Black Art Is Labor

Imani Joseph

Underground Railroad Quilt Codes

Black people are sensitive to place. 


This is the sentiment I've been journaling about since Director of Public Programs and Community Engagement Daonne Huff spoke to our Museum Professional Summer group in 2022. As a Black person, specifically as a femme artist working in public museums, how can I imagine a museum liberated toward community? Naomi Beckwith, deputy director and chief curator at the Guggenheim Museum, said, “Historically, what curators have been asked to do is follow a particular storyline—and then when things fall outside that, they are rendered invisible.” Referring to African American artists, she says they “don’t just belong to the bodies that hold the narrative. These stories belong to culture."1 Black people know what it's like to be alienated from our labor. When a worker is devalued they are being rendered invisible. Art that's not in community alienates the soul. Black art oozes the dissonance of double consciousness. 

During the pandemic, Black museum workers experienced the same discrimination Black artists have faced within public museums throughout the last two centuries. This familiar exploitation speaks to a culture within public museums that don’t see Black art as labor. I believe it was Black artists fighting for labor rights in public museums that paved the way for the unionization boom of museum workers within this past decade. Black museum workers were disproportionately laid off without benefits in a pandemic during a racial uprising demanding Black lives matter. Thus, the labor struggle of art workers corresponds with a tradition of Black radicalism. 

In 1933, in Harlem, a group of Marxist, unemployed, Black, brown, and white artists declared themselves “cultural workers.” The John Reed Club evolved into an artist union with government patronage. To soothe the American populace from the financial and patriotic wounds of WW I, the Roosevelt Administration commissioned unionized artists to make public artworks across the country. Public museums became a part of the Public Works Art Project (WAP), making Marxist artists the first unionized art workers. Black art workers were now government-protected laborers employed by cultural institutions. In 1936, the WPA employed about five thousand “cultural workers” and the Artist Union was the de facto bargaining agent.2  

The civil rights movement’s work bleeds into the prose of the pan-Africanist and Marxist preachings of its Black nationalist precursors. In 1969, the artist Takis protested MoMa’s exhibition The Museum as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age for exhibiting his work against his permission. This event was the catalyst for the creation of the Art Workers Coalition (AWC). AWC's mission was concerned with public museums’ responsibility to an artist, and the further representation of Black and Puerto Rican artists within public museums.3 In 1970, artists Benny Andrews and Clifford R. Joseph organized a group of African American artists to protest the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Harlem On My Mind exhibit for their omission of Black art's impact on the Harlem community. The Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC) was created as a result of this organizing effort. In 1971, the BECC called for a boycott of an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of America Art because talks between BECC and the Whitney to curate an African American art exhibit failed due to Whitney's inability to prioritize Black representation.4Simultaneously, the AWC quietly dissolved and, in its stead, MoMa’s first union was created, the Professional and Administrative Association (PASTA).  

The 2020 unionization boom in public museums is notable because of the number of unions created and the scope of workers they protected. The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s union in 2020 ratified to include carpenters, security guards, curators, conservators, educators, and librarians making it the largest in the country with two hundred fifty members. Sarah Shaw, a union organizer and educator there, said, “Museums would not function without the human labor and it does not make sense for the heart of a cultural institution to be valued so much less than the collections or the building... Unionizing is the most effective way to make that sometimes invisible labor material to the institution.”5 

The Mellon Foundation’s 2022 survey showed Black people account for 12% of all workers in museums. Among the varying occupational roles BIPOC people hold in museums, the strongest statistics are: 37% in public engagement and 47% in building operations.6 The Cultural Workers United (AFSCME CWU) analyzed federal Payroll Protection Program (PPP) loan data and revealed that public art museums were given multimillion-dollar loans yet still laid off marginalized staffers. They said, “Those most affected worked on the front lines of guest services, admissions, retail sales, education, maintenance, and security, among others. As a result, many staff who directly served the public were furloughed or laid off, with Black, Indigenous, and other people of color disproportionately suffering the impact.”7  

The capitalist world that plunged art into the market is the same financial world rooted in the transatlantic slave trade. The profitability of art is not defined by creative excellence but by proximity to the dominant social structure. Audre Lorde's politics of difference explains the implications of whose labor is valued as work. She says, “In a society where the good is defined in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need, there must always be some group of people who, through systematized oppression, can be made to feel surplus, to occupy the place of the dehumanized inferior.”8 The commodification of art leads to the exploitation of art workers because, for a capitalist to profit off a commodity, they must appropriate the surplus labor value. Making something a commodity inherently makes it inaccessible to the public because profit is based on exclusivity and scarcity. Public museums fundamentally view art as a commodity, meaning the art worker within an art institution will inevitably be exploited. There is a coloniality with which public museums value Black labor that distorts all workers and systematically disregards Black artistic praxis.  

Historically, the market lacks an appropriate valuation of Black art while Black art simultaneously dominates popular culture. You can see the dispossession of Black labor through the distortion of the quantification of Black art within the market. When you graphically represent the monetary value Black art in totality has accumulated within the art market, the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat represents 77%. If Basquiat's work’s worth disappears from the art market, Black artists now only hold .26% of capital within the global market. Work by established contemporary masters at their craft, such as Mark Bradford, Glenn Ligon, Julie Mehretu, David Hammons, and Kerry James Marshall, accounts for 64% of all Black capital in the top-heavy market.9 An investigation in 2018 from In Other Words and Artnet found that white art earned $180 billion and Black art earned $2.2 billion. The report studied the acquisition history of thirty prominent United States museums and found that African American art accounted for 2.4% of all purchases. Among the two hundred sixteen solo exhibitions of Black art recorded, about 25% rotate the same ten prominent names.  

James Baldwin, in his book of essays The Fire Next Time, poses this: “Consider the history of labor in a country in which, spiritually speaking, there are no workers, only candidates for the hand of the boss’s daughter.”10 Who is rendered invisible by the mystification of nonreciprocal work in public museums is intentional. Black art as labor alludes to the functional difference between the art market's infrastructure and its shareholders. It's about the consciousness between having an ornamental seat at the table versus having self-determination within the space. The data asserts that Black wealth cannot match white supremacy's wealth. The answer to why lies in the smoke of working-class history. The Women Students and Artists for Black Art Liberation, created by Faith Ringgold and her daughters Michele and Barbara Wallace, define Black art in their 1970 manifesto: 

                Black Art is Truth Which Is - 

                                The Black Color of our skin, 

                                Rhythm which is the major Black artistic contribution. 

                                An artistic heritage which comes from the Principles of African Art,  

                                The severity of our oppression, our persistent will to survive, and

                our determination to effect  

                                A liberated Black society. 


1) Ben Weaver, “Art (World) and Racism,” London List,, accessed January 2023. 

2) Gerald Monroe, “Artist As Militant Trade Union Workers During The Great Depression,” Dark Matter, 1974, 

3) Art Workers Coalition, “Open Public Hearing Notes,” Primary Information, 1969, 

4) Black Emergency Cultural Coalition records, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library. 

5) Erica Morse, "Why Employees at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Are Unionizing,” Art Museum Teaching, July 17, 2020, 

6) Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey, Mellon Foundation, 2020,  

7) “Measuring the Impact of COVID-19 on People in the Museum Field,” American Alliance of Museums, 2021,  

8) Audre Lorde, “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” Copeland Colloquium, Amherst College, April 1980. 

9) Charlotte Burns and Julia Halperin, “For African American Artists, the Market Remains Woefully Unbalanced,” Sotheby’s, February 13, 2009, 

10) James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (Penguin Classics, 1963).