Subscribe to Art + Ideas:

One of the many outcomes of the civil rights movement of the 1960s was the start of serious academic study of art of the African diaspora, including by African American artists. The Getty Research Institute has launched an initiative committed to collecting materials related to this field, beginning with plans to acquire the Betye Saar archive in fall 2018. And in summer 2019 Getty worked alongside the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and the MacArthur, Ford, and Mellon foundations to acquire the archives of the Johnson Publishing Company, including more than 4.8 million images from Ebony and Jet magazines.

In this episode, LeRonn Brooks, associate curator at the Getty Research Institute, and Kellie Jones, Columbia University professor and senior consultant on the Getty’s initiative, discuss the evolution of the study of art by African Americans and other artists of the African diaspora, the urgency of preserving critical archival materials, and their plans for the future of the initiative.

More to explore:

African American Art History Initiative

Transcript

JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
LERONN BROOKS: The initiative is at a point where it can be a leader in defining what, in fact, African American art history is, in terms of scholarship, in practice, for twenty-first century.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with Getty curator LeRonn Brooks and Columbia University professor Kellie Jones about the Getty’s new African American Art History Initiative.
On September 25, 2018, the Getty Research Institute announced its African American Art History Initiative. This bold project includes a dedicated curatorship in African American Art History, a bibliographer devoted to building library resources, annual graduate and post-graduate research fellowships, oral histories, and a campaign to acquire the archives of artists, art historians, and critics important to the history of African American art.
A year later, in partnership with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the Ford, Mellon, and MacArthur Foundations, the Getty acquired the photographic archive of the Johnson Publishing Company, the Chicago-based publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines.
I recently sat down to discuss this initiative with LeRonn Brooks, the Getty Research Institute’s Associate Curator for Modern and Contemporary Collections, and Kellie Jones, Columbia University Professor in Art History and Archaeology and the Institute for Research in African American Studies and senior consultant on the Getty’s initiative.
Thank you, Kellie and LeRonn, for speaking with me this morning on the podcast about the Getty Research Institute’s African American Art History Initiative. Now LeRonn, you joined the Getty in 2019, a little more than a year ago, to help build the initiative. What was the charge given you at the time?
LERONN BROOKS: Well, the charge was to begin building the collection, the archival collection of African American artists and to start thinking about the kinds of programs that we would want to run as part of the initiative, to sort of bolster the awareness of the initiative around the country, and to make a real substantive change to the field of African American art, but also American art.
CUNO: Why was it important to gather archive materials?
BROOKS: Because we need to do research. The Getty Research Institute is one of the premier art history research libraries in the world. And so to have the materials of African American artists, and specifically primary materials, for scholars and students would actually change the field.
CUNO: What are primary materials?
BROOKS: Primary materials are the kinds of materials from the artists and the thinkers themselves, the kinds of firsthand documents that they left behind or that they’re still making. And you know, they’re crucial to any kind of substantive research, from dissertations to books to articles, and they add a voice of authenticity to the kinds of materials that change the field and we can sort of build onto, to accumulate the histories of the greatest thinkers and artists,
CUNO: Yeah. Now, the GRI, that’s what we call the Getty Research Institute here, has a number of similar initiatives to help advance the study of the history of art, some of which date to the founding of the Getty in the mid-1980s. Why was the American— African American Art History Initiative established only recently?
BROOKS: Well, you know, the way I look at it, it’s actually part of a larger movement toward civil rights. I mean, people think about the Civil Rights Movement as ending in the 1960s; but a lot of the institutions that train art historians, especially African American art historians, really didn’t start accepting black students into graduate programs until the 1960s.
And so if we think about the Civil Rights Movement as actually reaching a sort of climax in the 1960s, you know, those scholars were young. And so when you think about the 1980s and nineties, and the criticism and the ways in which these scholars entered American institutions to begin changing the kinds of criticism and the kinds of writings of art history, in terms of the books, in terms of the articles, in terms of a sort of scholarly momentum, I think we’re still in the wake of that scholarly momentum.
It’s 2020, but we’re still very early in the kinds of revolutionary institution building around the best of American thought. And if we gather the best of American thought, we cannot leave out the voices of African American artists.
CUNO: Now, Kellie, you’re a senior consultant on the initiative. How would you answer that same question? Why the initiative now?
