Painter Norman Lewis rarely complained in public about the struggles of being a black artist in America.
But in 1979, dying of cancer, he made a prediction to his family. "He said to us, 'I think it's going to take about 30 years, maybe 40, before people stop caring whether I'm black and just pay attention to the work,' " Lewis' daughter, Tarin Fuller, recalled recently.
Lewis was just about right. In the past few years, his work has been acquired by the National Gallery of Art in Washington; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This month the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts opened the first extensive survey of Lewis, an important but overlooked figure in the Abstract Expressionist movement — and a man who might well have been predicting history's arc for several generations of African-American artists in overcoming institutional neglect.
After decades of spotty acquisitions, undernourished scholarship and token exhibitions, American museums are rewriting the history of 20th-century art to include black artists in a more visible and meaningful way than ever before, playing catch-up at full tilt, followed by collectors who are rushing to find the most significant works before they are out of reach.
"There was a joke for a long time that if you went into a museum, you'd think America had only two black artists — Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden — and even then, you wouldn't see very much," said Lowery Stokes Sims, the first African-American curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and later the president of the Studio Museum in Harlem. "I think there is a sea change finally happening. It's not happening everywhere, and there's still a long way to go, but there's momentum."
The reasons go beyond the ebbing of overt racism. The shift is part of a broader revolution under way in museums and academia to move the canon past a narrow, Eurocentric, predominantly male version of Modernism, bringing in work from around the world and more work by women. But the change is also a result of sustained efforts over decades by black curators, artist-activists, colleges and collectors, who saw periods during the 1970s and the 1990s when heightened awareness of art by African-Americans failed to gain widespread traction.
In interviews with more than two dozen artists, curators, historians, collectors and dealers, a picture emerges of a contemporary art world where the playing field is becoming much more even for young black artists, who are increasingly gaining museum presence and market clout. But artists who began working just a generation ago — and ones stretching back to the late 19th century — are only now receiving the kind of recognition many felt they deserved.
Like Lewis, most of these artists showing up for the first time in permanent-collection galleries — including painters Beauford Delaney, Alma Thomas, Bob Thompson, Aaron Douglas and William H. Johnson — did not live to see the change.
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But others, like Los Angeles assemblage sculptor Betye Saar, 89, and Washington-based abstract painter Sam Gilliam, 81, are witnessing it firsthand. Chicago painter and printmaker Eldzier Cortor, who worked in New York for many years and died at 99 on Thanksgiving Day, lived to see his work featured in the inaugural show of the new downtown Whitney Museum. Cortor had been fielding curators' inquiries with increasing frequency and donating pieces he still owned because the market had ignored them for much of his life.
Through the rise of Modernist formalism and, especially, as abstraction took hold, black artists were often at a disadvantage because their work was perceived by the white establishment as too often figurative and too narrowly expressive of the black experience.
But even abstract artists like Lewis, who resisted pressure from within the black art world to be more overtly political, were eclipsed — in part, paradoxically, because when curators did seek out black artists' work, figuration helped them check off a box.
"Up until about five years ago, when curators came to us, they were really only interested in narrative works that showed the black experience so they could demonstrate in no uncertain terms to their visitors that they were committed to representing black America," said New York dealer Michael Rosenfeld, who has shown work from black artists and their estates for decades.
A handful of institutions have been regarded as ahead of the curve. As others make up ground, said Edmund Barry Gaither, director of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists in Boston, "I think what we're seeing now is the aggregation of forces that have been in motion for at least the last half-century."
He points to black collectors and historically black colleges, which were buying work when few others were. Another force was the founding of the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1968 and pioneering exhibitions that began to change the conversation, like one Gaither organized at the Museum of Fine Arts in 1970, "Afro-American Artists: New York and Boston"; and "Two Centuries of Black American Art," curated by the scholar David C. Driskell in 1976 for the Los Angeles County Museum.
The shows pushed "curators and historians to admit there was a whole body of art out there they hadn't known," Gaither said. "They showed how a discussion about African-American art is inseparable from a discussion of American art. One can't exist without the other." And slowly — far too slowly, he added — the seeds that were sown changed academia and curators, of all races, who are now in charge of permanent collections and exhibitions.
While the market is catching on, it is doing so slowly and unevenly. Auction prices for the most sought-after contemporary black artists are very strong when compared with their peers. A David Hammons basketball hoop as chandelier sold for $8 million in 2013, putting him among the most expensive living artists. Paintings by Glenn Ligon and Mark Bradford have recently sold for more than $3 million, and Kara Walker, whose pieces exploring the horror of slavery are tough sells for collectors' homes, has approached the half-million-dollar mark.
But prices for critically successful artists who came of age earlier, even as recently as the 1960s and '70s, still lag behind what many dealers think they should be. Gilliam, who represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1972 and whose draped canvases have had a strong influence on younger painters trying to rethink the medium, has only recently broken $300,000 at auction, though works by Gilliam on view recently at the Frieze Masters art fair in London were priced at up to $500,000.
"I'm sorry, but I really believe that if he were a white artist, you wouldn't be able to afford him now; you wouldn't be able to touch him unless you had several million," said Darrell Walker, the former professional basketball player and coach, who has collected works by Gilliam, Lewis and other black artists for more than 30 years.
Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, said, "Yes, things are better." But, she added: "What we need to continue to understand is that the exhibition and collection of this work is not a special initiative, or a fad, but a fundamental part of museums' missions — and that progress is not simply about numbers, but understanding this work, in the context of art history and museum practice, as essential."