’s remodeled and expanded kitchen, fitted with heated flooring and premium appliances, hosts many dinner parties and is the center attraction in his home.

“One of the best things was to work with an interior designer [Beau Boger] who knew where everything needed to go, [my] designer worked with the vision of existing furniture,” said Adell.  “I went around with my interior designer to pick the materials together.”  Adell considers his style to be traditional based with contemporary African and Asian accents.

Contractor selection.  Through referrals Adell sourced three contractors to interview, he requested references and visited one site for each contractor screened.  He “checked with the Better Business Bureau for outstanding complaints, and made a subjective assessment,” said Adell, “to see if I would be able to trust that person in my home when I’m not there.”   “One contractor was low-balling, I visited hardware stores to gauge the price of materials and knew it was impossible to do the job with his bid, he was eliminated.  Low-ballers eventually add costs or skimp.”  Adell established an account at Route 18 Lumber so his contractor “didn’t have to [shell-out] upfront money on materials and have to wait to be reimbursed,” said Adell, “and I didn’t have to worry about him overcharging me for inferior materials.  Invoices came directly to me and I qualified for acontractor’s price on materials.”

Master bath with spa comforts, including heated flooring, jacuzzi tub and multi-head shower, adds value.

Budget for surprises.  Even with layers of pre-screening you may not be exempt from costly misjudgments.  “Firing a contractor midway is one of the worst things you’ll have to worry about,” said Adell.  “It delays [project completion], contractors hate to come behind another contractor midstream to correct work.  In their mind, they know you’re vulnerable, so a $10,000 job could cost $50,000.”  In Adell’s case, he waited till the “big hole in the back of my house was sealed” then consulted his attorney to be certain he would be clear and free to fire his contractor for ‘changing design decisions, hiring substandard subcontractors, shoddy workmanship, and for being grossly behind schedule,’ though the contract lacked a timeline stipulation.  “I would find mistakes laid in concrete; [contractor removed] an oak hardwood floor that was never supposed to be replaced.”  David Jaffe,

Master suite build-out with walk-in closets, fireplace and patio, positioned over the two-car garage.

staff VP legal affairs for the National Association of Home Builders, said, “a ‘time is of the essence’ clause elevates the value the homeowner places on time, the contract can be terminated on the grounds of breach if the timeline is missed [however this can be] negated [if another clause pardons contractor] for delay due to reasons beyond his control.”  In hindsight, Adell said, “I would have found a contractor who has in-house plumbing, carpentry and electrical, which means if the general contractor actually employs those three craftspeople they have more control over their schedules, if the general contractor subs it out to individual contractors and the general contractor runs off schedule he’s at the mercy of the subcontractors.”  A full-service contractor is generally more expensive.  Research resources, project guidelines, and educational seminars are available through the National Association of Home Builders.

Adell credits his astuteness to a reading list comprised of Home Depot Home Improvement 1-2-3 (Meredith Books; $34.95), Reader’s Digest New Fix-It-Yourself Manual (Reader’s Digest Association; $35.00), and Architectural Digest.  “Share your ideas with others,” said Adell, “you never know how their input might turn out to be a brilliant contribution.”

One year beyond his projected deadline, Adell’s investment tallied a conservative $200,000—more than $50,000 over budget.  Recently, his property appraised at $1.2 million, which redeems the unsavory portion of his first home renovation.


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Savvy Sailor

Frugal comrades discover how teamwork

can get you more boat for less money

Anchoring a boat for seven months adds up to a tidy sum of money down the drain, so Jerome Abernathy didn’t idle on the idea to enter a co-ownership arrangement for his second boat.  At the 2001 Annapolis Boat Show, Abernathy, a hedge fund manager with Stonebrook Structured Products, and his friend Arnold Mintz, executive vice president of Asset Alliance Corporation, found a new Beneteau 473 worthy of their $300,000 investment.  “Arnold used to own a sail boat, one day while sailing my old yacht we hatched the idea of buying a larger vessel together,” recalled Abernathy.  “It is less expensive to own a larger boat in a partnership than to own a smaller one by yourself.”  Abernathy’s first boat [“Noe”] was a Beneteau 36cc that swallowed $9,000 per year for maintenance, insurance, and dockage fees.  In contrast, he drops $6,000 into “Victory” every six months.