KELLIE JONES: LeRonn just encapsulated it for me. Just to reiterate in some ways, you know, if you think of some of the people that began teaching this— the ideas of Af— around African American artists, some of the very first places where historically black colleges and universities, particularly Howard University and Spelman College. And you have people like James Porter at Howard, who really, you know, writes one of the first books about African American artists. You have somebody like David Driskell being trained in this place; then he goes on to go to Fisk. He trains not only scholars there, but then eventually at University of Maryland. But he also is training artists like Terry Adkins, for instance. He has a great, great, great kind of influence on many people.
You look at places like Yale University, with Robert Farris Thompson, who we’re getting his library here to the Getty. And I’m so excited about that. But he trained so many people. He starts in the 1960s, to LeRonn’s point.
So you really see, even African art as a discipline, really isn’t seen as art history until the sixties. From that, you also have Civil Rights Movements, as LeRonn is saying, late sixties, where people are— not only want civil rights and voting rights in the sixties, but that’s when you see the start of African American studies programs, which is how we really get to African American artists.
Myself, when I went to Amherst College, I actually made up my own major, which was what? Art history, African American studies, and Latin American studies. And it’s still what I’m doing today, all those years ago. But I actually had to make it up. How did I do that? I did a lot of independent study courses. I actually came to California, to the Bay Area, and I studied at San Francisco State University, also with Angela Davis, who was teaching there at the time. I went to South America, I studied Latin American art history in South America, to do that.
What was I reading? I was reading David Driskell, Two Centuries of Black American Artists[sic], which was actually a catalog from LACMA. And Samella Lewis, these are two people had projects here in Los Angeles. So I think it’s really interesting to think about how part of the history of really spreading the work of African American artists, or at least the study of it, came from Los Angeles.
CUNO: But you think of yourself as being in the second generation of scholars of African American art history? Is it that young?
JONES: Maybe second or third, because there’re a whole generation like Judith Wilson before me; the late Sylvia Boone, who was an Africanist, who was also before me. So there are people, but it’s fairly young. It’s fairly young. And then to be able to move out into other venues.
I think early on, people who did this work had many jobs. James Porter, going back to him, and Driskell, great examples. They were artists, they were scholars, they were gallerists. By the time it gets to me, I got rid of the artist part. I’m like, no. ’Cause I grew up with people like Jack Whitten and Mel Edwards and Howardena Pindell. I don’t need to really go down that road.
So I really started out as a gallerist. Or not a gallerist, somebody who is a curator working in nonprofits and museums. And also a scholar. So I still had two jobs. Now you can see people like Huey Copeland, Krista Thompson, Bridget Cooks. Even though these people may dabble in exhibitions—and I don’t say that in a bad way—they’re trained as scholars. And so people can actually have one job. You can actually be in a museum. Another example is Ashley James, who just went to the Guggenheim. You don’t have to do it all.
I think when you’re building a small field like this, you’re doing it all because you believe, as LeRonn pointed out so astutely, this is part of civil rights. I was also raised by artists. If art is not civil rights, there is no civil rights. If poetry is not civil rights, civil rights doesn’t exist. That’s the way they look at it. So it was always part of that.
CUNO: Now, as I heard you describe your development as a art historian, I was thinking that that African American art history was taught as a kind of independent study program before it became a discipline. And when did it become a discipline? Because it sounded as if you were sort of making your major together, you were cobbling it out together from different parts of a curriculum.
JONES: Absolutely. I was. And the great thing about my alma mater, Amherst College, which I love dearly, is that they had something called an interdisciplinary degree. So I said, “Okay, I’m gonna do this.” Because why? Why did I have to do that? Because in art history, at a small college like that, to give them credit, they’re not a university. They can’t afford to teach the full range of art history.
But also, I think on the other side of that, African American studies is a multidisciplinary field. African American studies encompasses history, sociology, political science, literature, fine arts, music—keep going. I mean, it is the full—
CUNO: Because the discipline demands that? Because the questions have to be answered that way? Or because the structure of the faculty requires that?
JONES: Well, when you’re saying, you know, European studies, what would that be? Right? Would that not be history, music, art? When you’re saying Classical studies, it is a multidisciplinary type of endeavor. When you’re saying Slavic studies, is it just literature? No. So African American studies has always been multidisciplinary, and interdisciplinary, in that way.
