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D'Angelo Lovell Williams. “The Lovers” (2017)
D'Angelo Lovell Williams. “The Lovers” (2017). Pigment print. 20 x 30 in© D’Angelo Lovell Williams, Courtesy of the artist and Higher Pictures

Antwaun Sargent & Bernard Lumpkin on curating for the black community

The curator and collector speak about their collaborative new exhibition and an upcoming book highlighting the hidden history of the black collector and patron

Young, Gifted and Black is an exhibition of artworks drawn exclusively from the private collection of New York-based art collector and patron, Bernard Lumpkin and his husband Carmine Boccuzzi. Lumpkin was inspired to create a collection of work by artists of African descent when the death of his father, an African-American activist, created a deeper desire to reflect and explore his own heritage, and as “a way for me to continue that conversation with my father.”

The vast collection began over a decade ago when the former MTV producer bought some photographs by Lyle Ashton Harris and drawings by Wardell Milan. Since then, he’s acquired close to 500 artworks by emerging and established artists. Unlike so many collectors, Lumpkin doesn’t just acquire artwork as a financial investment or to adorn private spaces, he nurtures emerging artists by connecting them with galleries and contacts that could propel them in front of a wider audience. For him, collecting is about collaboration and fostering a community and, as he told Dazed, “creating a space for artists, and a space for the ideas that art generates.” 

Young, Gifted and Black was born when he invited critic, writer and curator Antwaun Sargent and artist Matt Wycoff to curate an exhibition from his collection. The resulting show includes over 50 works seminal early-career works from emerging artists alongside established names like D’Angelo Lovell Williams, Eric N. MackLynette Yiadom-Boakye, and Derrick Adams.

Below, we talk with Lumpkin and Sargent about black artistic production and black identity, and the current influence and visibility of African-American artists.

How did the idea for this exhibition originate? 

Bernard Lumpkin: The seeds of Young, Gifted, and Black were planted about ten years ago when I experienced two major life-changes. First, my father, who was African-American and an educator/activist, became sick with cancer. The second event, which followed from the first, was leaving behind my career as a television producer at MTV. While caring for my father in the last months of his life, he shared with me many stories, touching on issues of race, family, and politics. 

After my father died in 2009, I took a fresh, hard look at the contemporary art collection that my husband, Carmine, and I had started some years earlier after we first started living together in New York. Mindful of my father’s legacy, I turned my curatorial eye on artists of African descent. With these artists, I could continue the conversations I had been having with him – about family, history, and what it means to be black. When my own children arrived, twins Lucy and Felix in 2014, and then Zachary in 2019, I wanted to bring them into the conversation too so that they too might better know their heritage.

Following my father’s example of civic engagement, and also inspired by the educational and social-issues programs I produced at MTV, I saw that my role as a collector should be to engage the community. It wasn’t enough to acquire art for my enjoyment at home. There needed to be a broader purpose. Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, describes the museum’s mission in terms of creating a space for artists, and a space for the ideas that art generates. Applying Golden’s rule to the private sphere, Carmine and I started inviting various museums and arts organisations into our home, hosting receptions, panels, performances, book launches, and other gatherings for artists and their supporters. Opening our home to the art world and beyond became our way of integrating the collection into other conversations about culture, politics, and society.

The opportunity to introduce artists in the collection to larger audiences came in the summer of 2018 when Elizabeth Vranka, executive director of the OSilas Gallery at Concordia College, in Bronxville, New York, contacted me about collaborating on an exhibition featuring work from the collection. Holding the exhibition on a college campus – young artists speaking to other young people – was especially appealing to me. Young, Gifted, and Black was born. Accompanying the nationwide travelling exhibition is a book forthcoming from DAP in June 2020. Together, the exhibition and the book are a testament that my father’s work continues through me and will serve to inspire my children as well.

Which artworks do you think of as the jewels of the collection? 

Bernard Lumpkin: A collection has many jewels – best-ofs from years past, current favourites, and the things still out there waiting to be discovered. It feels great when I can say that a painting I just acquired is my favourite work in the whole collection. That’s when I know I’m doing my job right. 

