The Chicago-based company Johnson Publishing, which filed for bankruptcy in April, has sold its archive of images from Ebony and Jet magazines to a consortium of philanthropic organizations, which paid $30 million in a private auction.
Those organizations are the Ford Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Trust, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, who will donate the archive to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, and other cultural institutions.
The archive comprises over four million prints and negatives of African American culture, from figures like Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King Jr., Billie Holiday, and others, to scenes of everyday life. The sale is subject to court approval. WBEZ journalist Carrie Shepherd first reported the news of the deal, citing court documents.
James Cuno, the president and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, told ARTnews in an interview that the acquisition of the archive by the organizations “ensures that it will be made available to broadest possible public.” When the sale was announced, some feared that a private collector or media corporation might acquire the holdings and limit access.
Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, led efforts to bring together the foundations last week, and told the New York Times that “the concern was that it should be brought into the public domain.”
Cuno said that it was Walker’s “personal commitment that was so inspiring” as he “worked his magic to bring us all together.”
Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and secretary of the Smithsonian, said in a statement, “Ebony and Jet magazine helped shape our nation’s history, allowing Americans—of all colors—to see the full panorama of the African American experience. Together, our organizations will ensure these images, stories, and the history of these publications are well-preserved and available to the public and future generations.”
The archive and Johnson Publishing have inspired, and served as source material, for key contemporary artworks in recent years, including pieces by Theaster Gates, who used its contents as part of his “Black Madonna” series and the exhibition “The Black Image Corporation,” which was staged at the Fondazione Prada in Milan and the Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin. Artnet News reported that Gates’s Rebuild Foundation was among the bidders on the archive.
In 2011, David Hartt, a Philadelphia–based artist, released a short film study of the Johnson Publishing headquarters in Chicago, titled Stray Light, as well as a number of photographs of those offices, and he called the voluminous archive “the beating heart at the center” of the enterprise in an interview today.
“To open it up for scholarship and to have other people be able to enjoy” the kind of access that some artists have had to it, Hartt said, “and more importantly to see what kind of narratives they can pull out of it, that’s huge.”
Ebony was established by Johnson Publishing, a company founded by John H. Johnson, as a monthly publication in 1945, and its sister magazine, Jet, was first published in 1951. The two magazines are currently owned by Ebony Media Operations, which was created in 2016.
Johnson Publishing, which had retained ownership of the archives after parting with the magazines, had decided to sell them before filing for bankruptcy, according to Johnson’s daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, who is chairwoman of the company.
“I’m really happy that Linda has been able to see some value out of it,” Hartt said. “She’s been a fantastic steward of the brand, and she has had such a clear sense of the archive’s worth. I think this is the formal recognition of what she’s been waiting for.”
Andrew Russeth contributed reporting.
Update, 5:50 p.m.: This article has been updated to clarify that the Getty was one of four foundations who jointly acquired the archive. Details of the plans for the archive have also been added.