Before 1980, African-American artists had little choice but to only seek the support of Black America. Exhibition venues were few, museum opportunities rare, and there was no real infrastructure for African-American art.
“Before that time, the primary infrastructure for African-American art lie in the hands of academia,” said renowned artist Larry “Poncho” Brown.
Artists such as Charles White, Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden and others were the primary artists of mention before the 1980s, Brown said.
The Harlem Renaissance, AfriCOBRA, and other black art movements were the last noted revolutions in African-American art, he said, noting that one of the largest contributors to the revolution in the arts in the 1980s came directly from the printing industry.
So what phenomenon occurred in the 1980s that changed the landscape of African-American art?
Brown and fellow acclaimed artist Charles Bibbs said the answer is simple: “The Cosby Show.”
“The Cosby Show era,” a period that began in 1984 and eventually extended to 2000, long after the show went off the air, “created a new revolution in African-American art. Bill Cosby was known throughout the world as a major collector of African-American art,” Brown said.
“Whenever anyone from the African-American art realm references the beginning of this movement, this era is pinpointed,” he said.
Although “Good Times” was one of the first times that African Americans experienced the life of an artist via a major network television sitcom, “The Cosby Show” was the first time Black America would view works by numerous artists on a grand scale, seen on the set of the Huxtable home.
“Surely an art revolution could have begun in the 1970s when ‘Good Times’ was on the air, but none of the works of Ernie Barnes was readily accessible to the masses during this period,” Brown said. “The biggest difference between those two eras was the printing industry hadn’t advanced to the point where reproductions were affordable. That revolution in printing would come along in the 1980s, and with it the ability to make art accessible for all to partake.”
Television enticed legions of art publishers and dealers to get into the game. Galleries devoted to ethnic art, publishers specializing in Black Art, and venues created to highlight African-American art began to pop up around the country practically overnight.
“Most of the visual artists I knew and respected, I judged them as less than successful, until I met Varnette Honeywood,” Bibbs said. “I knew her first from her artwork on ‘The Cosby Show.’ Her art popularity was made possible by the media exposure she received from ‘The Cosby Show,’ which caused an overwhelming demand and, because of this popularity, it became necessary to make the art affordable.”
Cosby himself said the use of art on his show was intended to remind the world about great Black art, and one of the people he praised for their work was Honeywood.
“That young lady … I took all of her stuff,” Cosby said. “She was nailing things that had to do with the sweet part of life and the sweet part of our dreams and memories. She was on it.”
“The Cosby Show” helped to kick off the dawn of African-American art being offered as a legitimate genre in the industry. Galleries devoted ethnic art, publishers specialized in Black Art, and venues were created to highlight African-American art began to pop up nationwide.
After some time, however, artists were forced to become more business-minded, and most were fast-tracked into entrepreneurship.
“Many of the ideas artist quickly learned was that they could reproduce their own works and not have to partner with publishers,” said Brown, who started a publishing business in 1985 with a staff of five. “It was as if a new hybrid of artists was birthed during that period.”
At the height of this era, Brown’s works were being sold in 3,000 galleries across the country, and on the walls of nearly 500,000 homes. Between 1994 and 2002, Bibbs said his company generated $1 million in sales per year and employed 15 people, easily his most successful period during the “Golden Age” of African-American art.
The internet would become the new infrastructure. Now the playing field — and thusly the artistic opportunities — have become global.
“Many African-American artists have taken note,” Brown said.