Agent of Change

Art advisor Lucille Blair is bridging the gap between African American collectors and the blue-chip art world.

It was a crystallizing moment for Lucille Blair. In honor of Black History Month last February, Swann Galleries in New York was staging its annual auction of African American documents, letters, and photographs. Around the same time the Neue Galerie, the jewel-box Fifth Avenue museum devoted to modern Austrian and German art, was opening an exhibition of paintings by Paul Klee. Cocktail receptions were held for both events, and Blair—working with the organizers—invited about 200 of her mostly African American clients to each.

One might have assumed there would have been greater interest in the sale of African Americana than in a Swiss-born painter’s work from the thirties and forties. The response was eye-opening. "Hardly anyone—I can think of maybe two people—RSVP’d for the Swann’s invitation," Blair recalls. "But my phone did not stop ringing for the Neue Galerie event. I was inundated." Part of it, she says, is that most of her black clients "just never have been invited."

It is precisely to get them invited that she started Lucille Blair Art Advisory two years ago. In addition to consulting with clients about collecting and introducing them to new art, she’s trying to educate museums, dealers, and auction houses about how to connect with the growing class of African Americans with money to spend on art. If they aren’t buying in great quantities, Blair argues, it is because they haven’t grown up with a tradition of art collecting and patronage. They also haven’t had access to the very white art world establishment.

"My goal is to encourage African Americans to have a bigger, broader presence and to be included," she says. "They’re outsiders in this world, and it’s largely be-cause of the insidious segregation that exists."

Juan Williams, a senior correspondent for National Public Radio who has known Blair since he was a student at Haverford and she at neighboring Bryn Mawr, describes her as "a pioneer, a trailblazer" engaged in work that is long overdue. "What you have is a hidden market," says Williams, author of the best-selling Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954–1965. "There is no shortage of art appreciation in the black community."

Blair, who is in her forties, has really just begun to build her operation. So far she has a handful of regular clients. For some she provides a whole range of services—scouting works, attending auctions, and arranging insurance, conservation, restoration. For others she just helps them find art they like. In some cases Blair is paid a retainer, but often her fee is based on a percentage of a purchase, depending on the value of the piece. For a work priced up to $100,000, say, she takes 10 percent to 15 percent. For something that costs $1 million, her fee is 1 or 2 percent.

"She’s been kind of my broker, looking for pieces I’m interested in," says Marc Gunn, who co-owns the luxury-goods company Peoples Gunn and collects Orientalist art. While Gunn, 34, knew a bit about the auction world and fairs such as Art Basel Miami Beach, he was hovering on the periphery. Blair helped bring him in. "She introduced me to the big boys— opened up a wealth of knowledge," he says. "You need to know the right person to walk you through the art world, and she’s been that for me."

Blair’s background prepared her well for the job. Her mother, a political cartoonist, and father, a writer, left the United States when she was young and moved to Nigeria, then Algeria, France, and En-gland. She studied art history in college. After trying her hand at being a chef ("It just wasn’t me, endlessly chopping and mincing and heaving huge pots of hot water," she says), Blair landed at Christie’s during the late-eighties art boom. After starting out in the contemporary art department, she moved to client services at the firm, where she eventually spent three years (broken up by a three-year period when she left to raise her son).

During her time at Christie’s, Blair witnessed firsthand the divide between African Americans and the high-end art world. It isn’t that the auction houses don’t want black clients, she explains. They just don’t know how to pursue them and are wary of trying. And African Americans are often cautious themselves. "Walking through any auction house door is intimidating," she says, "so having someone reach out and say ’Hello, come in, be here’ works."

Recently Blair has collaborated with auction houses Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Doyle New York as well as Swann. Besides alerting clients to upcoming sales, she organizes special events, such as an invitation-only brunch at Christie’s during the preview exhibition for an Impressionist and modern art auction. "She’s doing a great service, exposing these collectors to new options and allowing the houses to meet potential clients," says Louis Webre, head of marketing at Doyle. "African Americans are underrepresented in the auction world, which is why when Lucille came forward with her ideas, we welcomed them with open arms. You never know where your next new buyer or seller is going to come from."

