Interviews

Collectors of Color on the Importance of Supporting Under-Recognized Artists

In Los Angeles, a group of forward-thinking collectors is focused on building and championing diversity through the work they select.

Left: Demetrio Kerrison (center) & Gianna Kerrison (far right) with friends; Right: John Yoon & Christopher Yin at home

LOS ANGELES, CA  — Gianna and Demetrio Kerrison, executives in the financial services business, have immersed themselves in the art world for two decades. A large portion of their collection features African American artists, including Glenn Ligon, Brenna Youngblood, Genevieve Gaignard, and Charles Gaines, and others. Mr. Kerrison serves not only as the treasurer of the Noah Purifoy Foundation but also as a board member of the William H. Johnson Foundation, which offers a juror prize to emerging African American artists. Christopher Yin and John Yoon, both corporate lawyers, are also fixtures on Los Angeles’s burgeoning art circuit. Since their first acquisition of a print by James Siena in 2004, their collection has expanded to a wide range by various artists, including Amanda Ross-Ho, Evan Holloway, and Tam Van Tran, to name a few. Mr. Yin was on the board of LAXART, a platform for talents from diverse backgrounds.

We sat down for a candid conversation on the cultural capital of collectors of color, racial issues in contemporary culture, and their outlooks on social change.

Danielle Shang: Why do you collect art?

Gianna Kerrison: Collecting art to support under-recognized artists of color and participating in cultural activities are our social responsibilities, so that we can create a community together with artists and friends.

Demetrio Kerrison: We seek out distinguished works that happen to be by black artists. It seems to me that African American artists are black artists until they reach the status of Mark Bradford; then they become American artists

Genevieve Gaignard, “The Line Up (Green)” (2017) chromogenic print, 28 x 19 inches, from the collection of the Kerrisons (image credit: Shulamit Nazarian)

DS: If we revisit the Black Arts Movement in the ’60s and ’70s, many Black collectors, like doctor Leon Banks and actor Sidney Poitier, approached art collecting as activism. They blazed the trail. However, collectors of color are still rare specimens; you guys are occupying a very sacred space in today’s culture sphere.

DK: Although the voice of collectors of color begins to emerge, our voice is still muted in the institutional system. Many museums want to recruit us to be on their boards, but they have yet to hire more minority people to be curators, gatekeepers and decision makers.

Gabriel Kuri, “Stop Start Exponential Growth 04,” (2014), volcanic rock, inflated condom, 21 x 16 x 41 inches; from the collection of Christopher Yin and John Yoon (image credit: Brian Forrest and Regen Projects)

Christopher Yin: Institutions like LAXART, the Mistake Room, Commonwealth and Council have already shifted the conversation. Not only do they champion underrepresented artists of color, they are also engaging us, collectors of color, in the discourse.

John Yoon  The composition of the art community has certainly changed. If you look at LACMA as an example, Franklin Sirmans was there; Christine Kim and Rita Gonzales are there now doing influential works.

DS: They are standing on the shoulders of giants, like Cecil Fergerson and Claude Booker who fought in the ’70s for the presence of black artists and curators in LACMA. But in comparison to African Americans, we, Asian Americans, are still quite invisible. 

CY: Asian Americans are not always vocally political. There are a lot of presumptions about us as the model minority. We are not fully accepted as Americans. People often ask, “Where are you from?” 

DS: We haven’t been on the frontlines of social and cultural struggles. I wonder whether it is because we inherit different notions of home, identity and kinship as immigrants?

DK: I was born here. My folks are crucial in contributing to the economic system of this country, which many Americans don’t seem to be aware of. I have a different relationship to this country. I don’t care if I get side-eye; I belong here. My story is indisputably part of the American story.

JY: One way of empowering ourselves is to build our own networks to counter established systems. Curator Christine Kim has organized a loose coalition of Korean Americans with a stake in contemporary art and culture.  I’m on the steering committee. Once we put our heads together, we realize that we have a real community, and we can influence the dialogue on social progress and the redistribution of power.

The home of Christopher Yin and John Yoon (from the foreground: Dashiell Manley, Evan Holloway, Julia Rommel, Ruben Ochoa, Pamela Rosenkranz, Kevin Beasley, Oscar Tuazon, Haegue Yang)

DS: Can art help break down the racial barrier?

GK: Kerry James Marshall’s show was a touchstone for celebrating black artists’ achievement in art history. A group of black collectors, including us, got together to support the exhibition financially and emotionally for it to be available to a wide audience. Marshall’s paintings were educational and successful in putting racial relations and historical reflections in the front and center. He created visual narratives of struggle and commitment, representing major shifts and game changes in our generations. The exhibition was electric with the energy of change.

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