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Philadelphia Life: Black artists say they face racial barriers

Lisa Nelson-Haynes looks out onto the streets of Philadelphia. Haynes has been the associate director at The Painted Bride for more than seven years and thinks African American artists deserve more coverage in the Philadelphia art community. Photo by Elizabeth Vulaj

PHILADELPHIA — When Sande Webster announced to the Philadelphia art world in 1968 that she was going to open a gallery that would feature black artists, she got a phone call from a gallery owner that shocked and infuriated her.

She said to me, ‘I hear you have black artists in your gallery. You can’t do that. If black people come, white people will never come.’ I said, ‘You don’t even know who I am, how dare you talk to me like that, ” she recalled.

Webster slammed the phone down and embarked on her mission to bring coverage and attention of black artists’ work to the forefront of the Philadelphia art community.

The situation has improved considerably for black artists since the civil rights movement in the 1960s, but a majority of them believe their work is undervalued, she said. Webster and other gallery owners said that deep-rooted racism still pulses through the city. According to Webster, her gallery, Bridgette Mayer Gallery, and the October Gallery are the only main places in town that regularly feature black artists.

Most white galleries would not even handle work by black artists, even today,” Webster said as she shuffled around her gallery in her brown velour track suit, pointing out a collection of painted cubes, some of which were crafted by black artists. “When I was showing the work and no one else was, I thought, ‘Why are these other galleries so stupid? It’s some of the best work out there, and maybe a lot of them (are) better than the white artists. So why are they afraid?”

Black artists say that gallery owners fear showing their work will drive away their business.

That’s the perception,” said James Brantley, a black artist and Webster’s husband of more than 26 years. “That it might drive white collectors away. But it’s not true.”

Brantley, 65, makes conceptual landscapes and has been featured in major museum collections. Brantley says galleries are worried that museums might not pick up their work if they feature too many black artists.

For him, this treatment is all too familiar. Throughout his career, he has had to push past gallery owners who have slammed their doors on him because of his race.

I remember being in New York, and I went to one gallery and they said to me, ‘You’re a good painter, but you’re not a good artist,’” he said. “What he obviously was saying was that I knew what my craft was, but in the art world, you have to have connections and sometimes you need a certain complexion to get that connection.”

While the art world thrives on creativity, artists live on these kinds of connections. Meeting the right people and rubbing shoulders in the top social circles is one of the main avenues for success. But young black artists, who are in the infancy stage of their careers and have not met many people yet, struggle with this.

They are not necessarily getting invited to the galas and all those places where they can meet potential buyers or be seen,” said Lisa Nelson-Haynes, the associate director at The Painted Bride Art Center, a nonprofit arts organization that opened in 1969.

The key to success for any minority artist is to cross racial lines, said Libby Rosof, one of the co-founders of The ArtBlog, a Philadelphia-based blog.

African Americans largely network with African Americans, white people are with white people, and Asians are with Asians,” Rosof said. “So there has to be something that causes somebody to be extraordinary and cross that race line.”

When they first began their blog, Rosof, 64, and her colleague, Roberta Fallon, 61, wanted to cover artists around the area who had not been featured in the news. They saw that young, female and black artists were not getting as much press as seasoned professionals were, and they wanted to change that. With 36,000 page views per month, they have been giving a voice to the underdogs of the art community since 2003. Although both women say they have helped change the game, they believe people still categorize and overlook black artists, and they have to work twice as hard to network their way to the top.

Haynes agrees, and said that the most successful artists of color have learned how to promote themselves almost to the point of becoming their own trademark.

The most successful ones have mastered being able to market themselves,” she said. “But I’m sure they’re exhausted because they spend so much time marketing themselves and their work.”

Haynes, who is black, has been working for more than seven years at the Bride, where the staff not only provides venues for the artists to show their work, but also helps them find commissioning support. A lot of black artists struggle to finance the projects they want to work on.

It’s not just about creating the work, it’s about getting the funding to create the work,” Haynes said. “Are they able to sustain themselves solely as working artists? Are they getting the grants? Most frequently, they are not. We see the struggle for getting support a lot and that definitely impacts their visibility.”

She thinks having people of color working on the boards that give grants will help black artists.

We have to have diversity of voices and if we don’t, we’re not going to see coverage in the papers or in broadcast,” Haynes said.

Art insiders like Fallon said more doors have opened over the past several years for black artists and opportunities have steadily increased.

Auction houses are now starting to dedicate departments to black artists and Webster sees more white buyers in her gallery purchasing work by black artists. Some of the artists she features in her gallery can demand up to the thousands for their pieces, which was not the case 20 years ago.

I’m sure there are tons of former gallery owners who are saying, ‘Why the hell wasn’t I showing Basquiat when he stumbled in here?” said Haynes. “Why didn’t I take that stuff that he was trying to sell me for 200 bucks? Now, you can’t get a Basquiat for less than $800,000.”

Haynes said one of the original founders of the Bride, Gerry Givnish, supported artists of all color simply because he loved their work.

“He wasn’t looking at them like, ‘Oh wow I’m supporting black artists,’” said Haynes. “He was like, ‘I’m supporting the baddest, spoken word poets on the planet. When Urban Bush Women first danced here 20 years ago, it wasn’t, ‘Wow, I’m supporting black dancers,’ it was,‘Wow, look at those fabulous women dancers, and, oh, they happen to be black!’”

But black artists themselves say that despite their attempts, their situation cannot change overnight.

When artists catch a cold, minority artists catch pneumonia,” said Brantley. “But racism is no excuse for bitterness. We change the things we can and for the things we can’t change, we just go on with our lives.”

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