John H. Johnson had a great eye for art.
The founder of Johnson Publishing Co., which owned iconic magazines Ebony and Jet, was a tastemaker who built one of the most important collections of works by modern African American artists.
Some of the pieces were shown on the pages of the magazines, but many were only seen by employees and visitors to Johnson’s headquarters on Michigan Avenue in Chicago — until now.
The collection titled “African American Art from the Johnson Publishing Company” — some of which were created by Chicago artists — is scheduled to be auctioned on Jan. 30 at Swann Auction Galleries in New York City. The art is another asset the company has been forced to shed since filing Chapter 7 bankruptcy last year.
The 100 works by 75 artists are estimated to be worth $800,000 to $1.2 million, according to Kelsie Jankowski from Swann.
“Sales of African American fine art at Swann regularly exceed their high estimate value,” she said.
Proceeds from the sale will go to pay back Chicago businesswoman Desiree Rogers, who loaned Johnson Publishing $2.7 million.
“It’s graphic art; it’s painting; it’s sculpture; it’s collage,” said Nigel Freeman, director of the African American Fine Art department at Swann. “It sort of sums up what’s happening in African American art and American art in general at the time.”
The auction is also a chance for the general public to see works by well-known names and discover lesser-known artists.
“This is actually the first time they’ve been out of those office spaces and assembled together,” Freeman said.
For sale is the work of Henry Ossawa Tanner, a well-established and exhibited artist. His 1912 oil painting Moonrise by Kasbah is one of the most expensive works on the auction block, estimated to be worth $150,000 to $250,000. The work is from a series of paintings the artist did in Morocco.
Freeman called Tanner “the grandfather figure of modern African American art.” He said museums are highly interested in acquiring Tanner’s art because “if you’re going to include African American art … you have to often begin with Tanner.”
Another major artist represented in the collection is Carrie Mae Weems, the most contemporary artist in the collection. The videographer and photographer’s work for sale includes seven color prints. She combines photographs and text to depict African American residents who came to Chicago during the Great Migration and moved into well-known black neighborhoods like Bronzeville on the city’s South Side. One image reads: “Guarded by Angels of Mercy, we cake-walked to Mood Indigo into Shy-Town—The Windy City—Chicago.”
They were originally commissioned by the city of Chicago through the Public Art Program. Part of the series is still on display at the Chicago Bee Branch Library on the city’s Near South Side. The collection of prints is valued at $150,000 to $250,000 by Swann.
The Johnson Publishing collection will be the first time some of the works are available for auction. Because artists of color were traditionally kept out of the art world, it limited their business opportunities, said Swann’s Freeman.
“The auction houses would not include them because they’d say, ‘Well, they don’t have any auction records,’ but how do you get a record [if you aren’t available for sale]?” Freeman said. “It’s a catch-22.”
But it raises the question of whether these works and their creators will go back into a private collection and remain largely unseen by the general public. Freeman said no.
“We actually have a clientele of many museums and public collections,” Freeman said. “We expect many of those institutions to compete and bid in this auction.” He added that Swann also sells to collectors who lend or donate the works to museums.
Wherever the art in the Johnson Publishing collection ends up, Freeman said he’s confident this auction is a chance for more people to gain a broader understanding of modern African American art.