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Dean’s List: Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys Focus on Collecting African-American Art

In May 2018, in a buzzing salesroom at Sotheby’s New York, the hammer fell on Kerry James Marshall’s Past Times (1997), a sprawling masterpiece that surveys a contemporary pastoral scene in which black figures are seen picnicking, boating, golfing, and playing croquet. Not long after, the price—$21.1 million, the highest figure for a work by a living African-American artist at auction—set off a fierce debate. Were black artists suddenly too trendy and recent rises in attention an overcorrection for generations of discrimination and racism in the art world? Could the handsome sum shelled out by the buyer, music mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs, have been better spent? The auction that featured Marshall’s painting also included lots in a special sale that brought in $20.2 million for 42 works by other leading black contemporary artists to benefit a future home for the Studio Museum in Harlem. If Diddy had purchased all of those, he would have established himself as a major contemporary art collector just the same, saved nearly $1 million, and embodied his favorite term, “black excellence,” by ensuring that an African-American institution in his native Harlem would benefit artists and curators of color for generations.

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For artists, the Marshall sale—for which the painter himself received nothing—was a stark reminder of a more pressing question: Should visual artists receive royalties from the resale of their works on the secondary market? That question has become of particular interest to the collectors Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean, the hip-hop super producer, and his wife, Alicia Keys, the 15-time Grammy Award–winning R&B artist. Through their holdings amassed in what has come to be known as the Dean Collection, the couple have minted themselves as avid patrons with a mission to build a protective community around the artists they support. Dean, an evangelist on the subject of art he admires, orchestrated the acquisition of the Marshall painting by his longtime music-world colleague and friend. “It took me 10 years for that to happen,” he told me of the time needed to convince Diddy to spend big on important black art. “I was like, ‘This Kerry James Marshall has to stay in the culture.’ ”

Settled in a seat at a low-key Italian restaurant across the street from his sprawling recording studio in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, where stars like Jay-Z, Keys, and Adele record, he remembered the historic sale of the Marshall painting as a “tough wrangle.” Diddy was nervous, as he had never done anything of the sort before, and after the sale, he told Dean, “Don’t expect me to do that every day.” Sipping rosé, the Bronx native laughed and grew defiant. “But we had to do that! It was a monumental moment.” That same night, in a show of solidarity, Dean and Keys snapped up Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s fictive portrait An Assistance of Amber (2017), for $550,000, to add to their collection.

“There are far too many artists of all kinds—musicians, painters, sculptors, dancers—who have unfortunately contributed so much to the culture and have died with nothing,” Keys said when we spoke a few days later. “That’s crazy—it’s not the way it’s supposed to be.” Keys said she believes that society should revere those who contribute greatly to their communities. “As artists [ourselves], we care about living artists and the just due that we receive.” It is with that in mind that she and Dean are continuously thinking about ways to fight for more fairness and sustainability in the market, for themselves and for others. “We just want there to be a beautiful community where everyone gets what they deserve.”

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, An Assistance of Amber, 2017, Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys's Dean Collection
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s An Assistance of Amber, 2017, is part of the Dean Collection. ©LYNETTE YIADOM-BOAKYE/COURTESY THE ARTIST, JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK AND CORVI-MORA, LONDON

From the start of their romance, visual art has played a central role. On their third date, Dean said, he was running late because he was busy buying his future wife a painting of a piano with paintbrushes for keys by the Russian-born, French Art Deco artist Erté. A couple months later, he organized a small private survey for Keys, for which he flew in works from around the world and presented them in “Alicia’s Erté Experience” at the dealer and collector David Rogath’s gallery in Manhattan. “I hired a private educator on Erté,” Dean recalled, with an accomplished grin. “I had a sushi chef there. We were walking around being educated on every single piece.” Years later, Keys returned the show of affection by throwing him a surprise 30th birthday party at the Guggenheim Museum.

Dean has been a collector since he found early success producing DMX’s 1998 mega hit “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” when he was 18 years old. Early on, he worked on notable albums for Jay-Z, Busta Rhymes, Eve, and Cam’ron, and, when he purchased his first home, he noticed that art mattered to people he admired, like the storied music executive—and formative mentor—Clive Davis. “I wanted something on my walls,” Dean said. “I wanted to impress Clive Davis when he came to my house.” (A Ducati motorcycle signed by Davis is now on proud display in the foyer of the mansion owned by Dean and Keys in Englewood, New Jersey.)

[See a video of Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys giving a tour of their collection.]

In the late ’90s, Dean started visiting galleries and asking questions in an effort to “understand how people were paying $50,000 for a small picture.” He kept at it, even when he didn’t feel welcome. “I started being super-inquisitive, going and coming and going. They wouldn’t ever take me serious. I had braids in my hair, baggy pants on.”