You know, we have great artists. And it didn’t hurt that I grew up with some of these great artists. I was studying art history in high school, and you know, all the people of color were ancient. They were Mayans. Right? They were Egyptians. But I went to a public arts high school in New York. You know, it was a lotta people of color there. But somehow, the twentieth century was not represented. And you kind of figure, but wait a minute. I know Jack Whitten. I know Mel Edwards. I know Howardena Pindell. I know William T. Williams. How is this not a part of history?
So I began to ask myself that question. And I didn’t want to be an artist, because I said, “These people are broke. I’m not doing that.” And then I said, “Oh, wow, you know, I can be a curator.”
CUNO: Well, tell us more about your background and your training. What was your family life like?
JONES: Well, I grew up around a lot of artists. You know, I grew up [inaudible].
CUNO: How’d that happen?
JONES: Well, you know, they had fun and here I am. [they laugh] They do what artists and people all over the world and, you know, humanity and animals and— You know, they’ve got songs about that. So yeah.
But it was a great privilege. I often get asked my many students and others if I don’t have a family background in the arts, can I not do this? I say, “Absolutely not.” Just because I was raised by those people— Luckily, I went to school. I also have, you know, a PhD and undergraduate degree in these areas. So you an do that to become an expert on the field.
CUNO: Yeah, yeah. Now, LeRonn, you got your PhD from City University of New York, much more recently thank Kellie. How did the discipline change from the time Kellie was a student and when you were in graduate school?
BROOKS: My trajectory toward graduate school was, in a way, similar to Kellie’s, even though I didn’t grow up in— I grew in up a family of artisans from Alabama—quilt makers and seamstresses and carpenters.
I went to Hunter to be a painter and to study with the photographer Roy DeCarava. I always surrounded myself with artists, before I was an art historian. But then when I went to the Graduate Center, I specifically wanted to study with Rob Storr, who was there teaching courses. And so specifically, the methodology of the Graduate Center at that time, the art history department, was primary materials. And so it was less theoretical, and more about getting primary materials as the basis for your writing, especially your dissertation. So you know, my involvement in gathering primary materials for the Getty now is an extension of the emphasis that was placed on me in graduate school, getting those primary materials about Hale Woodruff and so I had to go and read all of Du Bois’ letters to find, to find Hale Woodruff.
But you know, to do work in African American art history, you— It’s almost like we’re always the first. Even in it’s 2020, it’s you do a dissertation on Hale Woodruff, you do a dissertation on William T. Williams, we’re still in the era of the first person, or the first people to write singular documents around the artists that Kellie was referencing and artists before them.
CUNO: So we’ve been talking about African American art history. But of course, there are other African diasporic art histories, be they in the Caribbean or in Europe. So how are those histories being taught in Britain, for example, or in Europe elsewhere? And how does that differ from how the African American art history’s being taught in this country?
JONES: Well, the art of the African diaspora is a wide-ranging field. Our new department at Columbia is African American and African diaspora studies. There are other departments, like at Harvard, which are African and African American studies. So in general, we like to encompass the whole world.
I do teach a course called Black British Art and Theory, which I’ve taught since the beginning of my teaching career. It’s now kind of expanded to be a black Europe course. But some of the people who are teaching specifically in that area would be Eddie Chambers, who teaches at University of Texas at Austin. You have people like Krista Thompson at Northwestern University, whose focus is Caribbean.
In Europe, I think they’re still catching up to teaching this material. But I think here in the United States, we actually have been teaching that material for a bit longer. And even when I was in college, my study was with people who were Africanists. My study was with people who talked about the African diaspora. You know, that there are Africans in Latin America and people of African descent.
So I think the study of the diaspora has always been around, even if we go back to those people at Howard University and at Spelman. You know, these schools are set up in the nineteenth century. They have alumni who are going and traveling, who are missionaries. So they were already aware of the diaspora, of course, and writing about it, making art about it. Even somebody like James Porter. All these people traveled to, like, Haiti, different places. So I think it’s always been a part of the study here, in terms of African American studies and in terms of African American art history; it’s just now coming to light to a kind of broader public.
CUNO: Yeah. I know that there’s an oral history project that Spelman is undertaking with a particular island community in the Caribbean. And so that gets me back to the question about the African American Art History Initiative here at the Getty, the concentration on primary materials. In the history of the development of the art history of African Americans, we’re still at the stage of gathering the primary materials. How is that possible? And what’s the trajectory, do you think, for the development of the program?
