A 1980 painting by iconic American artist Robert Colescott sold for $4.5 million at Bonhams during a postwar and contemporary art auction at its Los Angeles saleroom on February 17. Shortly after the auction, Bonhams revealed that the work was purchased by Art Bridges Foundation, a nonprofit founded by ARTnews Top 200 Collector and Walmart heir Alice Walton.
Completed in 1980, Miss Liberty shows an African American woman as Lady Liberty, dressed in a gown of red, blue, and yellow, with a sash of white stars on a blue background and a cape of purple and red. She stands on a swath of pink clouds, in front of a brightly hued map of the United States. The work has been in the same private collection since 1984 and was last exhibited to the public in 1986.
In statement, Ralph Taylor, Bonhams’s global head for postwar and contemporary art, said, “This work in particular presents a hopeful and powerful message, and we are pleased that it resonated so strongly with individuals and institutions alike.”
Founded in 2017, Art Bridges primarily provides American art museums with funds to create exhibitions around their permanent collections. It has also begun building its own collection, which includes works by Henry Ossawa Tanner, Jacob Lawrence, Hughie Lee-Smith, David C. Driskell, Barkley L. Hendricks, Elizabeth Catlett, Mickalene Thomas, Hank Willis Thomas, Glenn Ligon, and Mark Bradford, and are intended to be long-term loans for regional museums. (Art Bridges is a separate nonprofit from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which was also founded by Walton.)
In a statement to ARTnews, Art Bridges CEO Paul Provost said, “It’s an honor to be able to share Robert Colescott’s Miss Liberty with communities across the US through the Art Bridges Foundation. This significant work has been in a private collection, and now will be available on loan to museums across the country. Miss Liberty is an important addition to the Art Bridges collection, which includes great depth in works by some of the most acclaimed Black artists of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries.”
Colescott’s importance and influence has recently been reestablished in the past few years. In 2019, the Contemporary Arts Center Cincinnati organized the first major museum retrospective of the artist, titled “Art & Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott”; the exhibition subsequently traveled to the Portland Art Museum in Oregon, the Sarasota Art Museum in Florida, the Chicago Cultural Center, and the New Museum in New York. A sister painting to the recently auctioned one, titled GO WEST (also from 1980), was included in the traveling retrospective.
This is not the first Colescott painting to attract headlines when it was purchased by a major art institution at auction. In May 2021 at an evening sale at Sotheby’s New York, the forthcoming Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles paid a record-breaking $15.3 million for Colescott’s George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware River: Page from an American History Textbook, completed in 1975, five years earlier than Miss Liberty. Colescott’s auction record prior to that sale was $912,500, set in November 2018.
In an interview after the sale, Lucas Museum director Sandra Jackson-Dumont told ARTnews, “It’s exactly what the Lucas Museum is looking at, this unbridled dismantling of high and low. … It’s a wonderful opportunity for us to make sure the Lucas Museum is participating in expanding the canon.”
That painting will be the subject of a panel discussion on Thursday, featuring artist Rashid Johnson and scholar and curator Lowery Stokes Sims, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it is currently on loan from the Lucas. It displayed near one of the Met’s most iconic paintings, Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 Washington Crossing the Delaware, and the work that Colescott’s riffs on.
In a 1984 Artforum essay, cited in the auction catalogue for Miss Liberty, Sims writes, “What is also involved in our deciphering of the visual elements in Colescott’s work is their provocative juncture with deeply rooted ideas of female modesty, male propriety, good versus bad girls, etc. In fact our ideas about female purity seem ironic given the exhibitionism that is part and parcel of such American institutions as cheerleaders, the beauty contests, and Hollywood sex symbols.”
Correction, February 21, 2023: An earlier version of this article misstated the title of a sister painting that appeared in Robert Colescott’s recent traveling retrospective. The correct title is GO WEST, not Miss Liberty 1919.