Blair also works with a number of African American women’s organizations, such as the Atlanta branch of Jack & Jill. For these groups Blair leads weekend excursions to New York, typically to study a single collecting specialty at a time—Chippendale chairs, for instance. "They can explore a particular area of buying and selling art in depth, be it porcelain or a piece of furniture or the work of an individual artist," she says, "and learn what to look for and what not to look for."

Next summer Blair will head a trip to South Africa with Karell’s African Dream Vacations focusing on contemporary art and indigenous crafts in that country. And she deals closely with the New York chapter of 100 Black Men, the organization devoted to improving education, health care, and economic opportunity for African Americans. Members regularly attend her events and consult her on their collections and about getting involved with museums.

Blair is looking to cultivate relationships with musicians and athletes—two obvious areas of wealth in the black community— but so far has seen mixed results. People in music tend to respond well to the idea of collecting art, Blair says. She’s had a generally positive response from figures in the music business she has invited to events—Wynton Marsalis, Russell Simmons, Jay-Z, Damon Dash, Nelly, Sean Combs, and the rap star T.I., to name a few. "For them the art world resonates with a similar creative spirit," Blair says. "Buying art and being involved in the art world offers them another opportunity to express themselves."

When it comes to pro sports, however, many players—whatever their skin color—prefer not to be associated with art because they feel it clashes with the image they want to project. "I see part of my job as not only encouraging these athletes to play a broader role in the art world but also to show them that art is not obscure or out of reach, that it can be used to inspire a personal vision and create a legacy," Blair says.

To be sure, Blair realizes she is treading on sensitive territory. Once, she described her business to a black collector at an opening at the Studio Museum in Harlem and he came away insulted. "Sometimes my pitch sounds very strident, like ’I’m black, you’re black, so we should work together,’ " she says. "He was offended. He had made it, he was a collector, he was al-ready a registered bidder. He didn’t want to be singled out."

When it comes to the auction houses, Blair emphasizes the simple importance of not treating black clients differently. "The people I work with are affluent, educated black professionals," she says. "They’ve worked hard to get what they have and they’ve transcended almost every barrier along the way in terms of color and profession. To take them and say, ’We’re having this sale and we’d like to invite you to a special evening for you black people’—it’s condescending."

With any neophyte collector, it can take a while to warm up to the idea of spending substantial sums on something that hangs on the wall. It’s certainly true for many African Americans whose backgrounds included little exposure to art and collecting. "Historically our parents weren’t buying art," she says. "There isn’t a big tradition of recognizing art as something that can be owned either as part of an investment portfolio or just for the pure enjoyment of it."

Blair commonly directs hesitant new clients toward more-accessible collectibles, rather than art. Spending $20,000 on a watch or on wine often doesn’t feel as alien. Later she tries to get them to think about moving into other areas.

Blair does not push "black" art. Instead, she urges clients to venture outside their comfort zone. "A lot of African Americans have huge collections of work by black artists and African tribal art," she says. "I’m encouraging them to expand and look elsewhere."

When her clients do collect tribal art, Blair emphasizes the particular need to differentiate between quality and schlock. "The tribal pieces you see in some collections are just hideous," she says. "People don’t realize they have fakes. They’ve been pitched by dealers who don’t always have a lot of integrity. Many people buy purely on emotion, which is how you should buy. But when it comes to this kind of art, you really ought to have some expertise guiding you."

Blair knows she could be in for a tough road as a one-woman entrepreneur trying to help African Americans break into a historically closed, predominantly white art world. But she also seems inspired by the possibilities.

"I like making sure that this group is included, that they’re in the loop and have a legitimate presence," she says. "To go in and be at those big sales and bid for one of those Picassos—there’s no reason why African Americans can’t be part of that."