Perhaps no other figure today pursues collecting with same mission-focused drive of Pamela Joyner, who for the last 20 years has focused on redressing the exclusion of Black artists in the art historical cannon. With a collection of nearly 400 works of overlooked artists, collector Pamela Joyner is rewriting the narrative for artists of African descent. In a conversation with The Armory Show, Joyner discusses her recent publication, Four Generations, and her continued drive to collect.
"I embrace the notion of being an activist."
The Armory Show: Four Generations was published last fall and next month an exhibition of your collection will open at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans. What compelled you to put together Four Generations and the accompanying exhibitions, why now?
Pamela Joyner: I see the exhibition as the natural outcome of our book. Both are designed to give greater visibility and enhanced context to the artists in our collection. The curators who wrote for our book advanced that priority substantially. We believe that Christopher Bedford and Katy Siegel have created a curatorial narrative for our exhibition that will enhance the depth of understanding around the artists in our collection and how their practices fit into the full arc of the art historical cannon.
TAS: You’ve said before that race is not a good lens through which to view art. This might seem like surprising statement from a collector with almost 400 artworks by artists of the global African diaspora. What role does race play in your collection?
PJ: I do believe that great art at in essence is simply that. This belief underpins every aspect of the collection. When I first started collecting, I became interested in African American artists doing abstraction post World War II. I learned that many of the best practioners of that time were overlooked and underrepresented. In this regard, the role of race in the collection is reflective of the role of race in our greater society. When we decided to collect more actively, our mission was to bring these stories to light. In time, the scope of the collection and mission broadened, but we established some boundaries for a variety of reasons. First, I believe in focus and discovered that there was much work to do within the framework of how we initially defined the collection. Moreover, we do not have unlimited resources. Our goal is to help place our artists, not in isolation, but in the broader context of art history. So, if I lived in an unconstrained world, I would also acquire Pollack to hang next to Norman Lewis. I would buy the Kenneth Noland to hang next to Sam Gilliam and I would place Anselm Kiefer with Leonardo Drew. At this juncture in the evolution of the collection, we are collecting artists of the Global African Diaspora. This includes Africans who identify as white and artists of mixed racial and multiple national identities. This hybridity underscores the issue of race as one that is superseded by talent. Our mission, however, is to bring these artists, now of four generations, into the fuller context of the art world to show with their contemporaries of other races, geographies and ethnicities. We cannot do that adequately within our collection alone. We are active lenders and also call on our institutional relationships in a variety of ways to help foster these objectives.
TAS: The significant lack of African artists from the art historical cannon, specifically in Abstract Expressionism, has served as a central driver for your collection. Is there a particular period or history that you feel is in most urgent need of rewriting today?
PJ: I have taken a view through the collection that there are key artists of color born in the first half of the 20th century that deserve a closer look by the entire art eco-system. Fortunately, a number of experts seem to agree with that perspective. We are seeing more solo and group shows based on strong work and thematic foundations. Several recent solo shows have highlighted the importance of Norman Lewis, Alma Thomas, Jack Whitten, Melvin Edwards, Frank Bowling, Sam Gilliam, Virginia Jaramillo. Currently shows like Tate’s Soul of a Nation and We Wanted a Revolution at the Brooklyn Museum are breaking new ground in reframing art history. New research as exemplified by Darby English’s 1971: A Year in the Life of Color, Kellie Jones' EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art and Susan Cahan’s Mounting Frustration all are making important contributions to scholarship which has historically been too sparse around these great careers. The mission to highlight key careers does not stop at the middle of the 20th century. There are emerging and mid-career artist who we believe to also be underappreciated. Here we focus more on contextualizing and framing those stories than on simply bringing certain practices to light.
"The collectors I admire are also not afraid to break new ground, state a mission and a purpose."
TAS: The term ‘activist collector’ is a relatively new in the lexicon. Do you identify as an activist and are there other such ‘activist’ with whom you admire or identify?
PJ: I embrace the notion of being an activist. Ours is a mission driven collection focused on being a catalyst for the reframing of art history. We are active lenders, support new scholarship and are interested in highlighting artists and their transformational creative processes. We especially enjoy having an artist’s residency program which we hope artists view as a place of reflection which enhances and revitalizes their creative energies. There are many collectors for whom I have great regard. Though collections vary, the common characteristics of my favorites include their reverence for and understanding of the artist coupled with energy and resources committed to highlighting those careers through philanthropy, scholarship and stewardship. The collectors I admire are also not afraid to break new ground, state a mission and a purpose. In so doing these collectors ask all of us to see new paradigms or old narratives in an innovative light. To name a few, I would suggest that The Rennie Collection, Estrellita Brodsky, Denise and Gary Gardner, Pulane Kingston are collectors and collections that all send out a call to action.
TAS: Four Generations is a remarkable monograph and a window into generations of overlooked artists. In putting together the monograph and accompanying traveling exhibition of the collection, have you come to see your collection in new or different ways?
PJ: Absolutely, the collection is a continuous source of revelation for me. This week I read a draft of the gallery guide for the exhibition written by the curators which made me teary. I have had a bit of trepidation about sending so many of my children out into the world on tour for such a long while. This piece was a crisp reminder of why I get up each day and endeavor to do what I do.
TAS: Your activity with international museum boards and trustee groups is impressive by any measure. Has your involvement with these institutions – from the Tate Modern in London to the Art Institute of Chicago – informed your collecting mission and vision?
PJ: It is an honor and a privilege to be associated with several of the world’s leading arts institutions. Each has its own distinctive competence. At the end of the day, what I do enjoy most is working closely with some of the most experienced, insightful and high quality professionals in the art world. I am constantly being exposed to new ways of looking, thinking and knowing. This has a material impact on how we collect and how we view the role of the collection in broader terms.
TAS: What has been the greatest surprise or unexpected result of your collection pursuits?
PJ: I would point again to the people. Collectors are really interesting people. They are passionate learners willing to share their personal stories and collecting journeys. The best curators are truly intellectually nimble and dedicated to creating new knowledge. Many are working really diligently to tell a comprehensive and accurate story of our global culture. This is a real inspiration for me.