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Supply and Demand

Private Shows Bring Underrepresented African-American Art To Underserved African-American Patrons

By Christina Royster-Hemby | Posted 6/22/2005

“I’m not really into art, but my wife likes ethnic art,” Arthur Peace says to the fine-art dealer. “Myself, I like outdoor sports.” A few of the other art patrons around him laugh.

Leslie Hyman confesses an affinity for roses in art, but also admits, “I don’t like people on my wall I don’t know.” After a pregnant pause of mild shock, everyone laughs again.

Peace, a 58-year-old retiree from the International Steel Group (formerly Bethlehem Steel), and Hyman, a 57-year-old federal government worker, aren’t the typical gallery-going art buyers. And that’s precisely why they’ve come to this private exhibition in an upscale Owings Mills home to look at art. Sitting on antique white sofas adorned with pink and white pin-tuck pillows, Peace, Hyman, and 10 of their Dunbar High School class of 1965 classmates pore over a collection of African-American works, ranging from still-life paintings to mixed-media works. The prices don’t soar into the thousands; the average price this evening is around $100. And part of the final sale price is siphoned into a nonprofit pot to raise money for their 40th high-school reunion.

These purchases go unnoticed and under the radar of mainstream art markets but are becoming more and more popular in the African-American communities in Baltimore and other cities across the country. This one is conducted by Personal Preference Inc., one of two national companies that cater to this clientele. These shows bring the gallery to the potential clients and enable people to consider purchasing one-of-a-kind works and limited-edition series at a fraction of traditional gallery prices. And Personal Preference frames the work for free.

“People are going to buy art anyway,” says 57-year-old art consultant and Dunbar alumna Annie Richardson, presenting the works this evening. “It might as well be [through] Personal Preference.”

The Illinois-based company was founded 25 years ago by its chief executive officer, Jan Madori, but in the early ’90s, when its customer base was primarily white, Madori says she saw an underserved art community that changed the direction of her business.

“I realized that there was a pent-up demand for African-American art on canvas,” Madori says. “There were framed prints with glass, but there were few oil paintings [with African-American images or interest] out there.”

Madori started procuring works to target this market. And as she bought more African-American art, the demand for it increased. Now, she says about 94 percent of her sales are to African-American customers, and a majority of that in the Baltimore-Washington area. “If we’re selling 20 to 25 thousand paintings a year, about 10 to 15 thousand would come from the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., area,” she says.

That’s roughly half of the company’s national sales. And though Personal Preference sells art through commercial channels, at fundraisers, and over the internet, most sales take place at intimate private shows like the one Richardson conducts. The detail-oriented taskmaster recently lost her voice to laryngitis, but in spite of her malady, she proceeds through her normal pitch in a whisper: having everyone introduce themselves even though they know each other already, presenting the works while discussing the artists. A seven-year Personal Preference veteran, Richardson conducts shows for anyone and everyone who offers their home and invite list. Today, she focuses on one goal: for every $100 sold, Personal Preference contributes $20 to a charity of a group’s choice—in this case, the Dunbar reunion. Her sales pitch is so strong she breaks into a sweat in the cool room.

In the nearly three-hour presentation, none of the guests tap their feet impatiently or twirl their hair. They lean forward as Richardson presents the artworks—which range from African-American themes to still-life paintings, sacred works to abstractions, urban street scenes to landscapes. R. Woodrum’s “Passing Down the Faith” is a straightforward, sentimental depiction of three sets of brown, faith-filled hands passing a gold cross between them.

“This one speaks to me,” Jacquline Buise says of the lithograph painting. “It’s about passing down religion from generation to generation. So when I see that, I think of my grandmother’s hands passing it down to my mother’s hands and then passing it down to me.”

“Ooh, look at that,” the boisterous, 57-year-old Paula Blue says about J.C. Bakari’s romantic “Sensuous Whisper” print of a couple clasped in a passionate embrace. “He looks young,” Blue and the other ladies enjoy a raucous laugh as they gaze at the hunk.

Even sports fan Peace is engaged as Richardson shows about 40 pieces of varying color schemes, detail, and complexity levels. A painting by Jorge Arrieta, a Tennessee-based father of five who sells his work exclusively through Personal Preference, captures everyone’s eyes. For “Earthly Vessels,” Arrieta renders a pair of dusty brown urns that look so old that they feel excavated from a prehistoric cave.

Richardson puts a complementary gold frame on the piece, and the group responds with warm appreciation. Such minor personal touches are what make both clients and artists feel well cared for. “I had done shows in Michigan and Washington, D.C., before I became an exclusive artist with Personal Preference,” Arrieta says over the phone from his studio. “Back then, some of my pieces sold for $5,000 to $6,000,” he says, but he has sold his work through Personal Preference for 25 years—10 years exclusively—because it consistently moves his pieces.

“They keep me very busy,” he says. “They buy everything I paint. There’s no need to go anywhere else.”

Arrieta isn’t the only artist who feels this way; Richardson reports that a few other artists are represented exclusively by Personal Preference, whose artist roster now numbers about 1,000. Elaine Dungill, Richardson explains, began painting in the mid-’90s when she was in her late 70s. The prospective patrons raise admiring eyebrows at one of Dungill’s smaller pieces, “African Maiden at Prayer,” a profile painting of a praying young woman wearing a turban and peach-colored robe. Richardson then shows a few mixed-media paintings from June Marie, including “Glamour Girls,” in which real feathers and rhinestones decorated the subjects’ wide-brimmed hats. “This is a Personal Preference exclusive,” Richardson says as she winds down her presentation.

Frank Morrison’s paintings especially attract this group. Morrison is known for his elongated images of black bodies, and his work catches the eye of the picky Hyman. She purchases “Five on the Side,” a heavily textured Morrison painting. In this piece, three men play a spirited game of pool. And even though it falls into her category of not wanting to hang people she doesn’t know on her walls, Morrison captures the figures in rear profile, and they could be anybody.

“How can I know if I know them or not if I can’t see their faces?” Hyman laughs.

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