JONES: I think the development is bright. As with so many things that I’ve experienced as a scholar of African American art history and culture and African diaspora history and culture, there’s always more than you think. You think, “Oh, we’ll just get a few papers.” What? There’s, like, you know, you scratch the surface and there’s so much. And I learned that from Robert Farris Thompson.
The good news is that we have many people who are still with us. People like, again, William T. Williams and Mel Edwards, who are of that generation, Mary Lovelace O’Neal. Then we have people like Lorna Simpson and Kara Walker who are gonna be able to start contributing to archives here, hopefully, in the future. So I think the future is bright. We just need to keep at it and know that there is so much out there. Sometimes it’s almost unimaginable.
BROOKS: And to Kellie’s point, in gathering these archives, what I’ve realized is that a lot of these materials are vulnerable. I taught in an Africana studies department for around ten years. I’m an art historian; my PhD is in art history. But I also taught in an Africana studies department. And one of the things I realized in just going to the places where these materials are kept before they get here, the economic vulnerability of a lot of the artists who did not receive their due in the 1970s is reflected in the—how can I put this—in the fragile nature of their archival material. And so when I go into these particular spaces, I’m confronted by histories of neglect in the scholarship that led to the kind of neglect that the materials are in now. And so in 2020, I think that we are lucky to see the kinds of materials that are left. We’re lucky to see that.
CUNO: How easy it to gather this material today, and how easy it going to be for the Getty to do so? Is there a matter of trust that needs to be built between artist and institution?
BROOKS: The fundamental thing about collecting archives or acquiring archives through donation or acquisition is that you have to build a personal relationship with the person. Because in the case of Robert Farris Thompson, who I was working with at Yale to gather his materials to come here, it’s about their relationship to the things that they’ve collected, in his case, for over fifty years.
CUNO: Yeah. I wanna get back to Robert Farris Thompson in a second, but I wanna get to the start of the initiative and the beginnings of the building of the archives. And the first archive that we acquired, I believe, under the auspices of the African American Art History Initiative is Betye Saar’s archive. Tell us about that and how important it is.
BROOKS: Well, you know, it’s— Betye Saar, of course, is one of the greatest artists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. And you know, her archive is— It’s gonna be foundational for the kinds of things that we hope to do here. Sketchbooks, all kinds of personal material that reflect on her life, but also her career and her participation in the arts, especially in California. The kinds of production that she’s still doing, even at ninety-three—
You know, once we have all of her material here, it’s gonna lead to a sort of renaissance in scholarship, I think.
CUNO: Yeah. What about other artists of that generation? How likely are they to be willing to give their archive or for us to acquire their archive? Do they understand the ambition and goal of the Art History Initiative?
JONES: I think they do. And we’ve known many of them for many years. I think as LeRonn pointed out, it’s really about developing a personal relationship with people about this. I’ve had personal relationships for many years with these people; but also, I’ve done shows with them. So that’s a different kind of relationship you’re into with somebody. When you’re talking about acquiring one aspect of their life’s work, I think it’s a different kind of conversation, and it’s more sustained. But I think it’s really exciting.
When we invited artists here about a year ago, a bunch of artists, just to come and tour the site, the archives, look at some of the materials, like the Betye Saar archive that we’re already acquiring here, I think people were so excited and moved by the fact that African American artists were now able to be a part of important archives that would put their names in the future. And I think this is, in some ways, a new feeling. But it’s one also, as you pointed out, it’s a relationship that needs to be cultivated. And I think we’re on our way to doing that.
CUNO: Yeah. So these are artists that we had invited here and we conversations with, and the first archive was an archive of an artist. But now we have Robert Farris Thompson, who’s an art historian. A cultural historian and art historian. Is the plan to build an archive center for the study of African American art history to include both artists and art historians?
JONES: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think these are two major archives. We’re not starting off small here; of course not. Betye Saar, a major figure, not only globally, but in Los Angeles, certainly. Robert Farris Thompson, also a signature figure in the teaching of African diaspora art history, African American art history, African art history. These are major archives. They’re both fifty years or more of materials. I think as the first two acquisitions, that really sends a message to people of the ambition that we have for this initiative.
CUNO: Yeah. LeRonn, tell us what’s in the Robert Farris Thompson archive.
BROOKS: His notebooks. We also acquired his library, his records, CDs, years of slides, personal correspondence. Just brilliance. I mean, fifty years of just travel, of engagement with ideas across the diaspora—meaning the Caribbean to the continent of Africa, Nigeria, all over. It’s a massive record of an active mind, of an extremely brilliant and active mind.