Eventually, dealers took notice when he started buying, including early purchases of works like an Andy Warhol Campbell’s soup can and Dracula, from the Pop artist’s diamond-dusted 1981 “Myths” series. “They’re all masters,” Dean recalled of the artists he bought first. “But it meant nothing, because I didn’t have a connection.”

The situation changed around 2005, when he started engaging artists closer to home. “There was something about flying Ernie Barnes to my house to pick the places he wanted to hang paintings,” Dean said of working with the late African-American artist from Durham, North Carolina, who played professional football before becoming known for works such as Sugar Shack (1971), a surreal scene of black figures dancing beneath banners bearing the names of music greats like “Big Daddy” Rucker and Marvin Gaye.

Delving into black art, Dean realized “there wasn’t enough of us collecting us.” And though he maintains an interest in “all colors and backgrounds,” the Dean Collection focuses on African-American artists because they have for too long been ignored. Before the meteoric rise in interest in the past few years, museum curators rarely organized monographic exhibitions for black artists, and collectors, both private and public, were not known to acquire their work in prominent ways. Black artists who have managed to create meaningful markets have done so largely with support from a small group of patrons, such as A. C. Hudgins, a longtime collector and board member at the Museum of Modern Art, the late Washington, D.C.-based activist and collector Peggy Cooper Cafritz, and other black artists like David Hammons, a devoted collector of Ed Clark’s sweeping abstractions.

In an effort to expand the network, Dean and Keys “doubled down big” on collecting black art. “These artists should get recognition,” Dean said, explaining, “we have to be the energy that we want.”

Derrick Adams, Woman and Man in Grayscale, 2017, portraits of Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz
Derrick Adams’s Woman and Man in Grayscale, 2017, are portraits of Alicia Keys and Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean that the artist did when the couple was honored at the Brooklyn Museum. Courtesy Derrick Adams Studio

Over the last decade, the Dean Collection has amassed more than 1,000 works from a range of artists including Kehinde Wiley, KAWS, Jeffrey Gibson, and Ansel Adams. The works’ themes often touch on issues of power, history, race, and gender—each of great importance to Dean and Keys personally. The collection is also dynamic in the way it represents a large number of women such as Toyin Ojih Odutola, Deana Lawson, and Deborah Roberts, as well as artists who are self-taught, like the young painter Reginald Sylvester II.

Dean and Keys commissioned Sylvester to make a portrait of Nasir, one of their five children, in 2015, and the gesture “definitely gave me a starting point,” Sylvester said. “It put the energy and momentum in my back as an artist. Being an artist early on is hard. If you’re working, you might not get recognition or be seen by certain individuals. To be able to get that love early was definitely inspiring and encouraging.”

As the couple have focused and formalized their holdings, the Dean Collection has become one of the most important assemblages in the world of work by African-American artists such as Lorna Simpson, Derrick Adams, Mickalene Thomas, and Nina Chanel Abney. “We’re young artists of color, and we really have a focus on collecting young artists of color,” explained Keys, adding that she considers such a concentration a cultural duty. “That’s how it goes. It’s how to lift people up. It’s how to continue the legacy.” She hopes their habits will catch on too. “It’s part of how to get other young artists into it—how to bring attention to it, to make others see how important and powerful art is.”

Dean and Keys are much less guarded about their aims and aspirations than other collectors at their scale, who are often secretive about what they own and why. But openness is reflected in the informal motto that guides them, according to the 38-year-old Keys: “By the artist, for the artist, with the people.” Newly acquired work is uploaded for easy viewing to the Dean Collection’s Instagram account. Recent posts include portrait painter Henry Taylor’s Cornerstone (2016–19), which depicts a homeless man on the streets of Los Angeles holding up a sign asking for food; Jamaican artist Paul Anthony Smith’s So What (2016), a vision of a woman in a feather costume celebrating Carnival seen through a pattern that recalls a breeze box fence; and the young painter Naudline Pierre’s monumental three-panel celestial scene, Lead Me Gently Home (2019), which follows in the expressive and colorful tradition of the late American painter Bob Thompson.

Black collectors of such racially charged and culturally specific work are few and far between, and much of the history and urgency coursing through the Dean Collection can be found in the work of another notable artist: Arthur Jafa. “We’re the first African-American collectors of his work,” Dean said, with a sense of astonishment. “That’s why we went so big.” Last year, they acquired a monumental work from Jafa’s “Big Wheel” sculpture series of hulking tires wrapped in chains. The collection also acquired Apex (2013), an early Jafa video work of still images set to a techno beat that recalls the sound of a heart monitor.

Dean also used his position to persuade Kehinde Wiley to sell him Femme Piquée par un Serpent (2008), an epic 25-foot-long oil painting of a black male in jeans, baseball cap, and Adidas, reclining in a pose inspired by centuries of classical art. When the work was on view in “A New Republic,” Wiley’s 2015 survey at the Brooklyn Museum, Dean told the artist, “I want that piece right there.” To which Wiley responded: “Oh honey, it’s not for sale.”

