07 Sep Arthur Lewis on Promoting Black Artists and the Future of Art – Robb Report
Photo by Jeff McLane
Los Angeles collector and dealmaker Arthur Lewis is a rarity in the art world: He is Black, gay and powerful, and blends his business savvy with activism and tastemaking. Lewis has been creative director of fine arts for the United Talent Agency and its UTA Artist Space since 2019, after jobs at Kohl’s and the Gap; he’s also on the board of Prospect New Orleans. He spoke to Robb Report this summer, amid the pandemic and protests, as the art world was just starting up again. The conversation has been edited.
Tell me about UTA Artist Space.
We’re not a traditional gallery. I get to partner with galleries like Rachel Uffner, for our show on Arcmanoro Niles. The curators that I’ve worked with have all been women. I’m really proud of that. It’s really important to me that voices that have been marginalized get their platform.
So you also act as an agent for artists?
Yes, we’re helping Ai Weiwei create projects outside his practice. It makes my job unique and fun. I have access to parts of the world that most people in art don’t see, with the world of entertainment at my feet. I come from a traditional retail background, so I have a very business mindset.
We have a show of Ernie Barnes coming up. One of his most famous paintings, The Sugar Shack, is what rolled during the credits of the ’70s TV show Good Times. We know that there’s lots of opportunity in telling Ernie’s life story because he was a sports figure. He painted Olympic images and then classic images of Black life as we know it.
Tell me about the climate-change show, coming up this fall.
I am so excited about Emergency on Planet Earth. Glenn Kaino has created a project that is literally made of the tears of protesters and wooden protest signs that look like they’re on fire.
Rob Reynolds recorded a glacier actually melting, with a microphone in water in Iceland. And Toni Scott [a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation who has called herself an African Native American] created the floor sculpture out of broken palm fronds that she dipped in black. It’s called The Empire Strikes Black.
Did you have art in your life as a kid?
I’m from New Orleans, a very culturally rich city. I can’t call my parents collectors in the traditional sense, but they loved really beautiful things and felt that it was important that their little Black kid saw Black faces on the wall.
A Jacob Lawrence print hung over my bed. My sister still has that in her house. I don’t think I can ever tell you how impactful that was for me.
Have Black Lives Matter and other protests moved the art world?
Yes. It is a very powerful coalition. We launched our show Renaissance: Noir the second week of June, and the timing could not have been more perfect. It was during one of the darkest weeks I’ve seen in this country. To walk in a room and realize I’m no longer the only person looking at the story of Blackness, I’m happy to be alive in this moment.
I heard it said that the Black-art thing is a trend. People aren’t a trend.
Have you ever experienced racism in the art world? Of course. I would be lying if I said I didn’t.
About how many things are in your personal collection?
I can’t say the number out loud—I’d be embarrassed. But there are about 125 things in the house. I spend a lot of time rotating and then quietly crying in the corner. You get used to seeing something, and then wall space is limited, so something has to leave.
How do you describe the collection?
The collection is definitely African-American-focused and artists of the African diaspora. And really centered on women.
Do you gravitate to a certain medium or style?
We’re pretty broad. Jennie C. Jones is a minimalist. I’m obsessed with her. We also love Toyin Ojih Odutola. She’s like our baby. And I love Maya Stovall, who does performance art. It’s wild watching artists we were onto very early, like Amoako Boafo, turn into mega-stars overnight.
Is there a work that got away?
Myrtis Bedolla [the pioneering Baltimore gallerist] shared two of Amy Sherald’s paintings with me. And I passed on both of them. I thought, “My God, what have I done?” But I ended up getting one later.
If you could make one change in the art world, what would it be?
I want to make sure that there is balance in what is shown. I just wish I saw more diverse voices being given opportunities to shine. It’s not a risk—this is our culture. I think we’ve got a long way to go.
Anything else you want to put out into the world before we go?
Artists, they need us now.