Wainwright, Joscelyn 1941–
Joscelyn Wainwright 1941–
Art show producer
Joscelyn Wainwright spent a career fighting crime as a detective in the New York City Police Department. Then when he retired, he launched a new career fighting for African-American art. As founding director of the National Black Fine Art Show (NBFAS), Wainwright has shed light on an art that was long-hidden from view—fine art by black artists. According to the NBFAS Web site, “The intent was not only to showcase the work to the African-American community, but also, to awaken the broader American community to the richness, vitality, and vision of the Black fine art movements.”
Joscelyn Wainwright, Jr., was born on November 2, 1941, in New York City and grew up in Brooklyn with a younger sister. His father Joscelyn Wainwright, Sr., was a laborer; his mother Lillian Huffstead was a housewife. As a child, Wainwright’s hobby was photography. “My whole family had a camera,” Wainwright told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB). “It was thrust into your hand as soon as you could hold anything. Everyone in my family took photos, my mother, father, sister.” After graduating from Wingate High School where he was a photographer for the school paper, Wainwright attended New York’s Hunter College, earning a degree in English in 1963. The following year he was tapped to go to Vietnam. “I was drafted into the army and served from 1964 to ‘67,” Wainwright told CBB. “I was on my way to Vietnam, but when I got to California, my orders were changed and instead I was sent to Korea.” There Wainwright worked as a transportation specialist. “Whatever needed to get into [Vietnam], I helped get it there.”
After being honorably discharged from the army, Wainwright moved to New York and joined the New York City police force. “I was always interested in helping people and it seemed like a good thing to do,” he told CBB. He steadily moved up the ranks from sergeant to supervising detective sergeant to executive officer of the Manhattan robbery squad by the time of his retirement in April of 1989. “I think I was lucky and very successful in that career,” Wainwright told CBB.
Meanwhile, in 1981 Wainwright had begun to moonlight for Sanford Smith and Associates, an art show production company. “I started there as a security guard, and honestly I wasn’t interested in the job at all. The idea of sitting around for hours doing security work didn’t appeal to me at all. But a friend of mine who was providing security really needed the help, so I decided to do it,” he told CBB. “At the first show I worked I began to look around and to think, This is really interesting.’ So I started asking questions, and learning, and asking more questions, and getting more and more involved, and getting more and more responsibility.” By 1987 Wainwright had moved from security detail to operations management. “I had a chance to experience the ins and outs of getting shows up and running, from hiring security to interfacing with dealers,” he told Black Enterprise.
At a Glance…
Born on November 2, 1941, in New York, NY; married, Sandy Keeling (second marriage); children: Margo. Education: Hunter College, BA, English, 1963.
Career: New York City Police Department, detective, 1968-89; Sanford Smith and Associates, New York, NY, operations manager, 1987-97; Wainwright/Smith Associates, Ltd., New York, NY, president, 1997-2001; Keeling Wainwright Associates, Cabin John, MD, president, 2001-.
Addresses: Office — The National Black Fine Art Show, Keeling Wainwright Associates, P.O. Box 333. Cabin John, MD 20818.
When he retired from the NYPD, Wainwright began working full-time with Sanford Smith and soon became interested in fine art by African-American artists. “Occasionally I’d see a piece or two by a black artist, but nothing more,” he told CBB. “I tried to see more work by black artists and couldn’t. It was appalling; there was just no exposure for black artists.” Though there were a few mom-and-pop galleries showcasing black art as well as a couple of notable dealers, the work was virtually invisible. “I began to look into that problem and it occurred to me—there was no conspiracy to prevent the work of black artists from appearing in major shows, it was just a result of the fact that most of the major galleries were owned by whites and had white clientele. They didn’t feel that presenting black art would appeal to their clients and therefore they didn’t push to represent black artists,” he told CBB. With that realization he became determined to create a venue for not only black artists and black art, but for the black public as well.
Wainwright began actively working on what would become the National Black Fine Art Show in the early 1990s. “There were days along the way when it seemed almost impossible to bring together the right mix of galleries and private dealers who would bring the fine artwork that a historic event such as this deserves,” he told The Philadelphia Tribune. He spent over three years crisscrossing the country, visiting galleries and dealers, and trumpeting the need for the show. “But it was a vicious circle,” he told CBB. “They had been kept out of mainstream shows for so long; they just didn’t see the value of participating.” Wainwright persisted in part because he was angry. “I had really fallen in love with the work and became upset that work by black artists had existed and all my life I was completely unaware of it,” he told CBB. “There were no galleries in my neighborhood. Yes, there were some fabulous museums, but a black kid from Brooklyn did not feel comfortable going there. So there was a whole portion of my life that I feel I was denied. I feel like I missed out on this work. Me, my family, my neighborhood. All of us.”