Now the work hangs in a mirrored room in their home that Dean and Keys sometimes clear of furniture so that guests invited to parties they’re known to throw can let loose and dance.

Alicia Keys and Kasseem 'Swizz Beatz' Dean photographed in their home in Englewood, New Jersey.
Alicia Keys and Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean photographed in their home in Englewood, New Jersey. Dana Scruggs for ARTnews

Earlier on the balmy summer day we met, Dean had meetings at Sotheby’s, where he discussed a cause he has championed: “Dean’s Choice.” Keys, invoking the spirit of her calls for community-building and inclusion, explained the idea as “something a collector would opt in on and say, ‘When I sell this piece, I would like a royalty to go back to the artist or the artist’s family.’ Which makes perfect sense! How could you pay $10,000 for an artist’s work at the beginning and, at some point, it’s worth $30 million, and they or their family see nothing of that increase?”

Past Times, the record-setting $21.1 million Kerry James Marshall work, originally sold in 1997 for just $25,000. And just weeks after the high-profile 2018 transaction that made it Diddy’s own, another eye-opening episode left the Chicago-based painter with a sour taste in his mouth. After his home city announced plans to sell a beloved mural, Knowledge and Wonder, that he had created in 1995 for the Chicago Public Library—for a price estimated between $10 million and $15 million, in an auction at Christie’s New York—Marshall said in a comment shared with ARTnews, “The City of Big Shoulders has wrung every bit of value they could from the fruits of my labor.”

Plans for that sale were retracted after controversy swelled, but there are many other cases of work by black artists fetching hefty sums on the secondary market, leaving the artists themselves nothing to show for it. Recently, the emerging female painters Jordan Casteel and Tschabalala Self—both represented in the Dean Collection—saw early works made while they were in graduate school sold at auction for hundreds of thousands of dollars. And the auction prices of their early works stand to affect the rest of their careers.

“Dean’s Choice” could help combat such inequity as a voluntary initiative for sellers to choose to devote a percentage of proceeds from sales to a work’s creator. The proposal, which is currently under review to be implemented at Sotheby’s, is “not about charity,” Dean said. It is instead an appeal for “real patrons. If you pawn something in the pawn shop, they’re going to do what they need to—it’s the trading post.” Whereas mindful buyers and sellers in the secondary market, Dean believes, are “supposed to protect the artist.”

“They are advocates for artists,” said Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels, a director at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York. “I see them more as teammates than clients. Think about ‘Dean’s Choice’ or their work with Sotheby’s—that they are having the discussion about artist rights publicly—and how powerful that is.” Bellorado-Samuels has helped place Hank Willis Thomas’s stainless-steel sculpture Strike (2018) and Yiadom-Boayke’s Stone Arabesque (2018), a four-panel painting of a black ballerina, in the Dean Collection. And she sees them as leaders of a kind that is needed. “They are saying things that may have been rumblings prior. They’re vocal in a way that is really important.”

“Dean’s Choice” is just one concept that Keys and Dean have been developing to help shift some of the profits made from art back to artists. In 2015 they launched No Commission, an art fair where exhibiting artists keep 100 percent of the proceeds from sales. A grant-making initiative inaugurated last year under the name St(art)ups gives 20 artists around the world $5,000 toward organizing their own exhibitions. And next year, they have plans to launch an app called Smart Collection, which Dean described as “a subscription-based platform where artists keep 100 percent of what they sell.” The concept, developed in part while Dean studied at Harvard Business School in 2017, can help give artists who don’t have access to traditional routes like gallery representation an opportunity to show and sell their work.

Gordon Parks, Untitled, self-portrait, 1941, Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys's Dean Collection
The Dean Collection has the largest private holdings of Gordon Parks’s photography, including this Untitled work from 1941. Courtesy Gordon Parks Foundation

On top of all of that is Dreamland, an informal artist residency that Dean and Keys set up in Arizona in 2017. “Although you don’t have to be African-American to go there, I want African-American artists to know there is an African-American-owned place they can go,” said Dean, who thinks of Dreamland as a place free from the pressure on artists negotiating shows and sales. “How do you reset? Take everything off your mind?”

Dean grew most excited when discussing a long-term venture that he and Keys have conceived: a new institution, with the working title Creativeland, that will serve as a space for creatives of different types to develop ideas for art, technology, and business. The future destination features plans for a campus including exhibition space for the collection as well as a performance center, classrooms, and live/work space for visitors, all proposed for a site on more than 100 acres of land in upstate Macedon, New York, a small town about 20 miles from Rochester. The educational aspect of the project is integral. “I want to offer the starter pack to the culture,” Dean said of another idea inspired by his time at Harvard. “My mission is to make us have multiple seats at the table, multiple seats on boards. None of us creatives own our creative structures. I want to give the culture tools that they could put in their backpack and go off!”