CUNO: I’ve been told that there wasn’t an exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem or a studio in Harlem that wasn’t accessible to him, that he didn’t go to, that he didn’t participate in.
BROOKS: You know, he speaks four languages over dinner. He goes from his memories of Jean-Michel Basquiat, when they were having lunch in a Spanish restaurant in the Lower East Side; and then the next minute he’s in the Congo, speaking Kikongo. And the next minute, we’re exchanging poems to one another, just on a pad of paper.
And so just to keep up with the kind of brilliance and the kind of production he’s had over his life and the kind of person he is, I think his materials open up just a whole other aspect of thinking about the African diaspora and our place in it.
CUNO: Yeah. Now Kellie, you’re a special advisor to the initiative. How do you see it developing over the coming years?
JONES: Well, I think I’m excited to see it grow and people start to come and use it. I think also, you know, we can have young scholars who are in this field help with the development of the archive in many ways, not just use it once it’s here. Because we know that’s taking a little bit of time. But to begin to have people who are doing this work here and advising the initiative, giving us ideas, you know, in terms of when they give their talks here or whatever it is. So I just see it as the beginning of something that’s really exciting, and great to have it be in Los Angeles and at the Getty.
CUNO: How will it differ from the Archives of American Art or the Schomburg Center? And if it will differ, or even if it doesn’t differ, what relationships will we build with them?
JONES: Well, I think it will differ because the Getty is a quite different place. I mean, it’s perhaps closer to the idea of the Smithsonian, in that it has museums. But it also has a conservation institute. I think that’s also very key, in terms of acquiring certain things. How do we learn how to preserve these things? I think that’s gonna be something very important that the Getty has that these other institutions don’t.
The Schomburg, of course, is historic. It’s one of the first libraries. You know, I always say that Arturo Schomburg, who was a Puerto Rican, who started this, he was a black person from the diaspora, who started collecting things about the African diaspora. And he was among the first people to say black lives matter, and this is it, this is why, and start collecting these things.
So I think these things are all slightly different. But what’s great is that we can call collaborate. Collaboration has started. I think in the twenty-first century, certainly, when we’re talking about portals and sharing information electronically and digitally, these are gonna be great partners to have.
BROOKS: Yeah. And to add to Kellie’s point, we are specifically an art research library.
CUNO: As opposed to the Schomburg, which is literature and history and et.
BROOKS: Right. So they’re more generalist. And so we talk about the best of thinking around the world globally, in terms of what art history is; we are specifically art historians and curators here, dealing with art historical material. And that’s a specialty that is a significant difference to a lot of other collecting institutions.
CUNO: Yeah. Do you have a wish list already?
BROOKS: [they laugh] I do, I do, but can’t say it on the podcast. [they laugh] I do.
CUNO: So we’ve been talking about the African American Art History Initiative at the Getty in terms of building archives, which is extremely important, as we’ve been talking about. But what else might it comprise?
BROOKS: So the initiative also will include partnerships with institutions to mentor young curators and young art historians. But it also will include oral histories and the kinds of symposiums and conferences that will actually address the state of the field. The initiative is at a point where it can be a leader in defining what, in fact, African American art history is, in terms of scholarship, in practice, for twenty-first century.
JONES: And there’s also publications that go along with this, as well.
CUNO: Now, one of the recent acquisitions the Getty’s made as part of this initiative, and together with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Ford, Mellon, and MacArthur Foundations, is the archive of the Johnson Publishing Company. LeRonn and Kellie, tell us about the archive, what’s in it, and why it’s important for the Getty to have been a part of the consortium that acquired it? What’s the future of it?
BROOKS: Well, one of the things that was very clear to me when I accepted the job at the Getty is that the Getty can do things that other institutions maybe cannot do. And so acquiring on a scale that actually matters.
CUNO: Tell us what the archive is, what it comprises.
BROOKS: The archive contains more than seventy years of the kinds of materials that define black culture. 4.8 million images. Negatives, prints. It is the brain, the brain of black culture in the twentieth century. It is a massive archive of just the visual representation of black people globally in the twentieth century. And it’s just massive. It’s more than one can take in, in a month of sitting with it. This is the first time I could say that and, right now, realize the scale of what I’m saying.
CUNO: Yeah. For those who don’t know what the Johnson Publishing Company was, what was it? And why is the archive so important?