BEFORE YOU BUY.  The type of waters and distances you intend to sail informs the type of boat you buy.  “Sailboats are the original hybrid vehicles,” said Abernathy.  “You have sails and (usually) a diesel engine for propulsion and electricity generation.  When sailing you rely on a bank of batteries for electricity, often, a sailboat will have solar cells or a windmill to recharge its batteries.  Sailboats are very stable, it is not unusual for a 25-foot sailboat to cross the ocean.  Power boats, [however] rely solely on an engine for propulsion and usually are not stable enough for sailing open seas, and are much more expensive to operate.”  Abernathy added, “to go cruising or to sea, you should consider a boat greater than 30-feet with a proper galley (kitchen) and head (bathroom).”

Jerome Abernathy on Victory in New York.

SAILOR 101.  Abernathy has raced from Charleston, South Carolina to Bermuda and does monthly day-sails from his homeport in Mamaroneck, New York to Newport, Rhode Island and Essex, Connecticut.  Before boarding to sail any distance it’s imperative to acquire sailor 101 knowledge.  Although Abernathy and Mintz were seasoned sailors, he said, “our dealer spent many hours teaching us the boat’s systems.”  “I highly recommend courses that follow the American Sailing Association’s curriculum [which teaches] basic sailing, navigation, weather forecasting, and emergency rescue procedures.”  Abernathy advises, “Take an ASA Basic Keelboat course, join a local sailing club to gain experience on smaller boats like the J24, and volunteer to crew on a race boat return delivery.”  He also advocates attending boat shows, vacationing on a chartered yacht with a group, and subscribing to Sail and Cruising World magazines and Practical Sailor newsletter.   As you consider upgrading your boat, Abernathy suggests keeping current on “sailing techniques, technology changes and new equipment offerings.”

ADDED VALUE.  Camaraderie and spending less time on upkeep are benefits of co-ownership to Abernathy who says having “compatible uses for the boat” was important in his decision, as was having a written agreement that clearly articulates the terms of the partnership.  “A new boat will depreciate, but not as fast as cars,” said Abernathy, “and electronic systems such as radar and GPS will likely need maintenance early on.”  After initial depreciation—depending on how well you maintain your craft, the manufacturer and model—a boat actually increases in value.  According to Abernathy, “If your boat has a galley and head, your boat loan can qualify for second-home tax treatment, which considerably lowers the cost of ownership.”   For even more savings, consider mooring your boat (tethering to an offshore anchor) for roughly $100 per month, compared to paying $300 – $690 to dock it.

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Master of the Game

Chess whiz offers the right

moves to get you in the game

Long before Maurice Ashley attained the illustrious rank of International  Grandmaster of Chess in 1999 from the World Chess Federation (FIDE), he was impassioned about attracting young minds to one of the world’s most popular games of strategy.  “I want people to think of chess the way they think about tennis and golf,” offers Ashley, “with big tournaments and big prizes, so those who want to pursue chess as a career can do so without worrying about making a living.”

Ashley’s organization, Generation Chess, nurtures the skills of specially talented kids, and hosted the HB Global Chess Challenge at the Minneapolis Convention Center in Minnesota which offered the largest cash prize ever for an Open chess tournament.  After years of deferring his dream, Ashley, a Jamaican national based in Queens, New York, siphoned inspiration from Tiger Woods‘ historic impact on the game of golf, and renewed his devotion to the sport of chess.  As a Grandmaster, Ashley is in an elite league shared by roughly 800 other players in the world.  He made history again in January 2003 as the first African American to qualify for the U.S. Chess Championship since the tournament’s inception in 1861.

Chess is a descendant of the Indian board game Chaturanga, which was altered as it migrated across Western Europe near the 10th century.  The game as we know it today was born near 1475.  The “complexity and never-ending freshness” of chess keeps Ashley, 38, amped as he commentates on tournaments for ESPN and grooms future Grandmasters through his work in schools.  There are over 500 million amateur and pro chess players worldwide, the popularity of this sport is rivaled only by soccer, and you can get in the game at any age.

“The best way to get started is to crack open a book,” advises Ashley.  His reading recommendations include Logical Chess: Move by Move by Irving Chernev (B.T. Batsford; $21.95), Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess by Bobby Fischer (Bantam; $7.19), and My System by Aron Nimzowitsch (Hays Publishing; $14.87).  “It [helps] to have a practice partner you can play against frequently,” adds Ashley, who authored Chess for Success.  Traditional chess clubs are a dying species being replaced by online chess playing websites like Internet Chess Club.  Once you’ve been reading and practicing six months, you should venture into the tournament scene where player registration ranges from U$15 – U$280.  Visit the U.S. Chess Federation’s website for tournament listings.

