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Activist Collectors Don’t Just Want to Buy Art—They Want to Change the World

In 2016, the year of her first appearance on the ARTnews Top 200 Collectors list, Pamela J. Joyner told an audience assembled for her TED Talk in South Africa of being raised by parents for whom art was more than an extracurricular pursuit. “They thought a knowledge of culture was a mission-critical exercise,” she remembered, “and so I became the poster child for early childhood art education.” Growing up in Chicago, between lessons imparting the finer points of music and ballet, Joyner started visiting the city’s distinguished Art Institute and connecting with paintings by the likes of Picasso and Seurat. But by the age of 8, she already realized that most of the great works that mesmerized her had little in common with her own experiences or those of the people around her. “We all want to see ourselves in the culture,” she recalled.

More than 50 years later, Joyner has helped make that kind of seeing essential—for herself and the art world at large—as a collector actively supporting Black artists and the historical narratives they represent. With her husband, Alfred J. Giuffrida, she has amassed a mission-driven collection of more than 400 works that seeks to reframe art history and the future it informs. Their collection—with holdings by artists like Romare Bearden, Jack Whitten, Emma Amos, David Hammons, Julie Mehretu, Glenn Ligon, Simone Leigh, and Toyin Ojih Odutola—became the subject of a traveling exhibition that started at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans in 2017 and stopped in cities including Chicago and Baltimore. And the first edition of a formidable collection of essays and musings by leading scholars, curators, and artists themselves, Four Generations: The Joyner Giuffrida Collection of Abstract Art, appears on Amazon with prices topping $800.

Portrait of Pamela J. Joyner.
Pamela J. Joyner. Evan Agostini/Invision/AP Images.

“On a day like today you can see San Francisco, which is 50 miles away,” Joyner told me during a conversation on a hot summer afternoon. She was speaking from a home in Sonoma that also serves as the site of a residency program for artists, scholars, writers, and curators. But though her property is equipped with a proper studio, she said the views are so beautiful that artists often work in the living room to take in the natural light. “Some artists have said to me there aren’t a lot of places, for artists of color in particular, that are theirs,” Joyner said. “So this is home for some, and they really have become like family.”

Among the established and emerging figures who have visited there are Leonardo Drew, Lorna Simpson, Hilton Als, and Andrianna Campbell-LaFleur, the last of whom spent three months on her doctoral research related to Norman Lewis and Abstract Expressionism. Kevin Beasley, an artist Joyner supported on his way to being named a finalist for this year’s prestigious Hugo Boss Prize, said, “I stayed there once and ended up making a lot of work. Having an atmosphere that is removed from your usual studio process but is also taken care of—you have your privacy.”

Part of the residency’s attraction is Joyner herself. “She’s able to actually speak about the work in ways that you would want the work to be spoken about,” Beasley said. “I’ve benefited so much from having someone like her in my corner, because the work gets seen. I’ve benefited from the conversations she’s been able to have on my behalf.”

Charles Gaines, Numbers and Trees, Central Park, Series I: Tree #9, 2016.
Charles Gaines, Numbers and Trees, Central Park, Series I: Tree #9, 2016, from the Joyner Giuffrida Collection. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth.

When not working with artists directly, Joyner advocates for the kind of work she champions at the institutional level. She is a trustee at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the J. Paul Getty Trust, where she helped establish the Getty Research Institute’s African American Art History Initiative as well as the acquisition of the archive of Los Angeles artist Betye Saar. She holds seats on the boards of the Tate Americas Foundation and the Art Institute of Chicago, and she serves on the board of advisers for artist Mark Bradford’s nonprofit organization Art + Practice and on the painting and sculpture committee at MoMA in New York.

Asked about the institutional standing of Black art after years of swelling attention and calls for representational change, Joyner said she considers it part of her charge to continue working on ages-old conditions still in need of improvement. “They do look materially different, but there’s still a long way to go,” she said of challenges yet to be surmounted. “Twenty years ago, there were institutions that may have owned work by Black artists, but they rarely showed it. They kept it in storage. The phenomenon precedes my involvement in the art world, and some of it precedes my life on Earth. But different works of art have different stories, and there was nobody there to tell those stories. When I began to think about that is when I decided I was an art activist. I’m in those boardrooms to advocate for the telling of those stories.”

