09/24/2012 02:30 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2012

The (Slow but Steady) Integration of the Art World

As many people are aware, the world is not entirely fair to artists, and it is even less so to artists who are African-American. Relatively few art galleries and museums in the United States show the work of African-American artists, creating a problem of invisibility that suggests black artists and their work do not exist.

Some galleries have opened their doors to nonwhite artists, but only a little. "I've heard gallery owners say, 'He's my black artist,' as though that's a wonderful badge of honor," said David Driskell, a painter and African-American art curator and historian. In the early 1990s, Dean Mitchell, a painter in Overland Park, Kansas, was recruited by the print publisher, Greenwich Workshop, to create images that would be turned into limited edition prints but found that the many members of the dealer base were reluctant to promote or even carry his work. "Greenwich Workshop holds annual presentations for the galleries that carry its prints, and artists are brought out to meet people," he said. "Their eyes rolled when they saw me and my work. I was told by a number of them, 'We don't have any black customers.'"

Some artists reject the idea of predominantly African-American art galleries as ghettoizing artists altogether. "The art world, like the rest of the world, is multi-racial," said Washington, D.C. painter Sam Gilliam. "An African-American art gallery is a kind of gimmick, but it is wrong to try to create a second nation in America."

"We're catering to a new industry," George R. N'Namdi, owner of art galleries in Chicago and Detroit, Michigan that predominantly feature African-American artists, said, "first-generation African-American art buyers, people who have money but who came from people who either didn't have any money or were comfortable but didn't think about spending any extra money on things like art. Now, more of these people have disposable income, and we're trying to get them to buy art."

Many of the white collectors of African-American artwork regularly purchase American art and have broadened their interest to include an overlooked area, while black collectors "almost exclusively buy the work of African-American artists," said Halley K. Harrisburg, director of the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in New York City, a white-owned gallery that shows a mix of historical, or deceased, African-American artists as well as white artists of the same modern period. "For many, it is a personal mission: They want to expose their children to art by African-Americans that was unavailable to them."

"African-American society is very naive about the importance of the arts," said painter Richard Mayhew, "and the educational system doesn't speak of African-American artists. I make it a point to speak to many groups at civic and community centers about what the arts contribute to society and how African-American artists have contributed to art."

Many African-American artists also seek to show their work at the galleries and museums of black colleges, of which there are over 100 in the United States. Additionally, a growing number of museums specifically exhibit the work of contemporary and historical black artists, and one may learn about them through the African-American Museum Association (P.O. Box 427, Wilberforce, OH 45384, 937-376-4611), which is an affiliate of the Washington, D.C.-based American Association of Museums.

There are nine major African-American fraternities and sororities in the United States that, through branch chapters, sponsor a variety of civic and educational projects in black communities, sometimes including arts activities. Delta Sigma Theta, for instance, has a fine arts center in Winston-Salem, which exhibits the work of African-American artists throughout the year.