05 Apr 2018

A Philanthropic Eye Reframes African American Abstract Art

Re: Reggie Van Lee (MBA 1984)
by Jill Radsken


Photo by Nathanael Turner

When Pamela Joyner (MBA 1984) looks at the work of artists of African descent that hang on her walls, in part, she sees her own story.

“I’m interested in ensuring that artists of color are not erased from the narrative,” says the longtime arts philanthropist and patron.

Largely ignored for decades, many of the artists that Joyner and her husband, private equity investor Alfred Giuffrida, collect are enjoying increased visibility. Major museums in the United States (and beyond) are reevaluating the artists’ careers and influence through group and solo shows and in new displays of their permanent collections. Institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Chicago Institute of Art, the Tate Modern, and the Museum of Modern Art have showcased these artists in the last half dozen years. Most recently, 70 pieces from the Joyner/Giuffrida Collection were assembled for “Solidary and Solitary,” a traveling exhibition of African-American abstract art that opened at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans in fall 2017. Now on view at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, the exhibit has expanded to more than 100 objects for the remainder of the tour through 2020.

“The goal is to have impact,” Joyner says of the collection, which ranges from abstract and figurative paintings to 3-D sculpture made from 1945 to the present. “We own some things we think are important; we spent 20 years refining our view of who we think is best in class. We’ve gotten a fair amount of buy-in because the art world has endorsed some of the suggestions we’ve put out there.”

“Solidary and Solitary” follows the 2016 book Four Generations: The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection of Abstract Art, which highlighted artists from the collection. The pieces that are featured emanated from each artist’s personal creative journey. Much of it contains little reference to or inspiration from themes of race, social struggle, or migration; rather, some of the artists chose to comment on events of their time or a sense of identity.

Joyner is a founding partner of Avid Partners, a San Francisco firm that provides strategic consulting services for private equity and venture funds. Also a former member of the Obama administration’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, she serves as a trustee of the Getty Trust and the Art Institute of Chicago and is a board member for the Tate and the nonprofit Art + Practice.

Joyner first began buying art in the late 1990s. At the time, she was drawn to pioneering abstract painters such as Norman Lewis, Richard Mayhew, Sam Gilliam, and Jack Whitten.

“There is power in abstract art, not merely as a stylistic mode, but as a personal choice for generations of African American artists,” she says.

Over time, Joyner’s collecting has evolved to include pieces by mid-career American artists such as Mark Bradford, Glenn Ligon, Julie Mehretu, and Lorna Simpson. More recently, she has sought out international artists, such as Oscar Murillo, William Kentridge, and Mikhael Subotzky.

“I buy from the heart. I have a mission statement, because ours is a purpose-driven collection,” she explains. “The ancillary benefit of focus is that it creates a mechanism through which to filter a large and diverse art world. We are not completely inflexible in our approach. For instance, we collect mostly abstract paintings, but there are some three-dimensional objects that compel me. Or Lynette Yiadom-Boakye—she’s a figurative painter, and we’ve collected her deeply,” she says.

Joyner’s connection to the arts was formed at a young age in Chicago, where life revolved around weekly piano and ballet lessons—and art.

“I was the poster child for the value of early education in the visual arts,” she recalls. “I studied on South Michigan Avenue, across from the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC). Every weekend between lessons, I’d visit Seurat’s A Sunday on the Island of La Grande Jatte. When I was six, I never had been to Paris, but I went there every week in that painting.”

Now on the board of AIC, she returns often, visiting the famed pointillist painting regularly.

“Most paintings that seemed astounding and large to us as a child now seem small to us as adults, but not this painting. It’s beautiful. I’m the living result of what simple exposure can do,” she says. “Art should be accessible, because you don’t know what children will take away. It has a transformational and transportational nature.”

As much as Joyner loved visiting the AIC, she was mindful of how few people—neither the ones depicted on the wall nor the artists who had made them—looked like her.

“I noticed it and I puzzled over it for a long time. People, in some way, want to see themselves and, up until recently, there have been lots of exclusions,” she says.

Joyner’s own dream of being an artist was short-lived. She took a year off from her undergraduate studies at Dartmouth in an attempt to launch her ballet career, working as a waitress at a comedy club to pay for auditions and coaching.

“I discovered I was distinctly mediocre,” she recalls. “But I did have in mind that I’d someday be a patron of the arts, even though I didn’t know what that meant at the time.”

Following Dartmouth, Joyner entered HBS, where she developed a vast network of relationships within her cohort and beyond, finding “a holistic, life-changing environment” that provided a set of organizational and analytical skills she used in both her financial career and in life. Among her friends was Reginald Van Lee (MBA 1984), who introduced her to Lowery Stokes Sims, then curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“I remember her saying, ‘Don’t forget to collect art. There are important stories to tell,’” Joyner recalls. “I maintained a relationship with her, and a number of years later, when I was able to collect, I sought her advice and counsel.”

During her second year at HBS, Joyner also read Footsteps, the autobiography of philanthropist Brooke Astor, which would prove influential.

“The notion of being an active patron is important, especially when you have been a fortunate person,” Joyner says. “You do have an obligation to give back, and I had to construct a roadmap to do that.”

She charted a plan, taking a business approach to collecting art, an effort that has averaged 20 to 30 purchases a year. Joyner explains, “I organize our collecting in a way that is consistent with my professional skill set. Along with a mission statement, I have a strategy statement, target list, budget, database, time-and-responsibility schedule, library to support the research, conservators, and a registrar to track the movement and catalogue the provenance of the work.

“We’re self-taught and, though we don’t use advisors, we are not unadvised. I have a network that informs every collecting decision I make,” she says. “I keep my target list taped to a target board on my desk. It’s not very high tech, but I have a pencil and cross it off.”

Along the way, Joyner has collected objects from 1945 to the present. The American artists who comprise her earliest acquisitions were “all mightily overlooked,” she notes.

“They were pioneers of the day who wouldn’t be put in any particular box. They were compelled to make what they wanted to make: art that was controversial in some quarters, and overlooked in others, “says Joyner, who feels the kinship of being an outlier in her collecting choices. “This collection is definitely autobiographical, and there’s a direct parallel to my own experience. Only 25 percent of my HBS class was female. I was often the first or the only. And in the arts, I’ve rarely been in a board room full of diversity.”

She sees change beginning in the arts—on the stage, on the walls, among the patrons—and believes the “Solidary and Solitary” exhibit and tour is helping to make it happen. After exhibtions at the Ogden and Nasher museums, the collection will visit five other museums, many affiliated with universities, including the Snite Museum of Art at Notre Dame, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

“I do believe this to be a teachable moment. Our hope is that the tour, our book, and a related documentary film can serve as a catalyst toward further scholarly research. It’s important that young art historians be able to tell these stories with the benefit of more resources than have been available in the past,” says Joyner. “The most enduring aspect of human existence is culture. I am interested in knowing that a more complete and accurate account of that culture is captured.”

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1984, Section B

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