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An Exhibition of Gordon Parks’s Photography Suggests New Roles for African-American Collectors

An exhibition of Gordon Parks’s photography at Harvard University’s Ethelbert Cooper Gallery highlights the unique role that Kasseem Dean is attempting to carve out as collector of Black art.

Installation view of Gordon Parks: Selections from the Dean Collection (all photos by Melissa Blackall)

What does a Bronx-born hip hop producer and art collector have in common with one of the most iconic photojournalists of all time? Kasseem ‘Swizz Beatz’ Dean and Gordon Parks have both been gatekeepers of African-American narratives. Dean and his wife Alicia Keys, own the largest private holdings of Gordon Parks’s photography. A new exhibition, Gordon Parks: Selections from the Dean Collection, is on display at Harvard University’s Ethelbert Cooper Gallery into July 2019.

About 40 years of Parks’s work lines the walls, each image a crystallized moment of the past, and yet this work is still pertinent. Parks’s Civil Rights series features an image of Malcolm X selling a Muslim newspaper with the headline, “SEVEN UNARMED NEGROES SHOT IN COLD BLOOD BY LOS ANGELES POLICE.” The section of the exhibition titled, “Segregation” includes panoramic views of the March on Washington, and photos that unsheathe the humanity of the Nation of Islam. These images are from a 1956 LIFE photo essay published as “The Restraints: Open and Hidden.” In an attempt to debunk notions of innate inequality based on race and to elicit empathy, Parks chronicled the everyday on-goings of the Thornton family who lived in rural Alabama amidst the segregation of the Jim Crow South. In a 1967 photo series Parks documented the demoralizing effects of poverty on a Harlem family; bringing harsh realities in view for LIFE magazine’s middle- class audience. Throughout all of his work, Parks masterfully uses his lens to put a human face on pervasive societal problems. His camera, he so often said, was a weapon to wage war on the things about America he disliked — poverty, racism, and discrimination.

The crux of the exhibition is Parks’s 1966 LIFE magazine photo essay of Muhammad Ali, “The Redemption of a Champion.” Parks captured Ali’s intense athleticism and training — shadow boxing in the ring, jumping rope, and the fighter drenched in sweat with intensity piercing through his eyes. Then there’s Ali, outside of the ring, laughing, living, and loving. Intimate images of Ali practicing the rituals of Islam are most captivating: the “greatest of all time” bowing down to an entity greater than himself. These photos transcend the once prominent and controversial perception of Ali as a jive talking, quit-footed draft dodger. The viewer gets an unadulterated look at Ali as a complete composite. For years Parks continued to photograph Ali, and through his lens the world got to see Ali as more than a champion, but also as an iconic figure in the plight for civil rights.

Installation view of Gordon Parks: Selections from the Dean Collection

It would be easy to relegate Parks’s work to being just representations of the past, but the issues Parks addressed — poverty, racism, and a myriad of other injustices — still plague America. The truth is Parks’s work may be relevant now more than ever. The current socio-political climate, where hate is high and progress is slow, is eerily similar to the exhibition images that reveal some of America’s most abhorrent moments. Conversely, his photos reveal the humanity of Black people: Park captures them adorned in their Sunday best, or at an ice cream shop amidst fear and hatred. These images serve as a testament to the collective resilience of African-American people and are integral to the larger narrative of the African-American experience.

Installation view of Gordon Parks: Selections from the Dean Collection

Dean, an African-American collector who owns a substantial amount of Black art is like a red diamond — very rare.  Too often, White owners, curators, gallerists, and collectors are the arbiters of Black art. During an early conversation with artist Kehinde Wiley, Dean learned at that time Wiley’s work was owned mostly by White people. Dean said, “a lot of people talk about the culture but don’t own nothing from the culture.” Dean’s proprietorship of Parks’s work is landmark because it sets a new precedent for the artist-collector relationship and begs the question of who has access to whose art. Dean says there are challenges being an African-American collector.  Becoming a serious collector isn’t just about money or acquisitions; building a worthwhile collection is about utilizing social capital and requires developing long-term relationships. Ownership of this historical work inherently puts Dean in the coveted position of gatekeeper of the African-American experience. He says, “For this Gordon Parks show to be the first show ever, 100% put on by an African-American collector marks a new day in which we’re honored to be those people. We will not only collect; we will protect the legacy.”

The Parks exhibition opened in conjunction with Harvard University’s Vision & Justice convening, a two-day gathering that addressed issues at the intersection of art, race, and social justice. This convocation, the brainchild of Harvard University professor Sarah Lewis, is a powerful platform that puts Black artists and thought leaders like Ava DuVernay, Bryan Stevenson, Jelani Cobb, and David Adjaye at the forefront of the conversation of today’s evolving Black experience. Dean, who was in attendance, says, “with the Dean Collection this is the message that we want to put out: ‘We have to embrace our own culture,’ and it’s okay for other people to embrace it as well but we should be the leaders of our culture.” He also graciously matched the pecuniary award for all the winners of the Gordon Parks Foundation Essay prize.

Installation view of Gordon Parks: Selections from the Dean Collection

Now the art sphere is on the precipice of much needed disruption, much like the music industry was a decade ago. Dean discovered that similar to the music business, artists with sold-out shows were in financial quagmires.

Enter No Commission, an art fair started by Dean in 2015, which pays artists 100% of their sales and keeps price points moderate by partnering with major brands that sponsor the fair and offset overhead costs. Dean has found a viable way to disrupt the status-quo art-business model, thus enabling the core of Dean’s agenda: to democratize art. Art at affordable price points opens up an arena too often associated with the elite to include everyday people, giving them an opportunity to own a piece of the culture.

Dean’s other attempt at innovating the art business is a concept called “Dean’s Choice,” a rebuttal to the price inflation that often happens in the resale (secondary) market which hardly benefits artists. “Dean’s Choice” an option chosen by sellers to allocate three to five percent of the sales proceeds back to living artists during resale transactions. Although resale rights are rooted in early 20th-century French right with legislative implications, droit de suite, which acknowledges that artists are indelibly connected to the works, the associated European laws concerning intellectual property seek to economically protect artists who fail to benefit from the fully appreciated value of their work. Currently over 60 countries around the world adhere to some version of resale rights, yet California is the only state in America that has any resale legislation in effect. Right now, “Dean’s Choice” is totally up to the seller, but Dean hopes to create a shift within the art arena where all parties are truly invested in supporting the artists. So far, Sotheby’s auction house has agreed to include “Dean’s Choice” in their resale transactions.

Installation view of Gordon Parks: Selections from the Dean Collection

After 20 years of collecting art, Dean is changing what it means to be a collector. In cultivating a meaningful repertoire Dean has shown acquiring pieces rich in history and depth is about preserving an artist’s legacy and collective cultural narratives. In the past, collectors moved in the shadows, annexing pieces as their desire, social currency, and bank accounts would allow. But now Dean is transforming the role of the collector, making it less mercenary and more progressive. He’s setting a new precedent for young collectors to challenge some of the more antiquated aspects of the art-as-business infrastructure with innovative solutions, remedies that may make art more egalitarian for artists and art lovers alike.

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