Philadelphia Art Collector Challenges Black Artists Prices

By Cheryl McGinnis

  • Dr. Barnes owned 3 Horace Pippin pieces
  • Pippin’s work is about the atrocities and social injustices of slavery in America

The Barnes collection in the city of brotherly love is home to one of the greatest groups of impressionists, including art from Renoir, Matisse and Picasso. Dr. Albert C. Barnes curated his collection from 1912-1951 and includes important pieces of African art.

Why This Matters: While Dr. Barnes did amass an envious collection, that included African art and artifacts and Native American pottery and jewelry, was he really was committed to African American artists? It seems that a man who had “deep holdings” of important artists, was woefully short on black artists within the region of Pennsylvania and the U.S. in general.  

So much of Pippin’s work is about the atrocities and social injustices of slavery in America. He was a self-taught artist and upon some research, I learned Barnes did indeed love Pippin’s work and considered himself a champion of the artist. Barnes went so far as to write the first essay about Pippin when his work was shown in a Philadelphia gallery.  

There are three Horace Pippin pieces which were displayed high up on the walls of the museum, even with their more obscure placement, they are show stoppers. I know Pippin’s work from my own career in curating, dealing and education.  Also, I felt so connected to this artist, as though we have stood on the same soil and shared a vision of America. Isn’t that what art is supposed to do, help us find a connection through cultures, time and space? To view a Pippin is to view his experience of America at the moment in which he painted it.  It is a history that the artist tells, not the ideals of sanitized books, written by historians.

So why doesn’t Dr. Barnes own more?  A few years after Pippin gained success in the art market, his dealer raised the prices of his work. When Dr. Barnes wanted to acquire more, he was  informed the prices had been raised and he refused to buy more pieces of Pippin’s work.

Situational Awareness: As I was going live for my Facebook smART stART show, I wondered did Dr. Barnes stop buying Renoir, Picasso, Cezanne or Matisse as their works appreciated over the four decades he was collecting.  A Horace Pippin at the time, even with prices raised, was a fraction and still is, of a European Old Master. We are only just beginning in 2018 to see some inclusion and appropriate remuneration for artists of color at American museums.  

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