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Living With Art: Keith Timmons

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For attorney and CPA Keith Timmons, procuring rare contemporary artworks by African American artists has become an addictive pastime and a wise investment. “Since Black art, especially contemporary art, has exploded now, and the mainstream and museums have really grasped onto us, this is a way that we as Black people, people who have any stature or money, can have a stake in the game and help Black artists, because their art is important,” Timmons shares after a tour of his plush Bolton Hill townhome which houses an impressive and eclectic selection of works from an ever-expanding collection.

Many of the artists are blue-chip, with years-long waitlists to obtain their art, but Timmons is surprisingly humble about the works in his collection. While some collectors solely focus on figurative or abstract works, Timmons has selected a healthy balance of both. He is especially drawn to pieces rendered by artists based in or affiliated with Baltimore including Amy Sherald, Elizabeth Talford Scott, Jerrell Gibbs, Mequitta Ahuja, Derrick Adams, Devin Allen, Jeffrey Kent, Chris Wilson, Clifford Owens, Joyce J. Scott, and Murjoni Merriweather.

But the collection also includes an impressive selection of internationally recognized artists including Kara Walker, Sam Gilliam, Rashid Johnson, Sanford Biggers, and Zanele Muholi, among others. It was the contemporary artist and advisor Jeffrey Kent who introduced Timmons to the practice of collecting art.

 

Keith Timmons with works by Zanele Muholi, Jeffrey Kent, and Chris Wilson, as seen in BmoreArt Issue 13
Artworks by Clifford Owens, Kajahl, Nate Young, and Derrick Adams in Timmons' collection

“When I first started collecting and going to shows with Jeffrey [in the early 2000s], we went to see this or that, but there wasn’t a lot of Black art,” says Timmons. “Jeffrey was doing quite a bit of work—he was everywhere, so I got to see a lot of shows. When I went to the Armory last fall, I could not believe how many white galleries have Black work or are representing Black artists. It’s amazing.”

Over the last two years, art markets have witnessed a significant uptick in interest by private collectors and institutions for works by Black artists and women. Many have argued that this trend was influenced by national outcries in 2020 for equity by the long-standing Black Lives Matter movement, as well as growing frustration with state-sanctioned violence against Black men, women, and children.

I was curious about the buying trends of African American collectors over the last few years and was surprised to find that major annual reports about global collecting practices omit racial demographic information. The information that is typically collected includes the age and net worth of collectors, but does not collect data about their race. There are varying factors that may help to explain why these data points are not collected, but ultimately, not having this information exacerbates difficulties quantifying inclusivity, diversity, and equity trends in domestic and global art markets. According to a 2019 Sotheby’s article, the art market remains “woefully unbalanced,” when the sale of African American artists over the last ten years makes up just 1.2 percent of the global auction market.

“I’ve been told by many artists that, even though we know that white people are the predominant owners of art by Black artists, they want Black people to own their art,” says Timmons. “I’ve always tried to help or to serve my people, even in the accounting field or the legal field. Black professionals can help Black artists, especially emerging artists.”

Timmons is considered an “experienced art collector,” a broad categorization for the baby-boom generation. Experienced art collectors typically adhere to traditional purchasing strategies, such as in-person fairs, auctions, and direct marketing from consultants or institutions about new works, and usually veer away from more volatile markets or trends.

 

Keith Timmons with works by Mequitta Ahuja and Elizabeth Talford Scott
Sanford Biggers, Afropick, 2005, woodcut print
Sculpture by Murjoni Merriweather

“I buy work based on recommendations. I may go someplace to see art, but I don’t spend a lot of time going to art fairs and that kind of thing,” he says. “My consultant, Jeffrey, if he says, ‘You might like this,’ I’ll say, ‘Oh, okay.’ And I’ll go take a look at it… When I see it, I know.”

Many art market reports are just beginning to capture the growing divides between millennial and next-generation collectors versus experienced art collectors. Points of divergence include the way collectors access art, as well as the type of artwork that they purchase, with younger collectors more willing to procure digital and crypto-artworks including NFTs, whereas experienced ones typically stick with familiar, traditional mediums.

The COVID-19 pandemic greatly influenced the surge in millennial and next-gen collectors purchasing artwork via online platforms and reviewing works solely through their mobile devices, as confirmed by nearly 58 percent of collectors surveyed by a recent Artsy poll. The 2021 Art Market Mid-Year Review conducted by Art Basel revealed similar trends: in 2020, 91 percent of next-gen practitioners procured artwork online, up nearly 40 percent from the previous year.

Most experienced art collectors are still skeptical of this option. I asked Timmons if he would ever consider purchasing NFTs or other digital artworks. “Not yet. I’ve looked at that, and I’ve looked at crypto, and I’m thinking about it. [NFTs] are becoming more prominent now, but I’m not quite ready to get there, ‘cause I’m old school,” he laughs. “I like to touch what I have and know it’s protected. The world is moving that way, but there’s still something about having that art right in front of your face.”

Beyond the immediacy of being able to touch and view precious works of art in one’s home, collectors must also consider the legacy of what they have procured. For Black collectors who hope to donate works from their collections to Black institutions such as HBCUs, many systemic factors play a significant role in their ability to follow through on that desire. If an institution is historically underfunded—because of racism or cultural bias, even though said institution maintains a prestigious name or reputation—a collector may be less likely to donate work to that institution.

Costs associated with the long-term maintenance and archival of collections are a considerable concern for all institutions, but are compounded by histories of financial underinvestment in Black institutions. Just last year, after a 15-year-long struggle, four HBCUs in Maryland finally won a $577 million settlement against the state which was accused of inequitable funding. This battle for equity is a small sample of a nationwide epidemic that complicates collectors’ ability to support Black institutions while also protecting their investments.

I asked Timmons what hopes he had for the future of his collection. “I’ve started to talk to my nieces and nephews about the art world and I think they have an appreciation,” says Timmons, considering the legacy of his art collection. “I may donate some. I may order some to be sold, but I am definitely talking to them about art. They need to understand the world has changed about art, especially Black art. You can help your community and help yourself at the same time.”

 

Works by Derrick Adams, Jackie Milad, Joyce J. Scott, Rashid Johnson, Sanford Biggers, Murjoni Merriweather, Clifford Owens, Kajahl, and Nate Young

This story is from Issue 13: Collect, available here.

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