What Black Artists Want: A Manifesto

Artists display their work and visitors gather in the lobby of the American Jazz Museum for First Fridays at 18th & Vine. (@firstfridays18thandvine)

If you can, help others; if you cannot do that, at least do not harm them. — Dalai Lama

In Honor of the One-Year Anniversary of the Death of George Floyd

Black artists want the same things any other artist wants. We want opportunities to develop our art, to exhibit our art, to be compensated for our art, to be judged as an artist by the quality of our art, and to be able to create our art under a minimum of financial and emotional stress.

It’s not rocket science.

Maybe the question is “What Black artists don’t want.”

Black artists don’t want sympathy, patronization or people to feel sorry for us. We don’t want to be fed with food snatched from the mouths of white artists. We don’t want handouts and crumbs falling from the table of white guilt. You can keep that. We want our art to be respectfully seen, not purchased out of a guilty conscience and stored in a closet somewhere.

If you don’t give a damn about the struggle of Black artists, then just either say so or say nothing. Stop pontificating us with your suggestions, advice and examples of “I did it and you can too” success stories from your bloodstained pulpit of white privilege.

I remember a white artist who had their own gallery describing to a friend and myself how they built their own gallery from the ground up. As they portrayed it, they did it all without help, and we could do it too. A few weeks (or months) later, I read an article that explained how their parents had actually purchased the building for them.

I call this lying by omission.

Frankly, I don’t know any Black person who has so much as a vacant lot gifted to them completely paid for. I only know a few Black people whose parents could pay for their college education or buy them a starter home. Most Black college graduates I know are dealing with student loan debt. If we had rich parents and no student loan debt, we would have galleries all over the city.

Stop acting as if generational wealth obtained via oppression is not the rudder that guides the ship of the American economy, including the art industry.

“(I want) the same admiration, respect and price points that respectable organizations and collectors would give any national award-winning artist!”

Jonathan Knight, Artist
Kansas City artist Michelle Beasley sets up shop for First Fridays at 18th & Vine. (instagram.com/18vinekc)

And, even for people like my older sister and myself, who inherited our parents humble 13th Street home in Kansas City, Kansas, the very little generational wealth we inherited was stripped away by eminent domain under the umbrella of so-called urban revitalization happening all over this city and others. It’s even more painful when I consider the fact my father managed to purchase the home over 30 years, yet he never made any more than $6 an hour.

The whole “I opened a gallery . . . and you can too,” “I went to art school . . . and you can too,” “I did XYZ, and you can too” attitude reeks of entitlement, ignorance, and to be honest . . . a lack of humanity. I always find it interesting and disturbing when educated white artists, especially those who wave their liberal flag high and wide, speak as if they are totally ignorant of the roles that white privilege and Black oppression have played in their success.

Stop that shit.

So, when you leave your stellar gallery exhibition in the Crossroads and see that Black artist on the side of the road selling their art to people passing by . . . remember that if you were not white . . . that would probably be you.

Own it.

And, trust me, I understand. I can’t imagine how mind boggling and emotionally scathing it would be to reconcile enjoying a successful career in the arts with the knowledge that it came at the expense of human lives.

Black artists are tired of white art institutions and individuals who seem to operate in complete and utter denial of the fact that all white wealth in America came at the cost of Black and Native American lives. In a larger view of existence, we are not that detached from the time when America was a sprawling home of Indigenous tribes, and white slave ships had not yet arrived on the shores of Africa.

From that time to now was nothing short of a 500-year holocaust of cultural rape of Native Americans and Africans at the hands of presidents, merchants, slave owners, explorers, etc. And, from that comes the America that we have today . . . including our museums, galleries and even our public art. Every drop of American wealth is stained with the blood of innocent human lives.

Just own it.

And, if you can’t bring yourself to own it, then just leave us alone.

One artist confided in me that in the midst of last summer’s unrest, they were invited to show their art in a local white-owned business. The event was covered by the local news and was promoted as supporting “Black Lives Matter.”

The artist shared with me, “I have followed the business owners on social media and over time, and once the threat of damage to their business ended, so did their postings about supporting Black lives. I feel that inviting Black artists to put art in their windows was not about supporting Black Lives Matter. They just didn’t want their windows broken. I feel I was tokenized. I feel used.”

Once again, if you can, help others; if you cannot do that, at least do not harm them.

White business owners dangling benefits of “exposure” in front of struggling Black artists in order to get their art on the walls of your coffee shops, restaurants and businesses without compensation when your true intent is to get more Black customers or appear to be “woke” is really quite despicable. Business owners who do this are no different from plantation owners who allowed some slaves to live in the master’s house, not out of compassion, but to make slavery appear less inhumane than it actually was.