Kevin Beasley, Untitled (a cappella dall’alto), 2017.
Kevin Beasley, Untitled (a cappella dall’alto), 2017, from the Joyner Giuffrida Collection. ©Kevin Beasley/Courtesy the artist and Casey Kaplan, New York/Joyner Giuffrida Collection

The distinguished history of activist collecting—collecting for the purpose of expanding visibility for the work of Black artists as well as women, Latin-American artists, queer artists, Asian artists, and others—draws on stories increasingly coming into focus but still not yet fully told. For Joyner, beginnings can be traced, for her purposes, at least, to artist and historian David Driskell and an exhibition he organized under the title “Two Centuries of Black American Art.” After its 1976 debut at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art drew record attendance, the show, which examined the period between 1750 and 1950, had further stops in Dallas, Atlanta, and Brooklyn. With 200 works from different disciplines by 63 Black artists and a number of unknown creators, it was the first extensive and comprehensive show of its kind: it introduced the 1970s contemporary art sphere to a whole history of people and work that had been systematically ignored.

In a New York Times article at the time, Driskell—a noted scholar and collector who died this past spring at the age of 88—was quoted as saying that acceptance of Black art had to come “through the back door.” And that door swung open decisively for Joyner. “It was Driskell’s catalogue for ‘Two Centuries of Black American Art’ that was a key foundational guidepost for me to begin to understand which artists to research for our collection,” she said. “It was one of the early publications that gave me an understanding of how important scholarship and publications are to effectively including African-American narratives in the canon. Driskell’s scholarship has enabled generations of collectors to build collections based on their own taste and research that contribute to the broader dialogue.”

“She’s able to speak about the work in ways that you would want the work to be spoken about.”

That dialogue extends to collectors who can now be counted as Joyner’s peers. She herself has identified with Pulane Kingston, a collector and patron in Johannesburg who started out with a focus on art from South Africa; and Elliot Perry—a former professional basketball player who built up a distinguished art collection during and after his days in the NBA—speaks of taking cues from Joyner over the years. “What Pamela is doing is tremendously important,” Perry said. “An African-American female putting together a mostly abstract collection is tremendously critical. She’s put together a very comprehensive collection, and I just love it.”

“I like to focus on intergenerational dialogue,” Joyner said of a lineage she shares with a growing coterie of collectors integral to what some have called a recent boom for work by Black artists. The coming months will bring “Young, Gifted and Black,” a traveling exhibition, curated by Antwaun Sargent and Matt Wycoff, of artwork by contemporary artists of African descent from the collection of former MTV executive Bernard Lumpkin and his husband, lawyer Carmine Boccuzzi; a related publication from D.A.P. was released in August.

“I’m very enthusiastic and upbeat about how many advocates there are,” Joyner said. “There could always be more, but there is a growing infrastructure that has been altering that and will continue to alter that. It’s hard for me to even think about it as a ‘boom’—I am trying to think about the trajectory of art history.”

Perry agreed that the roots of his calling grow deeper than could be attributed to any timely trends. “When I think about the mission of our collection,” he said, “it is about the preservation of culture.”

Eva Hesse, Untitled, 1963.
Eva Hesse, Untitled, 1963, from the collection of Barbara Lee. ©Estate of Eva Hesse. Courtesy ICA Boston and Hauser & Wirth.

Years before Joyner began focusing on Black abstraction, Boston-based Barbara Lee was forming one of the world’s most prodigious collections of artworks by women. Lee traces her earliest foray into feminism back to her son’s first birthday party in 1972. Instead of giving party favors to the toddlers in attendance, she instead gave all the mothers the inaugural issue of Ms., the epochal magazine cofounded by Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes. Then, fast-forward to the next decade, and another milestone came by way of a poster issued by the artist group the Guerrilla Girls, who exposed inequitable exhibition statistics tilted heavily toward men, and posed the question: “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?”

“That’s when two parts of my life came together and I realized that women were underrepresented both in the world of politics and in the world of art,” Lee said. “I keep a framed copy of the Guerrilla Girls poster on display in our office, as well as a framed copy of that first Ms. magazine.”

Portrait of Barbara Lee.
Barbara Lee. Photo: Tony Luong.

Lee’s collection is rich in works by Louise Bourgeois, Jenny Holzer, Ellen Gallagher, Cindy Sherman, Kara Walker, and many others—and her activities remain focused on what inspired her at the start. “Just as women have fought to have a seat at the table in politics, they’ve also struggled to be taken seriously as artists,” she said. “Just like in politics, for hundreds of years the business of art has been dominated by white men. Although we have seen some progress, real transformation requires structural change, because there are still entrenched stereotypes about who is considered influential or prestigious.”

