Raymond Thomas is a full-time working artist in Chicago. | Brian Jackson/ Sun-Times
Raymond A. Thomas is an award-winning, Chicago-based, full-time artist. He doesn't have to flip burgers or teach a high school gym class to make ends meet. He also doesn't have to move to New York or Los Angeles to find a market for his work. Last year, one of his paintings was awarded Best of Show/first place at the long-standing, annual Black Creativity exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry. And right now, he's got a showing at Blanc Gallery in Bronzeville, a South Side neighborhood that is home to the city's latest rebirth of the arts.
Some might think Thomas is an anomaly in the art world in that he's successful, has an arts degree from the School of the Art Institute, and he's black. And a recent study by BFAMFAPhd, "Artists Report Back: A National Study on the Lives of Arts Graduates and Working Artists," would seem to agree. However, that study crunched every number possible and found that the supermajority of arts grads don't work in the field, make a living off their craft, and are overwhelmingly white men.
Raymond Thomas poses among some of his work in his gallery. | Brian Jackson/ Sun-Times
Those numbers, based upon census figures, can't be argued. But in Chicago, the artists, buyers, arts foundations, city market places, galleries, and collectors appear to have more open minds when embracing and cultivating diversity. It's not perfect, say local artists, but it's a start.
"There is a renaissance going on in this city as far as the black visual arts are concerned," says Thomas, whose gallery is inside a new artist's loft space on 47th street just off Dr. Martin Luther King Drive. "I think there's nothing akin to this anywhere in the country. Nowhere else will you find five institutions or gallery spaces exhibiting [exclusively] African-American artists. Then, less than a mile away [from 47th street], you will find your art stars, Theaster Gates with his whole compound, Kerry James Marshall, and a little further west, you find Hebru Brantley. It's incredible."
Thomas, whose work "reaffirms the humanity of the community," talks a lot about ensuring that the story of artists of color is not mired in depressing statistics. His thought process seems helpful to consider when juxtaposed to that presented in an October Washington Post piece that ran with the headline, "If you're lucky enough to earn a living from your art, you're probably white." That piece, by Roberto Ferdman, led off by stating that racial diversity among America's working artists "pretty much doesn't exist." And while many in the local arts scene appreciated the spirit behind the headline and the lead sentence, they say that more discussion is needed.
"Our cultural scene's vibrancy is enhanced by some very talented, hard-working, high-profile, very successful artists of color," says Paul Gray, director of the Richard Gray Gallery here in Chicago (which is home to Theaster Gate's acclaimed Retreat exhibition). "Unfortunately, I don't believe that in any way impugns the statistical evidence in the Washington Post article; racism, ingrained biases, and other factors have stacked the deck in favor of white people, and white men in particular. Any other conclusion is self-congratulatory defensiveness. Economic power in our society is key, and while the numbers may not tell the whole story, it is a fantasy that money does not matter to an artist. Artists need housing and have children to educate just as the rest of us do, and even a small disparity (though the truth seems to be there is a large one) has to adversely impact their ability to pursue their talent, to all of our detriment."
It's inappropriate to talk about what is or what is not in someone's pocketbook. But, Dawoud Bey, another one of the city's "art stars," finds it more beneficial to say this: "If you are lucky enough to make money off of your art, you are probably making some exciting art!" Plus, he says, though it is true that not even 20 years ago, the only black artist frequently discussed in elite circles was Jean-Michel Basquiat. Institutional racism is slowly being replaced with an appreciation for a wider swath of art.
"The palace gates have been busted open if you want to put it that way," says Bey, who references many influential artists of color, including Carrie Mae Weems, Marshall, Gates, David Hammons, and Alison Saar. "There are simply too many works by African-American artists in museums throughout the country for me to say that institutional racism is a continued hindrance. Instead, it should be said that this inclusion is happening because progressive-minded museum directors, curators, and museum trustees — who are also collectors of this work — are making this happen."
However, Bey does add this: "It's not happening because we are living in a peaceful, post-racial society. It is happening because certain people who are now well situated in the art world and within museum culture continue to fight the good fight. And it is also happening because some of the most interesting, engaging, and provocative work continues to be made by my fellow African-American artists."
It also doesn't hurt that Chicago is, well, Chicago — a city that is segregated but still manages to consistently produce stars.
"I think, in general, Chicago is an anomaly," says Andre Guichard, artist, and owner of Gallery Guichard, also located in Bronzeville. In terms of density, Guichard's gallery shares a building with Thomas' studio. "Our gallery for the last 10 years now has worked with and represented several artists that are full-time artists, and that is to Chicago's advantage. You don't have to have a job in another field."
Both Guichard and Thomas exhibited at the Harlem Fine Arts Show, which stopped through the Chicago Merchandise Mart a few weeks ago. According to Dion Clark, by the end of the Chicago exhibition, some $1.3-million worth of art was sold, who created and curated the art fair.
That said, the next hurdle to possibly cross might be that of valuation.
"It can be said that the works of African-American artists are still not valued at auction or in gallery prices and valuation of their work is not at the same level of any number of white artists," says Bey. However, "Chicago has certainly been more than receptive to the works of black artists, with representation by many of the galleries in this city, including Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Kavi Gupta, Stephen Daiter, and Valerie Carberry — all of whom are doing very well with this work."
The city is also receptive to the works of Mexican artists. Several pop-up shops and museums have featured works by people of color. For example, painter and muralist Sentrock held a pop-up shop at Elephant in the South Loop. He's become quite popular with a younger population that enjoys art that speaks to more of a hip-hop generation. And, he deliberately moved to Chicago because he knew he would find more collectors among the urbane. And artist Gabriel Villa, known for his provocative imagery, is currently the focus of an exhibit at the city's National Museum of Mexican Art. (A few years ago, one of his murals was painted over in what he describes as a form of censorship.) One of his current murals, "American Painting," is at 18th and Oakley.
Carolina Garcia Jayaram, Executive Director of United States Artists, says that arts foundations play a significant part in financing a wide-ranging group of worthy candidates. Her group, USA, gives away $50,000 annually to artists in an untethered grant.
"If you look at our winners, there is a majority of artists of color and almost 50 percent women — which is another part of the art field that is constantly a controversial topic," says Garcia Jayaram, whose foundation makes an effort to include diversity on the board of trustees and nominating committee level. "You see the same issues in the corporate and legal sector that there's still a bias. Chicago is a bit different for artists of color. Dawoud Bey and others are a handful thriving in Chicago, but there's the foundational aspect of this. Foundations are the ones who feel a lot of the community organizations and grassroots organizations that support these artists."
And then there's the elitist thing. It's no secret that, as the study says, art schools offer the most expensive educations. Pair that with segregation, and the issues multiply. That's why Chicago has done well to support local community arts centers, says Diane Dinkins Carr, a known art collector and evaluator.
"I've watched how Theaster rose because I'm affiliated with the South Side Community Arts Center, the oldest black art center in the country," says Dinkins Carr, who believes that successful contemporary artists should do more to help the newbies. "I remember when the art center and their auctions were the only places to go to to look at black art. Now different art galleries and white galleries are accepting all art."