The Getty Research Institute acquired approximately 3,500 items from the Whitney and Lee Kaplan African American Visual Culture Collection (image courtesy Getty Research Institute)

When institutions as prominent as the Getty Research Institute (GRI) make major acquisitions from private individuals, those individuals are typically wealthy patrons. One could be forgiven for believing Whitney and Lee Kaplan — the collectors behind the Whitney and Lee Kaplan African American Visual Culture Collection, recently purchased by the GRI — to be such individuals, with roughly 3,500 artist’s books, catalogs, magazines, zines, and flyers, not counting an extensive collection of ephemera, in their wide-ranging holdings. Rather than a reflection of the couple’s personal wealth, however, the archive is a product of over three decades of fervent collecting by Lee Kaplan. 

It is impossible to provide an exhaustive catalog of the materials being transferred, least of all because that will be the task ahead now for the GRI. But a cursory description is that the collection includes material on Black American photographers, architects, designers, music, and cinema; the documentation of Black American culture by non-Black Americans; exhibition catalogs and announcements; and rare ephemera like signed Jean-Michel Basquiat and Gordon Parks books.

GRI’s African American Art bibliographer Simone Fujita called the scope of the collection “encyclopedic,” praising it for covering “really every type of art discipline.” She added that for the GRI, it was like an “acquisition made of many acquisitions.” The items that caught her interest included the materials of Howard University professor James A. Porter, who is often recognized as a founder of the field of African American Art History, and “Los Angeles specific material,” such as flyers from the Brockman Gallery and a catalog from a show at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in 1967 that included the work of Charles White, David Hammons, and Timothy Washington “before these artists were all household names for people who care about African American Art.”

To understand how Kaplan came to possess a quasi-encyclopedic store of publications on African American art, much of it clustering around the late 20th century and contemporary artists and those with roots in Los Angeles, it is helpful to know Kaplan’s position in the Los Angeles arts community. He is the founder and co-owner alongside his wife, of Arcana: Books on the Arts, an art bookstore and concept space that has since 1984 served as a nexus for designers, artists, art historians, and curators in Los Angeles. By the late 1980s, he had devoted the full force of his ardor to curating his bookstore; but before that, he was a visual artist himself friendly with the likes of Kerry James Marshall, with whom he made collages, and who was one of Arcana’s first clients. Painter Henry Taylor, Lee Kaplan mentions, “stops by” at Arcana every now and then.

“I’m not trying to drop names, but there are a number of artists of significance whose names you would recognize that have used the store either for their own personal interests or as a resource over the years,” Kaplan told Hyperallergic. 

Kaplan’s particular interest in collecting Black American visual art began when he came upon a portfolio of large reproductions of artworks by Charles White at a bookstore in Hollywood that he used to frequent regularly. White, who is best known for his 1943 Works Progress Administration mural The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America and his prolific prints and political cartoons, taught Marshall and Hammons at the Otis Art Institute in the final 14 years of his life when he moved to Los Angeles. “He was one of the old masters in Los Angeles,” Kaplan explained. 

His best guess is that the prints were issued by a Los Angeles-based pharmaceutical company that distributed them to doctors in the African American community so they could have art decorating their waiting rooms. “And then you would charge your clients for drugs,” Kaplan said sardonically. “But they’re really beautiful, and they had a stack of six of them.” When he displayed them at Arcana, a regular Black American client asked where Kaplan had found them. The client hastened to add that as a frequenter of several bookstores, it was extremely unusual to be able to find virtually anything in print on Black American artists. 

“When I first started the collection, if there were 10 to 15 monographic publications on African American artists or art a year, that would have been about right,” Kaplan said. “Now, there is a wealth of interest in work by African American artists. There are at least 15 to 25 books a month — maybe more.” 

Kaplan says that for over three decades, these books occupied “very large industrial bookcases” and ate up at least a couple hundreds of thousands of dollars just in purchase price. He is glad that as publishing in the category flourishes, he may finally offload the task to the Getty Research Institute, where Fujita can carry on the mandate with institutional support.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, it was important for Kaplan that his collection remains in the area, noting that no comparable archive of African American art exists on the West Coast. “People think of the Getty being this rarefied Richard Meier building with pristine white walls on a terraced landscape. But it’s been a really vital part of the Los Angeles artistic and scholarly community for the past 20 years,” Kaplan said. “From my standpoint, this is the best place it could have gone.”

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.