To achieve growth in the game, players must perfect a skills set comprised of “patience, determination, and the willingness to treat failure and loss as motivation to learn,” guides Ashley.  The benefits for avid players are as rewarding as the cash prize incentives.  “Studies show that [chess] helps kids read better and boosts their self-esteem,” adds Ashley.  “Chess helps you become a better problem solver, improves concentration and critical thinking skills, and sharpens your mental focus.”


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Inside the Fine Art Game

The market for fine art by African-Americans reached an exciting and pivotal moment in February 2007.  Swann Auction Galleries in New York City, noted for vintage photographs, prints and drawings, hosted the first sale by a major auction house devoted exclusively to African-American fine art.  Auction sales exceeded Swann’s predictions raking in $2.7 million, seventeen sales records were set, and participation was the largest seen by the auction house, with over 200 attendees.  African-American fine art is being included in major museum exhibitions, documented and discussed, and has emerged as the most actively collected art in the marketplace.  Wangechi Mutu, 39, maintains a waiting list of pre-screened buyers for her next works, and recently sold out before opening night.  Investing in fine art is an enriching pursuit, this primer can help demystify the valuation process, develop your approach to collecting, and dispel the perception that collecting fine art is for the wealthy.

Before Punk Came Funk, 2010, mixed media ink, collage, by Wangenchi Mutu.

Growing awareness grows demand.  “Black art speaks to the black experience and that is what sets it apart,” explains Eric Hanks, art instructor and owner of M. Hanks Gallery in Santa Monica, California.  “The work has to have meaning that doesn’t have to be that deep.  “Bearden [for instance] references his childhood in Pittsburgh and his grandparents who are black.”  According to Hanks, 53, “the early part of the 20th century and the latter part of the 19th century are the eras collectors and museums clamor for” because there is no more of it being made and those works fill historic and aesthetic gaps in American art collections.

“Contemporary art today is about investigation, not accepting boundaries,” says Nigel Freeman, 39, director of Swann’s African-American fine art department.  “Emma Thomas was the first African-American woman to have a retrospective at the Whitney Museum.  She was [a retired teacher] in her 60s when she achieved great fame,” he says.  “I had a 5”x8” paper piece that sold for $16,000, her large canvases command six figures.  “Recently there has been growing awareness through touring museum shows; museums are active in elevating and acquiring works,” shares Freeman.”

Art in black and white.  The Swann sale ignites a new dialogue that explores the implication that these artists’ works cannot stand on the same merit as their European counterparts.  “[Auctions] put [the work] into the marketplace,” says Franklin Sirmans, curator at The Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, “but [the work] can’t be limited to only showing in a racial construct.  What’s the point?!   I don’t think any of those artists created the work for it to only be valued next to other black artists.”  “Swann has taken a very bold and significant step that other auction houses have not,” opines appraiser and art adviser Halima Taha author of Collecting African American Fine Art: Works on Paper and Canvas (Verve Editions; $50.00).

Art appraiser and author Halima Taha at NBAF.

“Sotheby’s and Christies would traditionally include African-American artists, but sporadically.  Not annually, not the same artist.  So there would be sporadic values.  Sales were lower than what the work was actually selling for, in that case auctions were doing a disservice.”  Taha, 46, asserts, “It is extremely important that these artists be included in auctions because the auction is the international marketplace, it’s not a black marketplace, not a white marketplace, not an American marketplace, it’s international.”

Gallery owner Bill Hodges highlights another conundrum when he said a Norman Lewis abstract he has priced at $135,000 would sell for $10 million if it were by Jackson Pollock.  While demand for African American fine art grows, prices are yet to catch an uptick momentum.

The Yellow Hat, oil on canvas, 1936, by Norman Lewis.

The off-the-record whisper from art aficionados is that an African-American artist with white representation stands to attain greater access and exposure, and command higher prices and fatter paychecks as a result.  But Hanks insists, “talent, connections, luck, perseverance and a thick skin” are what artists need to be able to seize the coveted attention of the Whitney, MoMa and Guggenheim.