BROOKS: Well, John H. Johnson began the Johnson Publishing Company in 1942, ’43. And so it was during the time of segregation. And so the Johnson Publishing Company, on the one hand, was one of the most prolific black publishing houses in the world; but the backdrop of that was segregation, American segregation.
People may be more familiar with, like, Life and the other kinds of publications that told visual narratives of what it meant to be American; black people weren’t necessarily represented in those what we like to call—to easily, right—mainstream American visual culture. So when we deal with the Johnson Public Company, we’re dealing with magazines like Ebony and Jet. And these magazines were all in the material culture of black homes for affirmation, a sense of where we are in the world, a sense of the first achievers.
And so when we wanted to find out, even by surprise, okay, there’s a new black CEO of a company, we’d just open Jet and just be affirmed that there is such a thing as— In popular culture, we call it like black excellence. But it’s a thing to whereas— it’s a thing to whereas, you know, when we see people achieving despite—despite—the hurdles and all of the sort of shortcomings that prevent specifically African Americans from achieving what it is that they’ve earned.
And so when we see Ebony and Jet and Johnson Publishing Company, John H. Johnson, I think, was— he was a genius. And so just that kind of proliferation, over seventy-three, seventy-five years, of this material that affirmed black life. And specifically, the visual storytelling that was in these periodicals was second to none.
CUNO: Yeah. And Kellie, I know it’s only been a few months since we acquired this thing and we’re still trying to understand what it is and what it comprises and what can be made of it. And there’s gonna be an advisory committee; you’ll be on the advisory committee that’ll help direct the future of this archive. What do you see in that future?
JONES: Well, there’s always more than meets the eye. I mean, first of all, it is exactly everything that LeRonn said; he characterized it so well. And then we find out it’s 4.8 million images. What does that mean? There’s also, we know, paper along with that, other kinds of written archives. There’s going to be so much there we’ll be mining for decades and decades, and centuries maybe. I mean, it’s an amazing encapsulation that goes from people in a segregated world to chronicling Civil Rights, to chronicling Brown versus Board of Education, when segregation is, you know, legally dismantled.
So many amazing things that happened. African independence and how that affected African Americans and the world. There’s always more to African American culture than is ever discussed or known. So the facilities of the Getty will be a great place to unpack all this. And I think it’s fitting in many ways. First of all, the wonderful partnerships that we’ve entered into, which is also part of the initiative, with Ford, Mellon, MacArthur, and the Getty to get this done.
But how fitting for John Johnson, who had a vision of really chronicling African American life, and also doing it visually, the use of the photograph, to be a part of a center that is set up for that by a person who also believed in that, too. So these kind of personalities kind of coming together in some ways. But I think it’s gonna be truly exciting, and I just can’t wait to dig into that.
CUNO: I remember a time, in studying art history, when it would be unlikely that a photographic, journalistic archive would be important to the understanding of the art of the time. What is that link between the photographic, journalistic archive and the art of the time?
JONES: Well, in the case of Johnson publications, he hired some of the top photographers of the day. And the reason we don’t hear more about them, in some ways, is because he owned everything. They didn’t own their own images when they were working for him. Now, it was great for Ebony, Jet; but somebody like a Moneta Sleet, who’s, you know, amazing. The iconic pictures of Martin Luther King; this is how we know Martin Luther King’s passing, through these images.
But beyond that, I think there’s so many images that we haven’t seen by these great photographers because they were in this archive. And so we’ll be able to get a handle on these. And then there’s some, you know, surprising images by people who are literary scholars or politicians, who also take up the camera and make beautiful images.
I think to your point, Jim, about, you know, this is a journalistic archive, I think photography, in and of itself, really, like African American studies, comes into its own in the sixties as an art form. I mean, you have these people like Edward Weston and Steichen and Strand and all these people. But I think the discipline saying this is actually art is actually fairly young, in and of itself. And I see the Johnson archive having that impact on how we really understand what a photographic archive is. I think it’s actually gonna change how we understand what photography is, in some ways.
BROOKS: Yeah. And so the two Pulitzer Prizes on the staff photographers from the Johnson Publishing Company. And when we talk about African American photography, we’re talking about an artform that was wed to political momentum. And so, you know, we can think about Weston and kind of aesthetics, the photography of aesthetics. But when we talk about Ebony, Jet, we’re talking about the best photographers actually using their artform to actually be political and move the Civil Rights Movement.