Among Lee’s monumental accomplishments is the role she has played at ICA Boston, where she has served on the board for nearly 30 years and worked to transform the institution into what she proudly describes as “a national leader in hiring women directors and curators.” She feels “it is important for us to notice who the decision makers are as well as which artists are represented. Just as having diverse voices at the table in politics ensures better and more inclusive public policy, having more diverse representation on museum boards, leadership, and staff promotes a wider range of perspectives for museum visitors.” Lee adds that “for equity—not just for women but for people of color in the art world—institutions, collectors, and those who represent artists must continue to ask difficult questions and challenge themselves to do better.”

Through two momentous gifts, ICA is also now home to the Barbara Lee Collection of Art by Women, with 68 works by major figures from this century and the last. “Barbara Lee has had a tremendous positive impact on the ICA,” said Jill Medvedow, the museum’s director. “Her commitment to diversifying collections and changing the narrative of art history is long-standing. Her focused approach to philanthropy and to structural change locally and nationally advances our collective work.”

Medvedow said the Lee Collection “will remain central and foundational to our history. It models sustained leadership by women that has already changed the museum. It demonstrates the power of people and policies to make change. And it will continue to delight, engage, educate, and inspire our audiences for generations to come.”

Lee herself said that work remains to be done to shift perceptions and discourse within museums’ walls and the wider world beyond. “What I have noticed over time is a change in the conversation,” she said. “I’m encouraged to see that many museums and cultural institutions are now committing to making greater efforts to present more women and people of color in their exhibitions and collections.”

Joyner said that in her collecting, she is constantly learning from others. “One of the really nice things about the art world is that people are learners,” she said. “I’ve learned from other collectors like Denise Gardner, Bob Rennie, AC Hudgins.”

Simone Leigh, Stick, 2019.
Simone Leigh, Stick, 2019, from the collection of Komal Shah and Gaurav Garg. Courtesy Komal Shah & Gaurav Garg Collection/Luhring Augustine, New York/Photo Farzad Owrang.

And the activities of Joyner and Lee have more recently been influential on collectors like Komal Shah, 85 percent of whose collection comprises art by women, with the other 15 percent by male artists of color. Shah noticed the same gender imbalance in the art world that she had seen in her graduate classes at Stanford University and as an executive in the technology sector. “Get the word out—start making people think,” she remembers urging herself when she first learned about women artists and artists of color whose voices needed to be amplified. “I think one of the misconceptions about women artists is the art tends to be sometimes small-minded—they’re talking about flowers or domestic situations. But the reality is women are making work that is in dialogue with the larger societal landscape.”

Shah also observed disparities in pricing that reveal how the art market is not competitive along gender lines. According to an academic research paper issued in 2017 under the title “Is Gender in the Eye of the Beholder? Identifying Cultural Attitudes with Art Auction Prices,” analysis of 1.5 million auction transactions between 1970 and 2013 found a nearly 48 percent gender discount in prices paid, and led to a simple conclusion: “Women’s art appears to sell for less because it is made by women.”

Photo of Komal Shah.
Komal Shah. Photo: Drew Altizer.

Uncomfortable with such disparity, Shah began collecting with a focused intent and took up trustee positions at SFMOMA (alongside Joyner) and the Tate Americas Foundation. Her own collection holds close to 200 works, and like many activist collectors, she loans pieces to afford more representation for more artists—with 10 percent of her collection, by her estimation, out on loan to museums when we spoke this summer. She also plays an activist role through programming. At Stanford, she produced a conversation series called “Artists on the Future” that included discussion between artist Lorna Simpson and Ford Foundation president Darren Walker, and dialogue with figures such as Kimberly Drew and Lynda Benglis. “It’s a joy to see these women on the stage with power-500 people listening to them and sharing their journeys,” Shah said proudly.

For her part, Lee said activity of the sort can lead to varieties of change that are needed. When she joined the board of ICA Boston decades ago, she advocated for it to become a collecting institution so as to develop a connective tissue with patrons who can come to the museum time and again to see their favorite works of art. She was also instrumental in the capital campaign for a new waterfront building that the museum opened to much fanfare in 2006.

As evidence of how even the best of efforts can meet with resistance, however, Lee still thinks back to a time when she started advocating for her cause and a previous museum director called her a “pushy broad” for encouraging more works by women and artists of color. “I took it as a compliment,” Lee said, “and have reframed the word ‘pushy’ as a badge of honor ever since.”

Mira Schendel, Untitled, 1964.
Mira Schendel, Untitled, 1964, from the Brodsky collection. Courtesy Estrellita Brodsky.