Letting others take the reigns of the collection is another way to uncover the jewels, and to discover new ones. For the Young, Gifted and Black travelling exhibition, which features 50 emerging artists with different practices, I invited writer and critic Antwaun Sargent and artist Matt Wycoff to co-curate a selection of works that resonated with their view of what was important in the collection. The choices they made, and the installation plan they devised, was a revelation to me. I saw familiar works in a different light. And I uncovered new meanings in the way they grouped and organised works. It was like rediscovering my own collection. 

Why is this exhibition so important, particularly right now at this moment in history?

Bernard Lumpkin: Art is education: it’s essential in helping us understand ourselves and the world we live in. There’s a renaissance of sorts happening in the contemporary art world right now, in which artists of African descent, particularly emerging artists, are enjoying unprecedented influence and visibility. This exhibition situates these exciting, new voices in their proper context, and brings them to the people, and the places, in the country where they need to be heard the most. 

How is black artistic production changing? And, if you play this trajectory froward, what is the future?

Bernard Lumpkin: Antwaun Sargent talks about how black artists speak to their times. It’s one reason why these artists are so deserving of our attention and support. But timeliness and experimentation are words we can use to describe artists of all backgrounds. Younger artists especially are always re-defining the modes and means of production, and that’s what makes supporting these artists so exciting for me. I sit on the board of trustees of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, widely recognised for training some of the best artists in the world. There I get to see first-hand how artists of all backgrounds are breaking new ground. 

There’s a renaissance of sorts happening in the contemporary art world right now, in which artists of African descent, particularly emerging artists, are enjoying unprecedented influence and visibility – Bernard Lumpkin

How are your acquisitions informed? Is it very considered or more instinctual? 

Bernard Lumpkin: People often ask me: do I have an art advisor? And I tell them I have many art advisors, ie, curators, artists, gallerists, other collectors, etcetera. I do my research, I talk to people, I train my eye. And, of course, I follow my instincts. But only after you’ve done the work can you trust your instincts. One piece of advice I always give new collectors is to buy with your eyes, not your ears. And collectors at any stage should invest in the organisations that support the artists they’re passionate about.

Antwaun, enabling and promoting the self-representation of black artists is so paramount in the lives and work of both you and Bernard. Is this exhibition a way of taking back the gaze from the default white western viewpoint? 

Antwaun SargentNo. The exhibition is a way to highlight the hidden history of the black collector and patron, who have helped preserve and support the art of black artists throughout history. These collectors and patrons, Bernard being one of them, have helped us get to this moment in art. They have often bought and displayed works by black artists in their homes long before museums started to include black artists in exhibitions and add their art to their collections. Over the last decade, Bernard and Carmine have built a collection that focuses on supporting artists like Henry Taylor, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Jordan Casteel, Eric N. Mack and so many others, at the beginning of their career. The works in the collection are about black community and starting conversations inside and out the space of blackness. The collection and the works in them are less interested in the white gaze as they are in creating space for blackness to explore itself. In the exhibition, what abounds are dialogues and conversations between black artists about black identity, community, history, and art.

When and how did you decide to turn your focus and energy towards the arts? 

Antwaun SargentMy childhood was filled with trips to cultural institutions in Chicago. It was in those spaces I developed a love for art and artists. When I moved to New York, in 2011, after college, I started hanging out with a group of artists, curators, and cultural workers. I became interested in knowing more about the artists I saw showing around the city and couldn't really find much so I decided that I would start writing about their work. It was before this moment of attention where institutions are looking at their histories of racism and exclusion.

You’ve described your work as a kind of ‘visual activism’, can you tell us a bit more about this? 

Antwaun SargentThe artists I am most attracted to are the ones who speak to the times. Bernard's collection is filled with them and to curate an exhibition and make a book from that collection is a form of visual activism because the works help us to consider the politics of who we are. Each project I have done or essay I have written is in service of either celebrating or questioning culture through the lens of black artistic production.

Young, Gifted and Black is showing at Lehman College Art Gallery until 8 May 2020. The show will then travel to museums and galleries in Pennsylvania, Illinois, South Carolina, Texas and California, accompanied by a book, published by DAP this summer