I remember about five years ago, a restaurant owner asking me to show art in his restaurant for “exposure.” He rambled on how he loved my art, loved jazz, loved to support artists. When I raised the issue of compensation, he slammed the phone in my face.

Oh well. Life goes on

A few years ago, Erin Dziedzic curated the historic “Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today” at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. It was the first U.S. presentation dedicated exclusively to the formal and historical dialogue of abstraction by women artists of color. (I went four times and even filmed a video to encourage others to come.)

I attended the opening and was shocked at the lack of Black faces in the crowd. I thought Kemper should have been packed from one side to the other side with people of color for this historic event. For a long time, I wondered why the turnout was so low.

The other day, as I drove down Prospect, I had an epiphany. I have seen billboards promoting art events on I-35 and other places in Kansas City . . . but I have never seen one east of Troost. I’m not saying there have never been any; I just haven’t seen them.

People east of Troost love art too. People in crowded neighborhoods, tiny homes, housing projects, poverty, love art too. People who can barely afford to put clothes on their children and food on their tables know beauty when they see it.

“I want respect as an artist and as a human being. Nobody has to like my art form or my individual expressions but stop saying, what I do, “isn’t art.”

NedRa Bonds, Artist
Created 20 years ago, Harold Smith’s “Arm of Democracy” is one of a series of early works in which he confronted an American life “fragmented with problems.” (from the artist)

We put the crude crayon drawings by our children and grandchildren on our refrigerators too. Yes, we know the Mona Lisa when we see it. We remember learning about Cubism. If we see an African sculpture, genuine or not, we will consider buying it. If we had the money, we would travel to visit art institutions around the world. We are human too.

If we receive a flyer in the mail or see a billboard advertising an art event at the museum that showcases art that reflects our experience, our children will point and say, “Mommy, Daddy, can we go to see that?” And we will readjust our schedules, find the correct bus routes and do whatever we can to get our children to that event. If we can’t make it, we will ask Big Mama, Nana, Pops or a trusted friend to take our children to it.

If our pastors and faith leaders announced a fabulous exhibition of Black artists or for Black patrons and encouraged us to go, we would come en masse. If our church were included in the conversation and invited to the final product, we would come in our Sunday best.

We often joke that in the Black community there is a church on every corner. So, if you truly want to have more Black people come to your museums and galleries, now you know who to talk to.

Ask anyone who frequents a Dollar Tree or Family Dollar east of Troost how often their art supply section is sold out. What does that tell you?

We do understand that art business is one of supply and demand. I remember after the Nerman Museum purchased a work of mine and I mentioned it on Facebook that I heard from a few white-owned galleries in the Crossroads. They wanted to do studio visits that never materialized. There were no hard feelings on my part. In fact, I felt relieved. Galleries are in the business of making money. Gallery customers are in the business of buying art that they can connect to. Exhibiting art that is not aligned with your customer base is risky business. In addition to wasting everyone’s time, there is the risk of losing customers with deep pockets and outdated views on race.

So, we don’t expect galleries to act against their self-interest if they really don’t want to.

But just stop acting like First Fridays at 18th and Vine is not a part of First Fridays.

Stop acting as if Kansas City is not rich with Black artists, Black art professors, Black art patrons, Black art venues, Black collectors and Black art.

Stop acting as if Black/African culture has not influenced every artwork in every museum in this city.

Stop acting as if the influence of Black artists cannot be seen in the work of the white artists you worship.

Stop acting as if the reason there are fewer Black art majors is because Black people don’t love art, and admit it is because we don’t have the luxury of pursuing “risky” career paths.

I’m not saying you have to like us or want our art. But, just quit playing dumb.

Stop acting as if you don’t know that an entire population is being left out of conversations right and left.

Just be honest.

Just be truthful.

Just be decent human beings.

When I was younger, I had a long list of things I wanted in
a potential mate.

As relationships started and ended, my list whittled down to
one thing.

“Just be honest. Everything else is negotiable.”

I feel the same way about what Black artists want.

We just want you to be honest.

Everything else is negotiable.

I could say a lot more, but I’m tired. Very tired.

So, in closing, Kansas City, this is your opportunity to be
viewed on the scale of Los Angeles, Paris, New York, Miami,
San Francisco and other cities with renowned art scenes.

What are you going to do with it?

Harold Smith

Harold Smith is an educator and multimedia artist who lives and works in the Kansas City area. Most of his work is focused on his experience within the American black experience.

  1. Harold, this is fantastic. Thank you so much for conveying the message in a way not all of us have access to. This needed to be said with earnest and blunt honesty. I applaud you and know that as a member of the black artist community I stand with you and so do many others. Again, thank you for your much needed presence in Kansas City.

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