The Other Columbus: The Black art grind is real, even in February

Scott Woods
Artist Amy Sherald working on Michelle Obama's portrait in "Black Art: In the Absence of Light."

I waited with perhaps too much anticipation for HBO’s new documentary, “Black Art: In the Absence of Light.” Traditionally, Black-facing properties released during Black History Month by companies whose key demographic is predominantly white stand a 50/50 chance of being overly didactic. At the same time, most schools are lucky to have any kind of art program at all these days, let alone one that teaches about artist/curator David Driskell or his groundbreaking 1976 exhibit, “Two Centuries of Black American Art.” As it turns out, “Absence of Light” is a perfectly fine documentary that doesn‘t draw too much blood, choosing to focus on the positive meaning on the art and artists and less so on what Big Art has or hasn’t done in their interest.

As a former artist and working curator, I’m positioned to see the documentary as more of an additive than a primary ingredient in my line of work. I am on the hunt for local art all of the time, and because I lean toward work that strikes at defining local culture, a lot of that art comes from Black artists. Most local Black artists do not have the ear of cultural institutions, and so it is work you have to find. Of course, hunting isn’t what it used to be. Social media has made the search for such work much more efficient and cheap to do. Conversely, many organizations’ idea of outreach has become waiting to see if any Black artists catch some heat before courting.

I mean, what do you expect these institutions to do, integrate their collections? I literally laughed out loud typing that, and if you suggest it to me in person, I will laugh in your face as well.

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You almost can’t be mad at them, considering there aren’t many places in Columbus that routinely focus on displaying Black art. There are so few places that it almost makes gatekeepers look like a good thing. Compound that with the fact that many Black artists don’t come up through the academic machine, not to mention that the professionalism of local galleries ranges from faux-New York 1975 snobbishness to Sorry We Spilled Kool-Aid On Your Art During Your Opening, and it’s no wonder Black art as a scene struggles to be seen. Without awareness, education, spaces to both succeed and fail, and non-intrusive financial support, Black arts struggle to gain their proper place in the strata of a city’s public make-up. While the same could be said of white art, seeing as how more than 95 percent of the art in public spaces is white, it’s okay to note that the struggle is different, and that race has everything to do with it.

Contrary to the press that Columbus Black art has received in the last few years, the scene here is still very underground, but in many ways that’s true of most of the arts in Columbus. Outside of Downtown it is frighteningly easy to assume that Columbus has no proper art scene. Which is not to suggest that Downtown has the arts on lock, of course. It isn’t exactly brimming with galleries or your choice of museums, and compared to how many artists live here there is an appalling paucity of public art. Many of the murals in the Short North are actually removable stickers, which I’m sure makes selling a building on the fly a lot easier.

Popular art critic Jerry Saltz wrote that “only 1 percent of 1 percent of 1 percent of all artists get rich from their artwork.” The hopeful artist imagines that statistic to be deductive rather than inductive. That it isn’t a fixed ratio and that it’s just a matter of more people learning how to discover and appreciate art, specifically theirs. However, the Black artist isn’t very far removed philosophically from the Black sous chef: You get that the field ain’t fair, but what are you gonna do, not cook? So many Black artists double down on the hustle, share their art within their communities and develop a body of work that seeks an emotional congress with its audience. It is not the freedom that art promises, but it is a freedom with which we can work.