Lonnie Holley, an artist represented by Souls Grown Deep (© Timothy Duffy, courtesy Resnicow and Associates)

Souls Grown Deep Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to promoting work by African American artists from the American South, launched a Resale Royalty Award Program to compensate artists when their work is resold through the foundation’s Collection Transfer Program. The program, which applies to past as well as future transactions, includes sales at auction, in galleries, and to museums. It offers living artists 5% — the highest royalty threshold worldwide — of the proceeds from secondary market sales, at up to $85,000 annually per artist.

It is not uncommon for artists, their heirs, or their estates to receive a small percentage of the proceeds when their work is sold on the secondary market. Over 70 nations have implemented artist resale royalty legislation, known as droit de suite or “right to follow.” However, the United States doesn’t offer artists the protection of this legislation. The only state with droit de suite legislation is California, but two years ago, the Ninth Circuit of the US Appeals Court ruled that the law only applies to works resold in 1977. While the lack of artist resale royalties in the United States is generally detrimental to artists, it is particularly damaging to artists who only gain acclaim later in life — including artists of color whose work was long undervalued due to systemic racism.

Souls Grown Deep President Maxwell L. Anderson said in a statement that the foundation’s resale royalty initiative recognizes “the inequities that have plagued the African American artists of the South and the communities that support them.” He told Hyperallergic: “Our resale royalty award program is a belated acknowledgment that visual artists, whose creativity spawns fortunes for others, should participate in downstream earnings, just as do musicians, writers, and patent holders. This program is particularly overdue for artists of color who have been routinely excluded from the art market.”

Installation view of the Souls Grown Deep exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2019 (via Laura Blanchard/Flickr)

Souls Grown Deep, born out of the vast collection of vernacular art amassed by the late collector Bill Arnett beginning in the 1980s, has holdings of over 1,300 works by 160 artists. Since its 2010 founding, the organization has strategically placed — mainly via gift-purchase agreements— 449 collection works in over 20 museums, including the High Museum of Art, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and, most recently, the Studio Museum in Harlem. Several of these museums, including the de Young Museum in San Francisco, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, have mounted exhibitions featuring the new acquisitions. One of the byproducts of the foundation’s advocacy for these artists’ public profiles, including the placement of their work in museum collections, is an increase in the artists’ market values, which often comes belatedly and even posthumously.

While the Resale Royalty Award Program marks the first time that Souls Grown Deep will be giving a percentage of resale proceeds directly to collection artists, it isn’t the first time that the foundation has advocated for artist royalties. The foundation has been working on a multi-year campaign with the Artist Rights Society to secure intellectual property rights, including copyright protection and royalties, for the artists represented in its collection.

Cassie Packard is a Brooklyn-based art writer. (cassiepackard.com)