And so on the one hand, we have beautiful photographs, composition, all the things we appreciate in art history, in terms of formalism and that kinda stuff. But then we also have the political momentum of the people that are captured. So Moneta Sleet, Jr., the picture of Coretta Scott King at the funeral of Martin Luther King, he’s right there with the family. He’s traveling with them. He’s intimate in that particular scene. But it’s a beautiful photograph, in terms of composition; but it also is tied to the political movements that pushed the kinds of agendas that is making civil rights more and more and more possible.
JONES: Another aspect of it as well, which is again, kind of something we didn’t think about, is how many contemporary artists have used these images in their work.
CUNO: Yeah, tell us about that.
JONES: Lorna Simpson, Hank Willis Thomas. You can just keep going.
BROOKS: That’s right.
JONES: Theaster Gates now, a big project that’s moving around. Mickalene Thomas. You know, Mickalene Thomas, you know, is doing these beautiful pictures of black women. And she talks about where does she first start looking and getting inspired on poses and stuff. It’s, you know, Jet, Ebony, and other magazines which I won’t mention here.
But it’s really kind of a substrate of so much imagery that we see among artists. And we don’t even realize that. Now, in reading different things about various artists, when I come across that word in their interviews, it has a whole different resonance. I mean, before, we’d say, “Oh, yeah, of course, because a popular magazine.” Now that we know there’s an archival source, how has that archive and those photographic images, which to your point, were journalistic, they had a different feel to them for art historians, actually have created such an impact in the world of contemporary art.
And we also wanna see how they are really parallel to something like how Andy Warhol is using popular images of [the] Civil Rights movement to make images himself.
BROOKS: I mean, when we think about American identity, we think of— we can think about, in terms of popular curator, Motown. We can think of all of these institutions that were generated by a certain kind of black entrepreneurialship of the twentieth century. And so when we think about Ebony, Jet, it was also in that same kind of spirit.
What is the best of America, and how do black people in America represent the best of what America is? And so when we think about the photographs inside of Ebony and Jet and then periodicals, what we get to see are the editorial choices. But once we get into the archive, we see the contact sheets around these amazing images. And having seen many of the contact sheets around some of the most famous photographs, what I can say is that once we allow scholars into the archive to see the totality of the scene, I think it would have a real substantive effect.
CUNO: Yeah, it gets back to the point that it is— it comprises 4.8 million photographs. And then on the backs of many of them, there’s interesting material. So let’s say it’s maybe 7 million. It’s gonna take us a long time to digitize and process all this material, so we shouldn’t get people too excited about seeing it too soon. [they laugh] But there’s gonna be sometime in the coming years, in which it’s gonna be possible to see at least some of it. How anxious are you about that?
BROOKS: I’m very excited. [they laugh] Cant fit too many words into just saying very simply, I’m very excited.
CUNO: Could we say that it was maybe on the first day of the job here at the Getty, in which we began talking about acquiring this archive? Your first day on the job?
BROOKS: Now, it was actually the third week. You know, the third week. You know, the third week.
CUNO: You thought things like this happened all the time?
BROOKS: Not all the time. Well, obviously, Jim, not all the time. You know, but you know, what—
And so what does it mean to be inside a historical moment, Jim? You know, just in terms of realizing the capacity of the Getty to be a steward of archives around the world, as you know, right? Around the world, be a steward of these different kinds of materials that would be lost if it wasn’t for the initiatives that the Getty has.
And the African American Art History Initiative is an initiative that is meant to actually do the kinds of work that no other place can do but the Getty.
CUNO: Yeah. We should emphasize that we have good partners, as mentioned earlier.
JONES: Yes. Yes.
CUNO: So there’s gonna be a joint effort that is gonna take some time to get it organized and get a process to make it available to the public. Anyway, thank you both so much for being with me on the podcast this morning and chatting about all this. It’s a very exciting moment in the history of the Getty, and we’re glad that you’re a part of it.
BROOKS: Thank you.
CUNO: This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Myke Dodge Weiskopf.
Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music.
Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and other podcast platforms.
For photos, transcripts, and more resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts. Or if you have a question or idea for an upcoming episode, write to us at podcasts@getty.edu.
Thanks for listening.

JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
LERONN BROOKS: The initiative is at a point where it can be a leader in defining what, in fact, Af...

Music Credits

Logo for Art Plus Ideas podcast
This post is part of Art + Ideas, a podcast in which Getty president Jim Cuno talks with artists, writers, curators, and scholars about their work.
See all posts in this series »