Wainwright’s hard work paid off and the first annual National Black Fine Art Show opened on January 30, 1997. “That first show was the most nerve-wracking of my life,” he told CBB. “I didn’t know what to expect, nor did anyone else. We didn’t know if ten people or a thousand would show up.” Essence wrote of the show, “For three days, a line stretched down the block as Black folks—from babies to baby boomers, hip-hoppers to old-timers—crowded into the mazelike exhibition space, hungry for some reflection of themselves.” And that is what over 40 galleries and hundreds of artists provided. In painting, sculpture, textile, and photography, the over 6,000 visitors to that first show found great art, but the African-American community, as Wainwright explained to CBB, “came and saw themselves.” He continued, “They came for the preview on Thursday night, and they came back Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, with their families, their friends, their children. It was very moving. I knew that what I had hoped for with the show had happened. The African-American audience who had never seen fine art by black artists, they saw themselves, they saw us. It was definitely the proudest moment of my career so far.”
The show was also well-received by art dealers and art industry insiders. Art dealer Sheryl Sutton from Chicago told The Philadelphia Tribune, “What is happening here is a defining moment in the dawning of a new era. To have this many works together in one place gives people the opportunity to search the breadth and depth of our artistic senses. Hopefully, this is the beginning of a new awareness. This is a bold move.” Photographer Gordon Parks, famous for his 1960s photographs of civil rights icons, enthusiastically agreed. “This is a great exposure to wonderful art that a lot of people do not get a chance to see,” he told New York Amsterdam News. “I discovered tonight, an art that I have never had a chance to see before.”
Over the next several years, the NBFAS grew in stature and prestige. “More and more galleries wanted to join,” Wainwright told CBB. “It became easier to raise the quality level of the art in the show.” He explained in a press release on the NBFAS website, “We strive to include galleries representing challenging, thought-provoking and interesting work and not just those who are limited to Afro-centric or popular imagery.” The eighth annual show held in 2004 featured Caribbean, African, and European galleries in addition to many prestigious American dealers.
The show also picked up several impressive sponsors including Merrill Lynch, FedEx, Essence, The New York Times, and Black Enterprise. “With the corporate sponsorships we have we are able to do a lot more in terms of education and promotion of the show,” Wainwright told CBB. “The idea is to reach the African-American community and also to give exposure to African-American artists. The reality still is that the people who are most unaware of the power and beauty of black art is the African-American community itself.” To that end the show has always highlighted both established masters such as painter Romare Bearden, photographer James Van Der Zee, and sculptor Augusta Savage as well as work by up-and-coming contemporary artists and self-taught artists. At a typical show work has ranged in price from a few hundred to nearly a million dollars. “By making available a range of art in terms of costs, we’re providing a service that can satisfy all. I think it is important that people are able to come and acquire work,” Wainwright told American Visions.
The educational component of the NBFAS has been an integral part of the show since its inception. The NBFAS Educational Series offers seminars on art collection, framing, archival methods, and investing. “As African Americans haven’t had exposure to this work before, they also haven’t had the opportunity to learn how to appreciate, buy, and collect art,” Wainwright told CBB. The NBFAS also works hard to expose African-American children to the art. Each year elementary and middle school children are invited to view the work and meet many of the artists. “It is a real tearjerker to see how much the work intrigues [the children],” Wainwright told CBB. In addition, since its beginnings the show has also featured an opening night preview party as a fundraiser for charity. Past charities have included the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, The Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. Art Fund.
Despite naming the exhibition the National Black Fine Art Show, Wainwright has often dismissed the label. “The reality is that there is no such thing as black art, Asian art, Latin art. Art is art and it is good or bad,” he told CBB. “So why have a black art show? Because what has happened, is because of politics, economics, social factors, black artists have not had exposure and black audiences have been unexposed to black art. So we have this show, to expose these artists that are not being exposed. This is not about separatism, but exactly the opposite. We want to bring this whole genre to the world.” With the NBFAS growing steadily every year—over 10,000 visitors per show, international exposure, sales in the tens of millions—Wainwright has made incredible strides towards achieving that goal.
American Visions, December 1988.
Black Enterprise, February 2000.
Essence, July 1, 1997.
New York Amsterdam News, February 8, 1997.
The Philadelphia Tribune, February 4, 1997.
“Black Fine Art Show Mixes Business and Pleasure,” BET, www.bet.com/articles/1,,c5gbl745-2411,00.html (May 30, 2004).
National Black Fine Art Show, www.nationalblack-fineartshow.com (May 30, 2004).
“The National Black Fine Art Show-Evolving and Educating,” Maine Antique Digest, www.maineantique-digest.com/articles/blac0499.htm (May 30, 2004).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Joscelyn Wainwright on June 8, 2004.
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