The J. Paul Getty Trust has bought the historic archives of Johnson Publishing, the Chicago-based company behind Ebony and Jet magazines, for $30 million. Containing more than 4 million images and 10,000 hours of video and audio recordings, the archive is considered an irreplaceable record of 20th-century African American life and culture.
A purchase agreement was filed late Wednesday and the sale is scheduled to close on Friday, reports the Chicago Tribune. One of the wealthiest art institutions in the world, the Getty Trust runs the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, as well as the Getty Foundation, the Getty Research Institute, and the Getty Conservation Institute. In September, it launched an African American Art History Initiative with the acquisition of the archive of artist Betye Saar.
The Getty made the purchase as part of a consortium of foundations, with the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, according to Craine’s Chicago.
Founded in 1942 by John H. Johnson and once the country’s largest African American-owned publishing firm, Johnson Publishing launched Ebony magazine in 1945 and its sister publication Jet in 1951. 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 archives contain historic images chronicling African American history from the 1940s to the early 2000s, including the open casket photo of lynched teenager Emmett Till in 1955 and a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Martin Luther King Jr.’s wife and daughter at his funeral. Pioneering figures such as baseball stars Hank Aaron and Jackie Robinson, musicians Sammy Davis Jr. and Aretha Franklin, Civil Rights leader Malcolm X, poet Langston Hughes, and comedian Whoopi Goldberg are among those featured in the files.
The archive was auctioned at Hilco Streambank, with a $12.5 million minimum bid. The auction was originally slated to end July 15, but the deadline was extended on more than one occasion.
“The interest level and active participation in the sale process for the photography and media archive has been truly remarkable,” said Miriam Stein, the Chapter 7 trustee for Johnson Publishing, in a statement. “Given the high level of activity, we elected to adjourn the auction process until later in the week to allow for continuing discussions with interested parties.” Stein, a lawyer for Chicago firm Chuhak & Tecson, had told Crain’s Chicago in April that she was in touch with multiple interested museums, including at least one in Chicago.
Ahead of the auction, Star Wars filmmaker George Lucas and his wife, Mellody Hobson, had made an effort to acquire the archive. 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.
“The Johnson Publishing archives are an essential part of American history and have been critical in telling the extraordinary stories of African American culture for decades,” said Capital Holdings V in a statement in April, as reported by the Chicago Tribune. “We want to be sure the archives are protected for generations to come.”
With the loan in default, the couple filed a motion in Chicago bankruptcy court that month, seeking to gain control of the archive through a foreclosure. As a result, there was speculation that the company’s historic materials would be a natural fit for the long-awaited Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, set to open in Los Angeles in 2022.
Over the last month or so, the archives were transferred from the old Johnson offices to a warehouse on the West Side of Chicago, stored in vintage filing cabinets and manilla folders. Few of the images have been digitized, or shown publicly, and there was widespread concern over whether they would end up in a public museum, or be snatched up by a private collector and promptly locked away.
“It keeps me up at night, thinking about the future of this archive,” Tiffany M. Gill, associate professor of Africana studies and history at the University of Delaware, told the New York Times earlier this month. “You can’t really tell the story of black life in the 20th century without these images from the Johnson archive. So it’s important that whatever happens in this auction, that these images are preserved and made available to scholars, art lovers, and everyday folks.”
Possible homes for the archives suggested by the Times included the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, DC, and the Getty.
One interested party from the local art community was social practice artist and community organizer Theaster Gates, who has had a longstanding relationship with the Johnson Publishing Archive.
In 2010, Johnson Publishing sold its distinctive Michigan Avenue office building, with its custom, boldly colorful design by interior designer Arthur Elrod, to Columbia College Chicago. The school planned to turn the headquarters into a museum and library. When the funding fell through, company chairwoman Linda Johnson Rice, daughter of Johnson’s founder, reach out to Gates.
She donated the office furnishings as well as some 15,000 books, periodicals, ephemera, paintings, and sculptural works to Gates. “My studio was able to support Linda in giving these objects a place where the public could see, interact with, and eventually research from this collection,” Gates told artnet News in an email, praising Johnson Rice’s generosity and “her foresight to allow artists to participate in the re-imagining of the company’s legacy.” (The donated objects are now managed by Gates’s nonprofit, the Rebuild Foundation.)
“Separately,” Gates added, “I paid for the licensed permission of 20,000 images from the company’s collection for a series of exhibitions.”
Two of those shows were held last year: “A Johnson Publishing Story” at the Stony Island Arts Bank in Chicago and “The Black Image Corporation” at the Fondazione Prada in Milan. The former focused on the physical trappings of the Johnson Publishing empire, while the latter showcased the work of two major Jet and Ebony photographers: Moneta Sleet Jr., the first black journalist to win a Pulitzer Prize (for the aforementioned King funeral photograph), and Isaac Sutton. (Gates also used photographs from the archives at Prada Mode, his pop-up night club during Art Basel in Miami Beach 2018.)
These shows “have enabled thousands of people around the world to see, interact with, and research the power of the black image, black cooperation and black corporation,” said Gates. “As an artist, I’m committed to keeping these images in the public consciousness, always re-engaging the world with John Johnson’s legacy and continually seeing it in a new light.”
“While I could not outbid the other interested parties, I’m honored to have tried,” Gates added. “The images are not dead images—they are not just history—they are alive with power and deserve a structure that is as equally alive. I hope to have many more encounters with the collection in the future and am hopeful for their safety and best treatment.”
As for Johnson’s old office building, which first opened in 1972, it was sold in November 2017 for $10 million to 3L Real Estate. The work of local architect John W. Moutoussamy, it is the only downtown Chicago high-rise office building designed by an African American.
Following the sale, nonprofit preservation group Landmark Illinois saved the office’s historic test kitchen, purchasing it for just $1 and the promise it would be removed from the building, which is now set to be gutted and turned into apartment in just two weeks’ time. In May, Brooklyn’s Museum of Food and Drink announced that it had been put in charge of the public display the kitchen, with its swirling orange walls.
Currently, the museum is looking to raise money for a traveling exhibition, “African/American: Making the Nation’s Table,” that will now have the test kitchen as its centerpiece. It will be “the country’s first major exhibition to recognize how African Americans have laid the foundation for American food culture,” said Museum of Food and Drink curator Jessica B. Harris in a statement. “The Ebony kitchen is a perfect embodiment of this exhibition’s story. It would not be hyperbole to say that it had a large part in forming the aspirations of more than two generations of African Americans.”
See more photos from the Johnson Publishing Archives below.
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