Keys said initiatives of the kind are meant to be inclusive. “All those pieces make the playing field even and art even more accessible or more of a win for everyone—that’s all we want,” she said. And as a couple involved in the kind of work that made them successful at the start, they are uniquely attuned as collectors to the value of an “artist-to-artist relationship. We live a similar life, so we understand pieces that maybe other people wouldn’t think about because it’s not how they make their living.”

The activities and aims of Dean and Keys bring new definition to the role of the contemporary collector. Along with peers including important black collectors like financier-turned philanthropist Pamela J. Joyner, former MTV producer Bernard Lumpkin, and multivalent music and tech executive Troy Carter, they are activist patrons who see their role as an opportunity to forge connections with artists to ensure that their work is placed in meaningful collections. At the same time, they can assist in the diversifying of art history while helping artists connect with audiences who look like them, share their experiences, and think about art in a context where their representation is centered and valued.

“It’s important for me to have young black collectors collect my work,” said Derrick Adams, whose work in the Dean Collection includes a painting from his “Floater” series depicting figures at leisure in swimming pools. “The narrative that I incorporate in my work is one that is relatable to some of the experiences that black people have on a daily basis. To have people who understand it not only from a formal aspect but from a legacy perspective means something more—it is empowering.”

Dean and Keys have also presented notable exhibitions of art from outside their own collection, like “Dreamweavers,” a two-month-long group show that opened in February in Los Angeles at the UTA Artist Space (run by the United Talent Agency) as a showcase for 20 black contemporary artists including Carrie Mae Weems, Cy Gavin, Ming Smith, and Karon Davis. The exhibition celebrated a new “black renaissance” in artistic production, according to Nicola Vassell—curator of that show as well as the Dean Collection overall. Friends, including Beyoncé and Jay-Z, purchased works from the show for their own collections.

The couple’s exhibition activity has extended as well to loaning works to institutional shows. Earlier this year, “Gordon Parks: Selections from the Dean Collection” featured 80 photographs spanning the storied artist’s career at Harvard University’s Ethelbert Cooper Gallery. The show was made possible after a milestone last year when, as a Father’s Day gift, Keys acquired enough pieces to make the Dean Collection home to the largest private holding of photographs by Parks, whose work ranged from fashion shoots to documentation of the civil rights movement in honest and moving detail. “The legacy that Gordon Parks represents is something we can relate to,” said Keys. “The largest collection of Gordon Parks’s work—I think that’s an important statement. That’s something my husband talks about a lot: we have to collect our culture.”

Alicia Keys, Swizz Beatz, Tschabalala Self paintings
Alicia Keys and Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean with paintings by Tschabalala Self. Courtesy Swizz Beatz

Peter W. Kunhardt Jr., the executive director of the Gordon Parks Foundation, said, “Alicia and Swizz have been friends now for almost a decade.” After getting to know them, he said, “I was so impressed with both of them because they are so knowledgeable on Parks and his story and his life.” When they told him “we want to be ambassadors for the foundation,” Kunhardt was more than pleased. “Here are two very important artists in their own right who are thinking back on artists who are no longer alive and how the life of someone such as Gordon Parks could be meaningful and impactful today.”

[See a slideshow of the Dean Collection’s holdings of Gordon Parks photography.]

Devotion to Parks, in Dean’s mind, is about changing the narrative as part of a mission to continue to support and sustain the legacy of important artists of color. To be a better advocate in those terms, in 2015 he joined the board of trustees at the Brooklyn Museum, where he has served ever since. Anne Pasternak, the museum’s director, told me, “This is a guy who really leverages his position in the world, which is a very powerful position, for others—for artists, for the institution. He doesn’t have to do that. Most people in positions like his don’t use them for anything other than their own benefit. He and Alicia have both used their positions very consciously, very actively, for good. This is in their DNA.”

“I tell everyone: listen, use me as a weapon,” said Dean, who also sits on the board of the Americas Foundation of the Serpentine Galleries in London. He identifies with Pasternak as a “disrupter,” and after an afternoon of rosé, he boiled down his advocacy to this: “Call me when you want to disrupt something.”

He continued, with a mind to the future. “What’s next is implementing some of the things we talk about: getting a bit of balance in the market, turning No Commission into something bigger, introducing Smart Collection.” Listing his initiatives gave him momentary pause. “I can’t do it by myself,” he said, signaling the importance of others to rise up and join in the cause from all sides.

But he has done a lot already—and stands to do more. “As artists, what do you want from collectors? As collectors, what do you want from art? I could bring those two conversations together.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of ARTnews under the title “Dean’s List.”