In its September 1972 issue of Ebony, the Johnson Publishing Company presented its luxurious new headquarters in Chicago at 820 South Michigan Avenue. With a splashy and lengthy color spread, Ebony magazine proudly revealed to the public its new corporate offices. The Johnson Publishing Company had reached impressive new heights for African-American corporate culture. Image after image shows the company’s comprehensive vision for their headquarters: the building by architect John W. Moutoussamy, and sumptuous interior by designer John Ilrod (from the executive suite of founder and publisher John H. Johnson, to the office cafeteria). The 11-story tower, the first African-American–owned building in the Loop, Chicago’s downtown area, and the first and only one designed by an African-American architect, soon gained iconic status.
The magazine article also was the public’s first chance to catch glimpses on the office walls of another significant aspect of its new stature: an important collection of African-American art. It, too, became a part of the fabric of the JPC corporate culture.
Just as its new building epitomized the Johnson Publishing Company’s ideal of celebrating African-American excellence, so did its art collection. Assembled were over 150 works representing a diverse range of American artists, from Henry Ossawa Tanner to Carrie Mae Weems, in addition to a collection of African art. Scarce works by important figures of early twentieth-century Chicago, like William Edouard Scott and Richmond Barthé, are now alongside recent works by young contemporary artists like Nathanial Bustion and Gloria Bohanon, from the Brockman Gallery in Los Angeles.
The collection includes significant abstract painters, like Thomas Sills and Kenneth Victor Young, while embracing politically and socially conscious artists: Sherman Beck and Omar Lama of AfriCOBRA in Chicago, and Dindga McCannon of the Weusi Artist Collective in New York. Their artist collectives aimed to promote an Afrocentric point of view that was accessible to wider audiences and were part of the larger national Black Arts Movement. In addition, the collection includes a wide-ranging group of multimedia artists, like Marie Johnson Calloway, Ben Jones, and Jim Smoote, who defy traditional categories and materials with collage and assemblage while investigating the African-American experience.
We are honored to present this auction catalogue and exhibition of a historic collection. It is a document of both the art and artists in their holdings, and the first and only time the collection will be on view outside of the Johnson Publishing Company offices. At the time of the iconic building’s closing, two exhibitions at the Studio Museum in Harlem included artistic responses: Stray Light, David Hartt’s 2013 photographic essay on the building’s 1970s decor and
Speaking of People: Ebony, Jet and Contemporary Art, a 2014 group show of artists, including Ellen Gallagher, Lorna Simpson, Mickalene Thomas and Hank Willis Thomas, who reference Ebony and Jet imagery in their work. Recently, Theaster Gates and his Rebuild Foundation in Chicago have made preserving the cultural history of the Johnson Publishing Company part of their art practice. With the exhibitions A Johnson Publishing Story at the Stony Island Arts Bank, Chicago, in 2018, and Assembly Hall (which included the Thomas Sills and Francis Sprout paintings) at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, from 2019 to 2020, Gates not only worked with the company archives, but preserved many artworks, objects and furnishings, repurposing their history and cultural value within his installations.
Image above: Installation view of Assembly Hall. Bobby Rogers for Walker Arts Center.
Hung together in a single exhibition for the first time, the Johnson Publishing Company’s art collection makes a powerful statement, demonstrating the company’s recognition and support of visual artists. The collection displays the many directions that fine art and the country itself were heading in 1971—without a singular point of view and in seemingly opposite directions.
But this variety perfectly reflects the important ideals of the Johnson Publishing Company—chronicling the breadth and depth of African-American life to a national audience. Linda Johnson Rice, the company’s CEO, and daughter of founder John H. Johnson, put it best: the company’s mission was to be the “curator of the African-American experience, past, present and future.”1 This art collection is testament to their mission, and to the richness of African-American art and culture.
1Chicago Tribune, Johnson Publishing once chronicled black life in Ebony and Jet, Corilyn Shronshire and Lolly Bowen, April 9, 2019.