Recently I was google-alerted to an ARTNews article about the Baltimore Museum of Art’s recent round of contemporary acquisitions, which, during its “year of the woman,” are all by women, mostly of color. Most of the artists are likely unfamiliar to you—they were to me. Let me be clear: I applaud the effort; it’s all good. But it made me think back to all the acquisitions meetings during which I proposed works of art only to be turned down because the artists were unknown to my colleagues. That reason to say no, “I’ve never heard of them,” made me mentally design a pie chart. There is a narrow slice of pie that represents contemporary artists my colleagues were interested in, and then there is the rest of the pie filled with artists making meaningful work. They just aren’t represented by Hauser & Wirth, Gagosian, or David Zwirner. I once was told: “There is a difference between contemporary art and art made today.” I always felt this was seriously shortsighted.
This points to the beauty of prints and other works on paper since they are considerably more affordable than paintings, sculpture, installations, video art, and such. The price point of paintings, etc., is often a stretch for all but the best endowed museums, and the ability to acquire these kind of objects is limited. Whereas the curators in these areas must choose VERY carefully, curators of works on paper have it easier in collecting outside the sliver of pie that the contemporary curators are held to. The print curator is always thinking about the content and usefulness of a particular object rather than whether it’s by a superstar artist (at least I am).
Over the years, there have been quite a few works I failed to get into the collection. I have never forgotten them.
One of the ones that got away was close enough that we brought it into the museum for consideration. (Usually if it was a no, the no came long before we brought works in.) It was a portfolio of prints by Damon Davis called All Hands on Deck, 2015. Here’s the backstory. Davis is a native of East St. Louis. Following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014, and events that followed—peaceful protests that turned ugly—Davis took photographs of the hands of a variety of protesters up, in a turnabout of gesture. Rather than hands up as surrender, they are hands up in protest. The photographs were printed out on large sheets and wheat pasted onto the boarded-up storefronts along West Florissant Avenue (with the permission of the store owners), which had become ground zero of the protests.
Subsequently, Davis worked with Wildwood Press’ Maryanne Simmons to create a fine art edition of seven pairs of hands. The moment I saw the announcement of its publication, I fired off an inquiry about the portfolio. It seemed like a no-brainer for the Baltimore Museum given the city’s unrest following the death of Freddie Gray in April 2015, less than a year after Michael Brown’s death. Talk about parallels. (Susan Tallman wrote an excellent article on Davis’ portfolio in Art in Print, which you can find here.)
When the prints arrived, my colleagues took issue with the quality of the images. Davis had retained the pixilation and choppiness of the edges from the wheat paste posters. I explained that Davis had photoshopped the images quickly in an effort to get them up on storefronts and had decided to retain that same look in the fine art edition. I had absolutely no doubt that they would look fantastic on the wall—in curator parlance we would say they have wall power. Even better, they are both specific to Ferguson and universal. They stand as a monument to protests against police brutality across the country and they are as powerful today as they were in 2015.
I regret my failure for the collection. And even worse: we had full funding for the portfolio from a donor.
Damon Davis (American, born 1985)
Published by Wildwood Press
All Hands on Deck, 2015
Portfolio of seven lithographs
Sheet (each): 813 x 1232 (32 x 48 ½ in.)
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Ann's art blog
A small corner of the interwebs to share thoughts on objects I acquired for the Baltimore Museum of Art's collection, research I've done on Stanley William Hayter and Atelier 17, experiments in intaglio printmaking, and the Baltimore Contemporary Print Fair.