The Value Of Celebrity Influence For Black Artists

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By: Tresa Chambers

Value of Celebrity Influence for Black Artists

The power of having artwork on exhibit at Art Basel Miami Beach cannot be underestimated. As a vehicle for presenting established and emerging artists to a global market for decades, Art Basel Miami Beach (ABMB) offers the artists and collectors who converge on the scene annually during the first week of December exposure comparable only to its sister shows in Europe and Asia. For emerging black artists, what Art Basel Miami Beach has ushered in is a wave of celebrities who may or may not have any real interest in purchasing art, but whose media spotlight has, by association, created platforms that have allowed interested celebrities to gain awareness of these artists that often translates into greater exposure and sometimes to acquisition.

Fine artist Danny Simmons has frequently been a prominent figure at Art Basel Miami Beach over the years. He has not only exhibited, but has also supported emerging black talent in the most critical way. He has bought their art. Now, in partnership with siblings Russell Simmons and Joseph “Rev. Run” Simmons, Danny is furthering his impact via the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation, which aims to “fill the gap that the disenfranchised and people of color faced in both accessing the arts and exhibition opportunities.” During Miami Art Week, which overlaps ABMB, the Foundation teams up with international liquor brand Bombay Sapphire for an art competition, the Artisan Series, bringing artists from all over the country to exhibit their work at a time when more than 250,000 visitors travel to the region.

In addition to the Simmons brothers, hip hop star, Swizz Beatz, produced the No Commission Art Fair that took place during ABMB 2015, and featured local and national emerging talent, generating artist sales totaling more than $1 million dollars. However, Swizz doesn’t intend to return to Miami again in 2016, and instead plans to hold a similar event in his hometown, the Bronx.

Yet, it isn’t prominent artists like Simmons and Edouard Duval Carrie, the world-renowned Haitian-born artist who makes his home in Miami, who require a celebrity spotlight. They can hold their own among the artists represented at the premier ABMB exhibitions. It is the emerging and regional artists that may have an interest in gaining the attention of a celebrity with a social media mega-following that could jettison them to fame. What also tends to drive artist exposure is the gallery owner or curator who influences the celebrities. In a New York Times article about Solange Knowles’ 2015 appearance at ABMB, she shared that she acquired her art with the guidance of New York City-based Jack Schainman Gallery.

The discretion with which such purchases are made leads some to be dubious about the impact of celebrities on the black art scene, in particular. “It is an honor to have famous people collect art,” says Trina Slade-Burks, who manages the career of her husband, Anthony Burks, an emerging Florida-based artist. While getting the attention of celebrities can have its drawbacks. “Many celebrities feel that they deserve to get art for free because they are a celebrity,” Slade-Burks continues. “Which means they’re not really supporting the artist fiscally, but I guess all involved feel it’s a good PR move for ‘exposure’.” Mr. Burks’ work is featured at the SCOPE Miami Beach competition for the third year in a row.

Like many of the art fairs taking place during Miami Art Week, SCOPE, which is in its 16th year and has been recognized as the original incubator for emerging work in the region, is a venue for all emerging artists. Events featuring works by Miami’s African, Cuban and Haitian diaspora tend to be smaller in scale, although some of the artists represented claim to have sold their pieces to celebrities without fanfare. Wil Simpson, an accomplished Miami-area African American artist, is represented by Al Huggins, owner of one of the largest up and coming art firms in south Florida, who will be hosting his own artist showcase in downtown Miami’s Mind Warehouse. Within a year, Simpson went from having one show to more than 50, and Huggins proudly reports that Simpson’s work has been acquired by professional athletes, national political figures and TV celebrities.

While some artists may well find it exciting to ride on the coattails of the media exposure of celebrities in town for the festivities tied to ABMB, the true value can only be estimated. Few artists are interested in sharing news of a celebrity acquisition, and celebrities who tend to come to party more often than purchase leave the value of their association in question. “It hurts artists when celebrities don’t buy or have knowledge about visual arts,” says Huggins. Or, he notes, visual artists may find themselves in unanticipated competition instead. “They (celebrities) steal the spotlight from the artists during Basel.”

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