How can the art world fix decades of inequity? The question of resale royalties for African-American artists

·3-min read

Though Black artists have seen their star rise in recent years, this doesn't always translate into monetary benefit for the artists themselves. A new initiative from the Souls Grown Deep foundation will see the reattribution of royalties to African-American artists whose works are represented in the foundation's collection.

The Souls Grown Deep foundation owns over 1300 works by 160 African-American artists from Southern states, including Thornton Dial, Lonnie Holley, Mary T. Smith, Joe Minter, Nellie Mae Rowe, Purvis Young and Emmer Sewell. The collection was assembled by the noted collector William S. Arnett from the 1980s onwards, an era when African-American artists struggled to find recognition in the art world. Many of them have since seen the value of their oeuvres shoot up, but have not benefited from any retrospective financial reward.

That's why Souls Grown Deep's Resale Royalty Award Program will give financial awards to living artists whose works have been have been resold through the foundation's Collection Transfer Program. The aim is to celebrate the contribution of these artists and offer appropriate recompensation, in order to offset the consequences of historic discrimination and years of undervaluation suffered by previous generations.

To date, the Collection Transfer Program has been instrumental in the acquisition of 449 works by US institutions like the Met, the Museum of Fine Arts in San Francisco, the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum.

"Due to the legacy of systemic racial discrimination, the artists in Souls Grown Deep's collection have long been undervalued and therefore denied fair financial compensation for their works of art. With the Resale Royalty Award Program, we will be acknowledging the inequities that have plagued the African American artists of the South and the communities that support them," said Maxwell L. Anderson, president of Souls Grown Deep, in a statement.

Living artists whose works form part of the foundation's collection will receive a 5 percent payout both retroactively and going forward, from the resale of their works, up to $85,000 each -- a percentage which would be the highest royalty threshold worldwide.  

What is "droit de suite"?

While the "droit de suite" -- a legal right that enables artists to claim a portion of the price for which a work is resold -- is part of international law, it is not observed in all countries, and is only accorded under conditions of reciprocity. That is, for an artist to benefit from this right, it must be recognised not only in the country where the work was sold, but also in the artist's country of origin.

An EU directive mandated resale rights in member states in 2001, but it is as yet not recognized in several other countries including the US and China, two big markets for art. Democratic Congressman Jerrold Nadler has been attempting to get the American Royalties Too Act passed in the Senate and in the House of Representatives since 2011, but without much success.

"More can—and should—be done. An artist resale royalty is fair in principle for all visual artists. It would also address lingering inequities born of racism and allow the families of artists excluded from the art market to be appropriately recompensed," said Anderson in a piece published in The Art Newspaper.