The Getty Research Institute Tuesday announced the acquisition of the archive of artist Betye Saar, in a move to establish the institute as a major center for the study of African American art history.
“The Getty is making a strong, long-term commitment of unprecedented breadth to the field of African American art history,” said James Cuno, president and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust. “The study of African American art history is fundamental to a comprehensive understanding of American art history. We aim to bring our resources, talents, and relationships together to promote advanced research in an area of American art that has been underfunded and under-researched.”
Though the 92-year-old Saar is not the first black artist represented in the GRI’s holdings — others include Adrian Piper, Kara Walker, Ed Bereal, Benjamin Patterson, Melvin Edwards, Lorna Simpson, Harry Drinkwater and Mark Bradford — the purchase of her complete archive represents the first major acquisition related to the African American Art History initiative, according to Acting Director Andrew Perchuk.
“Betye Saar is one of the most innovative and visionary artists of our era. She has also, in many ways, been the conscience of the art world for over 50 years and we are so honored that she has trusted us to preserve her powerful legacy,” Perchuk said. “She played a large role in our exploration of postwar Los Angeles art that became `Pacific Standard Time: Art in LA 1945-1980,’ and this acquisition is a particularly meaningful way for us to launch the African American Art History Initiative.”
The Getty is starting its African American Art History Initiative with an initial $5 million allocation and will raise additional funds as the project develops.
In addition to acquiring archives and related original sources, plans include establishing “a dedicated curatorship in African American Art History, a bibliographer with a specialty in the subject, annual research graduate and post-graduate fellowships, a program to conduct oral histories of notable African American artists, scholars, critics, collectors and art dealers, and partnerships with other institutions to digitize existing archival collections and collaborate on joint conferences, publications, and research projects,” according to Getty officials.
Saar, a Los angeles native, is known for her “assemblages” and large-scale works that combine her drawings, prints and etchings with other personal family items and materials collected at flea markets and swap meets.
“As a child of the Depression, I learned at an early age the importance of saving things,” she said. “`Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without’ was a common saying during my childhood. As time went on, my saving turned into collecting, and collecting then evolved into the medium I use to create my art. Little did I know back then that my frugal roots would develop into a profession with such a creative outlet.
“I’ve taken great pride in preserving these items for some 80-plus years. Items such as my early childhood drawings all the way through to the art ledgers that I continue to use on a daily basis. I am very pleased that the Getty Research Institute shares my desire for `saving things’ and that they will be providing a home for many of my collections so that they will be accessible by scholars, the arts community and the generally curious alike.”
Her work was particularly impacted by the Watts riots in 1965 at the death of Martin Luther King Jr.
She was a focal point of the Los Angeles art scene in the 1970s, working with artists such as Charles White, organizing exhibitions of black female artists and becoming a leading voice in the feminist art movement. She was the subject of exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Studio Museum in Harlem.
Following a major exhibition at the Fondazione Prada in 2016, an exhibition of her work will open in October at the National Gallery of Scotland. In 2019, she will have an exhibition organized by LACMA, which will travel to the Morgan Library in 2020.