Like Shah, Estrellita Brodsky’s personal experience was a motivating factor in deciding how to focus her collection and the activism that it fosters. Brodsky describes herself as living proof of multiculturalism—as the product of an Eastern European father who migrated to Venezuela and a mother native to Uruguay. Brodsky was born in the U.S. but early on began a lifelong love affair with Latin American art and the particular kind of attention it commands. “My interest is very much about being knowledgeable about the specificity of where art is coming from and relating to a larger discourse,” she said of a varied region that is constrained by some into a singular narrative.

After helping organize an exhibition that opened at El Museo del Barrio in New York in 1997, Brodsky realized the institution needed more support and joined the board, later serving as co-chair from 1999 to 2003. She also began work on her Ph.D. at New York University, where she focused on Latin American artists in postwar Paris.

Portrait of Estrellita Brodsky.
Estrellita Brodsky. Courtesy the collector.

“Having grown up exposed to Venezuela, Uruguay, and Argentina, I realized how different all these countries were,” Brodsky said. “My fellow students were really clueless. They thought these were backward countries.” Outside the classroom, the situation was much the same. “Institutionally, there was a sense that Latin American art wasn’t worthy of being represented,” Brodsky recalled of perceptions owing in part to underrepresentation in the United States during the anti-communist era.

Such revelations led her to become a member of the Latin American Caribbean acquisitions committee at the Museum of Modern Art, where she later endowed a Latin American curator position that the institution still maintains. (Brodsky also endowed similar positions at Tate Modern in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.) “The curators weren’t as familiar with the work as in-depth as would be possible with a region-specific curator,” Brodsky said of the impetus for doing so.

Beverly Adams, appointed MoMA’s latest Estrellita Brodsky Curator of Latin American Art last year, said of her benefactor, “When she established the curatorial position and endowed it in 2006, she basically was seeing into the future and guaranteeing that there will be somebody paying attention to a huge region and all its artistic production for the long term. There has been a steady … rise of interest, and engagement has grown because of the advocacy of people like Estrellita. When I went to graduate school, there were two places in the world, in Latin America, where you could study Latin American art. Now at universities across the U.S., the majority of departments have people teaching Latin American art. It’s been this enormous shift [owing to] a small group of people pushing and advocating for it to be widespread and accepted.”

Waldemar Cordeiro, Visible Idea, 1956.
Waldemar Cordeiro, Visible Idea, 1956, from the Cisneros collection. Couresy Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Brodsky was preceded in her interest in Latin American art—as well as in education—by Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, who has spent decades expanding the area’s reach. Growing up with 1950s-era modernist art in Caracas, Venezuela, her eyes were constantly taking in murals and sculptures by Alexander Calder, Fernand Léger, and Victor Vasarely, alongside works of Venezuelan artists like Jesus Soto and Carlos Cruz-Diez. During her travels through Europe and the U.S., however, she was surprised by how little Latin American art she discovered. And what she did find, she said, was often full of clichéd imagery of bananas, sombreros, and palm trees. “At that time, we decided to do what we could to broaden the understanding,” Cisneros said, “and we recognized that education and partnership were the only way to do that.”

Portrait of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros.
Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. Photo Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.

Inspired by MoMA’s educational programming and Acción Cultural Popular, an educational program for disenfranchised and rural communities in Colombia, the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros (CPPC) was created with the mission to place Latin American art in a global context. Through the collection, Cisneros made a major donation of 102 works to MoMA in 2017, and in 2018 she gifted another 119 works to museums throughout the Americas. An additional 202 works were donated to six museums, a considerable portion of which were allocated to MoMA.

Looking back, Cisneros said she now realizes how the presentation of such work has changed over the years. “There have been many different approaches,” she said. “Twenty years ago, exhibitions were generally country- or region-based—art from Argentina, Brazil, etc. Over the last decade I’ve noticed there have been more solo artist shows—with Lygia Clark, Joaquín Torres-García, Tarsila do Amaral—and exhibitions about specific movements.”

When it reopened after extensive renovation last fall, MoMA featured works from the Cisneros collection in “Sur moderno: Journeys of Abstraction,” an exhibition of abstract and concrete art from Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, and Uruguay. “We were fortunate to be able to collect these works when others were not interested,” Cisneros said, “so it’s a real pleasure to be able to help museums now that they realize how central and essential Latin America is to the stories they need to tell.” And the pièce de résistance of the Cisneros/MoMA partnership is the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Research Institute for the Study of Art from Latin America—an enterprise that recently awarded grants to choreographer Ana Pi, scholar Ana Maria Franco, and curator Thomas J. Lax.

