2016-10-16 22:16:12
Righting Wrongs and Generating Attention for Art of the African Diaspora

Sheena Wagstaff, chairwoman of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s modern and contemporary art department, was relatively new on the job in 2013 when Pamela J. Joyner, a prolific art collector and supporter of artists of African descent, invited her on a trip to Washington to visit the studio of the Color Field painter Sam Gilliam. They looked at Mr. Gilliam’s in-progress pieces, a series of striking works with a thin stream of paint poured on board.

Ms. Wagstaff knew the Met owned a Gilliam work, “Leah’s Renoir” (1979), somewhere in its collection, and the visit “prompted me to take a second look at it.” Later, Ms. Joyner donated money to buy another Gilliam, “Whirlirama” (1970), and next year there are plans to exhibit both when the Met reinstalls its modern collection. “Pamela is such an informed champion of her artists,” Ms. Wagstaff said.

That trip to Washington was one of the many ways that Ms. Joyner, 58, exerts her power as an art-world influence behind the scenes. She has relinquished a successful business career to become what she calls a full-time “mission-driven” collector of a very specific niche: Abstract art by African-Americans and members of the global African diaspora. Now she leverages her relationships with the Met in New York, the Tate in London, the Art Institute in Chicago and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to help these artists gain traction in the wider world.

“It’s no less ambitious than an effort to reframe art history,” said Ms. Joyner, who sees herself as righting a wrong. “First, to include more broadly those who have been overlooked — and, for those with visibility, to steward and contextualize those careers.”

When art collectors publish a book on their treasures, they often include a glamour shot of themselves surrounded by myriad works. But in “Four Generations: The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection of Abstract Art,” edited by Courtney J. Martin and published last month by Gregory R. Miller, there is no picture of Ms. Joyner anywhere. Instead, there are academic essays by curators and writers, with only a short “question and answer” segment with Ms. Joyner and her husband, Alfred J. Giuffrida.

“That’s very deliberate,” Ms. Joyner said recently over coffee in Chelsea. “The focus is on the artists.”

Ms. Joyner, who is based in San Francisco but keeps an apartment in New York, founded and ran a private equity marketing company called Avid Partners. She started the collection 20 years ago and now adds to it with Mr. Giuffrida, an investment executive whom she married in 2004. Her trove, more than 300 works, begins in the 1940s and goes up to “yesterday,” Ms. Joyner said, encompassing four generations.

Her definition of “African descent” has broadened to include William Kentridge, the white South African artist whose work has been in Ms. Joyner’s sights for some time. She just acquired her first Kentridge piece the other week in London.

As an African-American woman in the corridors of establishment power — an education at Dartmouth and Harvard, and then an entrepreneurial career — she said she knew the feeling of being an outlier.

“I’ve operated in environments where some people would construe me to be unusual,” she said. “And I am stitched together in a way that I find myself doing things that aren’t necessarily expected. So I relate to that journey.”

The book’s most telling photograph is from 1950, when Abstract Expressionists gathered in New York to discuss their work. Some were famous — Willem de Kooning and Robert Motherwell — but the black painter Norman Lewis (1909-79), whose work Ms. Joyner collects, was also there.

“He’s literally at the table, but he gets written out of that history,” Ms. Joyner said. “His first monograph was only published last year.”

She explained some of the factors that kept black artists from gaining a foothold, especially in the 1960s and ’70s. “For a long time, the art world wanted black artists to do black subject matter,” she said. “Art was a political tool. People were viewed as not part of the struggle if they were doing abstraction.”

About 100 artists are in her collection, and Ms. Joyner referred to Lewis and the Washington Color School painter Alma Thomas (1891-1978) as the “Adam and Eve” of the group, stylistically begetting the later generations. (Thomas is the subject of an exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem through Oct. 30.)

Ms. Joyner’s largest holding, more than a dozen works, is of works by Mr. Gilliam, who is 82. She also owns pieces by successful midcareer artists like Kara Walker, Glenn Ligon and Mark Bradford, and is scouting out new talents. The under-40 artists she is tracking include the Conceptual sculptor Kevin Beasley; Hugo McCloud, who uses nontraditional materials in his paintings; and Samuel Levi Jones, best known for his mixed-media works on canvas.

The Los Angeles artist Charles Gaines, whose Abstract and Conceptual work is in her collection, said that “Four Generations” crystallized his longtime thinking about the context of his work as part of a continuum.

“Pamela’s book is the first legitimate academic effort to theorize some of this material,” Mr. Gaines, 72, said. “It’s a pioneering effort.”

About 60 works from the Joyner/Giuffrida collection will tour in a museum show, “Solidary and Solitary,” beginning next fall at the Ogden Museum in New Orleans. Ms. Joyner buys about 30 works a year and has never sold one, she said, although she has donated them to museums.

“Collecting is a job for Pamela,” said James Rondeau, director and president of the Art Institute of Chicago, in Ms. Joyner’s hometown, where she is a trustee.

Over the years, Ms. Joyner has watched prices rise for many artists she has championed. “One curator said that I’m my own worst enemy,” she said with a wry smile.

Lorna Simpson, an artist Ms. Joyner has collected and now befriended, noted that Ms. Joyner was no longer alone in her interest in the field. “The market was already starting to move around those pictures when she began,” Ms. Simpson said. “But she was ahead of it.”

Ms. Joyner is the daughter of two teachers, and she used to visit Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” at the Art Institute after attending ballet class. She noted that her mother moved from Mississippi to Chicago, where she attended her first integrated school.

“There was a keen sense in my household that you had to be prepared for whatever was going to happen,” Ms. Joyner said. “You needed these literacies, and cultural literacy was one of them.”

Ms. Simpson, who also has family roots in Chicago, said she noted a “black Chicago thing” about Ms. Joyner’s outlook, which she defined as a forthright sense of humor, “a way of seeing the world.”

Ms. Joyner does take breaks from collecting. “I have slumber parties with my girlfriends, and that has included Lorna,” she said.

So far, she said she was pleased by the reception to “Four Generations,” and had only one fear: that it might be misunderstood.

“The danger of these projects is if people think it’s a politically laden, identity-laden exercise,” she said, in explaining that race is not the only lens through which to view art. “Those elements are there, but they are not the drivers. Good art is the driver.”