Art News: Four Foundations Team to Buy Ebony'Magazine Archive for $30

By David Schonauer   Monday July 29, 2019

The photo archive of Ebony magazine has been sold.

And historians are breathing a sigh of relief.

The archive, which The New York Times recently called the “most significant collection of photographs depicting African-American life in the 20th century,” was purchased for $30 million by a team of four foundations — the Ford Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Trust, and the MacArthur Foundation — and it will be donated to the National Museum of African American History of Culture in Washington, DC, the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, and other cultural institutions.

The historic Ebony archive, and the photo archive of Ebony’s sister publication Jet, contain more than four million images and 10,000 hours of video and audio recordings. The material had been put up for sale by the bankrupt Johnson Publishing Company, which owned the magazines. In the weeks leading up to last week’s auction, historians worried that the archives would fall into private hands. According to Art News, the four foundations partnered just prior to the auction in order to purchase the archives. A purchase agreement was filed late Wednesday, reported the Chicago Tribune.

Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, told The New York Times he was at the Prado Museum in Madrid last Tuesday when he read a news article about the impending auction on his phone. “Elizabeth Alexander, the president of the Mellon Foundation, emailed Mr. Walker, suggesting — with a great deal of urgency — that they had to do something,” reports The Times.

Ahead of the auction, Star Wars filmmaker George Lucas and his wife, Mellody Hobson, had made an effort to acquire the archive, noted Art News. The photographs and documents had been collateral for a $12 million loan their San Francisco company, Capital Holdings V, made to the struggling publisher in 2015.

Coretta Scott King at funeral of Martin Luther King, 1968, by Moneta Sleet Jr.

Tennis stars Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King with President Gerald Ford, 1975

Singer singer Natalie Cole by Isaac Sutton, 1973

Thurgood and Cecilia Marshall with their first son, 1956

“[O]nce the country’s largest African American-owned publishing firm, Johnson Publishing launched Ebony magazine in 1945 and its sister publication Jet in 1951,” noted Art News. “But Johnson died in 2005, and the company has struggled for at least a decade, first attempting to sell its archives back in 2015. At the time, they were appraised at $46 million. The company sold off Ebony and Jet the following year, and filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy liquidation in April.”

“The sheer size of the collection means much of it has barely been seen by the public in decades,” noted The Times last week. “Few photos have been digitized."

Among the photographers whose work is represented in the collection: Moneta Sleet Jr., Howard Morehead; Isaac Sutton; and Maurice Sorrell. Among the notables photographed for the magazines: Martin Luther King Jr., Sammy Davis Jr., Diana Ross, Nat "King" Cole, Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson, Prince and Stevie Wonder.

“It is impossible to overstate the importance of the accessibility of Ebony and Jet archive for not only historians and researchers, for the general public,” Sarah Lewis, a historian at Harvard, told The New York Times. “Understanding American culture means understanding African-American culture. This collection, as an archive, offers an invaluable oculus onto black life.

At top: Floyd Patterson battles Muhammad Ali, 1965, by Herbert Nipson


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