June 11, 2023

Usually, Amy Sherald’s gallery takes care of selling her artwork to a collector or institution. But when it came to her portrait of Breonna Taylor – the 26-year-old medical worker who was shot and killed by police in Louisville, Kentucky – Sherald himself wanted to see this particular painting all the way home.

“I had a feeling it should live in the world,” said Sherald. “I started thinking about her hometown and how this painting might be a balm in Gilead for Louisville.”

Sherald believed the painting should be seen by people who died Taylor, as well as by a wider audience. And she intended to use the proceeds from the sale of the painting to advance the cause of social justice.

In an unusual agreement that brought together two museums and two foundations, Sherald managed to achieve these goals for the work originally set out in September last year by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a guest editor for a special, for the cover of Vanity Fair was commissioned to issue about activism.

The 54-inch by 43-inch wide painting will jointly belong to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, and the Speed ​​Museum in Louisville, provided the artwork is acquired by both museums in process.

The institutions bought the painting with $ 1 million donated by the Ford Foundation and the Hearthland Foundation, a new philanthropy that supports social justice initiatives and led by actress Kate Capshaw and her husband, director Steven Spielberg becomes.

Sherald plans to use the funds from the sale of the painting in a program she is creating, under the direction of both foundations, to support higher education students who have an interest in social justice.

The artwork is expected to be included in the Speed ​​Museum’s Taylor-inspired exhibition, Promise, Witness, Remembrance, which opens April 7 and is organized by Allison Glenn, an associate curator at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville has been. Ark., In consultation with Taylor’s family.

Sherald is a member of Speed’s advisory board for the exhibition along with artists Theaster Gates and Hank Willis Thomas, which will feature prominent black artists such as Sam Gilliam, Lorna Simpson, Kerry James Marshall and Glenn Ligon.

“The murder of Breonna Taylor and a year of protests really changed the course of Louisville and we are fighting,” said Stephen Reily, director of Speed. “Our aim and goal is to use the work of great artists to process what we have been through and to find a way forward together.”

Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture who is now the Smithsonian’s secretary, said Sherald’s painting of Taylor “captured both the joy and pain of that moment.”

“This is a story that needs to be told and retold,” added Bunch. “If it’s put into a private collection, it might get a little bit of attention and then it will go away. In this way generations will understand the story of this woman and the story of that time. “

When Coates asked Sherald to paint Taylor, the artist said she saw it as an opportunity to codify the moment. Sherald, 48, who had a heart transplant in 2012, was unable to attend last summer’s protests amid the pandemic. The painting gave her the chance to “have a voice and give Breonna Taylor a voice”.

The commission was only Sherald’s second – the first to catapult her to national notoriety was Michelle Obama’s official portrait, which drew a lot of visitors at the National Portrait Gallery (and is set to go on a five-city tour with the portrait of Kehinde Wiley) by Barack Obama, from June).

It was also the first time Sherald had painted someone who was no longer alive. So she embarked on an intense research process, studying photos of Taylor and speaking to Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer, “so I could get a feel for who she was as a person,” said Sherald, “her sense of style and how she felt beautiful. “

“Your mother said she loved getting dressed,” added Sherald.

Palmer said her daughter was “definitely a diva”.

“You wouldn’t catch her together,” she continued, “she was definitely proud of the way she looked and the way she carried herself.”

Sherald wanted to find a black designer for the dress – she chose Jasmine Elder from JIBRI in Atlanta – and believed that “a black woman painting a portrait of a black woman should be attracted to a black woman”.

The artist photographed an acquaintance who shared Taylor’s body type and wondered what color the dress should be. “I chose turquoise and then a background that was the same color because you could really focus on her face and look into her eyes,” said Sherald, whose subjects looked straight at the viewer. “She has that kind of otherworldly feeling, ethereal, very peaceful.”

The artist’s connection to Taylor was aided by a video Coates sent of Taylor’s double Dutch skipping rope. “I need to hear her giggle,” said Sherald, “and hear her voice.”

Artist LaToya Ruby Frazier shared with Sherald photos she took of the Taylor family for the Vanity Fair edition, including one of the engagement rings that Taylor’s friend Kenneth Walker was about to propose.

“I realized this was a love story too,” said Sherald. “I asked permission to draw this ring on your finger. She didn’t know he had the ring. “

When Palmer saw the finished painting, he was overwhelmed. “I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “It definitely showed her character and who she was.”

Sherald could have sold the painting through her Hauser & Wirth gallery, which will open an exhibition of the artist’s latest work on March 20 at its Los Angeles location, her first solo show on the west coast. But she wanted more direct control of the fate of her Breonna canvas and turned to her friend Capshaw.

Capshaw had felt a kinship with Sherald from afar since reading a 2017 interview with her in the New York Times and realizing they shared passions, including poet David Whyte and public radio host Krista Tippett.

Recognition…via Amy Sherald

“I feel like this is someone I already know,” Capshaw said of the moment. She has since become Sherald’s friend and wanted to help the artist achieve her goals for the Taylor painting. “What does it take to make sure she becomes the author of the story for this portrait?” Said Capshaw. “Whatever it takes to achieve this, I was there.”

“She was the architect,” added Capshaw of Sherald. “It will be what it will be because of her. She serves Breonna as a symbol, as a person, as a story that needs to be told, as a representation of something that is happening and has to stop in this nation. “

Capshaw called Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, who agreed to split the purchase price and provide an additional $ 1.2 million grant to help support Speed’s upcoming Taylor exhibit and free entry and to fund the community programs there.

“This painting and exhibition embodies the idea of ​​art for justice and demonstrates the potential power of art to heal,” said Walker, who played a similar role in 2017 helping art collector Agnes Gund create a painting by Roy Lichtenstein in 1962 to sell to set up a fund that will support criminal justice reform.

Breonna Taylor’s work “shows how an artist can play a transformative role in bringing more justice to a community,” he said.

In an interview with The Times in 2017, when she was getting famous for painting the First Lady, Sherald expressed the hope that one day she could give something back to the struggling youth after she could pay back her school loans and buy her heart medication.

“When I look at these people,” said Sherald at the time, “I see myself.”

As Sherald spoke now, she realized emotionally that she was four years later – after skyrocketing in the art world and selling a work of $ 4.3 million at an estimate of $ 150,000 to $ 200,000 – is finally able to do so.

“I was specifically thinking of a young woman I am now looking after who wants to go to nursing school but does not have the means,” said Sherald. “I really want the money to give someone the opportunity to do something that they might not have been able to do without.”

Palmer said she was moved by the idea that Sherald’s poignant image will live on in large art institutions for the world to look at and learn from. “Never in a million years would I have thought that she would end up in a museum,” said Palmer of her daughter. “I still can’t even find the words. It’s such a blessing because people will come from all over to see them. “