Fine art game.  To seize an edge, seasoned collectors train an eye on portals for emerging talents such as the Kenkeleba Gallery and Museum of Contemporary Diasporan Arts in New York City, The Hammonds House Museum in Atlanta, The Southside Community Art Center in Chicago, as well as incubators such as the artist-in-residence program at The Studio Museum in Harlem.  Understanding how an emerging artist is transformed to a celebrated voice may influence your approach to buying work by an aspiring talent.  “It’s the collective activity of the artist, the dealers, the collectors, the curators, the critics and the auction houses.  Their interaction with one another enables them to become the cultural and economic arbiters of taste, together that is what propels an artist into the marketplace,” explains Taha.  “One by itself isn’t going to work.  You need dealers to contact the critics and to have relationships with auction houses and major collectors.  That’s the real art game.  [There are] a lot of incredibly talented [artists] but they’re not interacting with curators who are part of that collective activity.”  Collector Brenda Taggart Thompson remarks, “People miss [out on] some important art because [those works] are not supported by the game.” 

Morthyn Brito, 2011, oil on linen by Kehinde Wiley at Art Basel Miami 2011.

History affects value.  A well-rounded collection gives a sense of the various approaches to a particular style.  “Provenance (history of ownership) supports and can increase the value of a piece,” offers Hanks, an art adviser for distinguished actors, doctors and athletes, this document establishes authenticity and identifies previous owners, “if they are famous it will positively impact the value.”  Recently Eldzier Cortor’s Portrait of a Woman, once owned by author Ralph Ellison, fetched $110,000 at auction, it was estimated to sell for $30,000.

You Do, 1993-1994, cut paper on canvas, by Kara Walker.

“When provenance doesn’t pan out and the work seems suspicious it makes the piece seem stolen or fabricated,” shares Hanks.  Appraisers gather provenance but are not obligated to authenticate art.  They are expected to check the Art Loss Registry and the FBI’s registry of stolen works.  “The burden of duty is much greater on the person authenticating the piece than the appraiser.”

Get the right appraisal.  Yolanda and Greg Head of Stone Mountain, Georgia, have been collecting African-American abstraction since 1999, “I have my collection insured,” offers Greg, 49.  “I look at the value over time [by] looking at auctions and auction records.  He also attends the art mart at The Fine Art Fair of the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta to see what sold.  “It gives me a sense of how my art has escalated; every three to four years I have it appraised.”  Collectors must be clear about their use for an appraisal and disclose that to the appraiser, offers Taha.  Appraisals can be for insurance against loss, inventory or tax benefit when donating art to museums.  Researching the comparable economic analysis is the same for all appraisals, but the approach to mathematical calculations vary, hence, specifying intended use is essential.  An appraiser’s fee schedule ranges $150—$500 per hour depending on their expertise and resources.

Collectors on collecting.  Enthusiasts say ‘buy what you love’ because there is no fault-proof formula for what to buy and when to sell.  Yet most everyone has a faithful strategy for collecting:

Former NBA player Elliot Perry, 38, of Memphis, Tennessee invested 11 years to grow his collection by contemporary and master artists, he investigates a dealer’s reputation and cultivates a relationship with dealers intent on “helping build a collection not just move inventory.”  A good dealer “should have a feel for what you like.”  Another attractive quality is “when a dealer is willing to lose a deal [by advising] you to go elsewhere because another gallery has a better quality piece.”

Rooftops on Wabash, 1938, oil on canvas, by Eldzier Cortor.

“There is a misnomer [that] collectors are plunking down thousands of dollars all at once,” shares Head, “galleries understand they have to ‘work with you,’ the code phrase for payment plan.”  Head reads periodicals like Art in America and the International Review of African-American Art, and suggests shows like Art Basel, Art Off the Main, and Art Chicago to keep abreast of trends.

Brenda Taggart Thompson and husband Larry, of Greenwich, Connecticut, have collected since 1977.  “Books help refine your eye to see beauty in lots of places,” says Brenda, “not just where some gallery has decided it is.”  Thompson’s reference library contains African American Art and Artists by Samella Lewis (University of California Press; $70.00), St. James Guide to Black Artists by Schomburg Center for Research, Afro-American Artists: A Bio-bibliographical Directory by Theresa Cederholm, Two Centuries of Black American Art by David C. Driskell, and history books on American art and photography.

Knowing the history adds value to works and allows collectors to have cross-references when they work with art dealers.  “Attending lectures, going to museums, listening to curators talk about how [shows] are put together,” says Thompson, “are instrumental to a collector’s growth.”  Hanks adds, “look at art wherever it may be, your understanding will improve and your collection will reflect it.”


Previously published, edited version in Black Enterprise.

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