Cisneros is full of hope for the prospects for Latin American art. “It has changed completely,” she said. “Today it’s hard to imagine how completely different it was just 15 years ago. I’m very encouraged with this change and also how sustainable it is proving to be.”

Frank Romero, Pink Landscape, 1984.
Frank Romero, Pink Landscape, 1984, from the Marin collection. Courtesy the Cheech Marin Collection

For some activist collectors, such as Cheech Marin, the urge to make their areas of focus more institutionally visible has led to their building actual institutions. Originally known as half of the famed comedy duo Cheech & Chong, he is notable now for the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art, Culture & Industry, set to open in Riverside, California, next year. Marin, who has been collecting Chicano art with a sense of purpose for three decades, is a quintessential Chicano, a native of South Los Angeles born to American parents of Mexican descent, and a grandmother who was raised in Tucson when it was still part of Mexico. “She didn’t cross the border—the border crossed her,” Marin said, with a laugh, from his home in Joshua Tree, California.

Portrait of Cheech Marin.
Cheech Marin. Courtesy the collector

His first acquisitions were pieces by four Chicano artists—John Valadez, Carlos Almaraz, George Yepes, and Frank Romero—from the Robert Berman Gallery, an early champion of Chicano art, and his holdings have since grown to about 650 works. “It’s been a wonderful, incredible journey—this whole thing,” Marin said of a collection now continually on loan to institutions around the country (“from the Smithsonian to Waco, Texas, and every place along the way”).

“At some point during the journey I realized that it was easing out of my hands,” Marin said. “It was given to people, basically, because it was their narrative. It is the description of a culture that is ever widening and ever evolving that is going on right in front of us. It keeps adding to the cultural outlook with regularity, and also these are great painters, maybe the best out there. To have them all as such a large and long-standing group, that’s a big part of the joy.”

In 2002, Marin’s collection started a seven-year national tour of 14 major institutions in an exhibition titled “Chicano Visions.” At the time, he told museums, “I have this collection because you don’t.” Then, in 2017, Marin was approached by the City of Riverside to create a permanent home for his artworks, as part of the Riverside Art Museum. Slated to open in 2021, the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art, Culture & Industry will be a museum and academic center with a concentration on the study and presentation of Chicano art. “It’s a spectacular modernist mid-century building, with 56,420 square feet,” Marin said of the soon-to-be home in a city whose deep Latino roots and universities offering Chicano/a studies programs convinced Marin that Riverside was a good match. “We are developing a narrative as we roll the collection out,” Marin said. “It’s not necessarily a historical timeline but how I acquired the pieces and what I’ve learned.”

Gronk, Lifeboat!, 1995.
Gronk, Lifeboat!, 1995, from the Marin collection. Courtesy the Cheech Marin Collection

As these activist collectors continue to pursue and share their passions with others, the dynamic seems bound to grow only stronger. After a tumultuous year marked by social-justice protests following the killing of George Floyd as well as the anniversary of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote just a century ago, art and the people who collect it are on track to move in more mission-based directions.

“I often say that art is my passion and politics are my mission,” Lee said. “It’s not surprising that just like in politics, women have always been underrepresented on the walls and in positions of leadership. [But] monumental change often happens in micro-steps. It took more than 70 years of relentless organizing, widespread demonstrations, and political courage to finally pass the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. It is so important for us to recognize that while progress can be slow, we can never give up the charge for social justice.”

Lee hopes to be an inspiration to others. “The majority of those considered to be the most prominent and influential collectors are still white men,” she said. “I encourage more women who have resources to step up and own their power—and become not only collectors but also activists in this space. Of course, I recognize that it is a privilege to be in a position to be an art collector. For that reason, it is so important for us to also broaden our perspectives and step up and be activists at this moment in time.”

It is also important to recognize how times change, Lee said. “Along with so many people across our country, I’ve felt a whole range of emotions in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent demonstrations and uprisings all over the world. It has made me and my team take a hard look at ourselves and at our work.”

For Komal Shah, the most important aspect of collecting is to take action rather than sit and wait for change that might not occur by other means. “We have to make a conscious attempt to foster a balance in what we collect and what we show on the walls,” Shah said. “There can be arguments made against it, but unless we take active steps and commit to equality, it is not about to happen on its own.”

A version of this article appears in the Fall 2020 issue of ARTnews, under the title “Start Spreading the News.”