Kehinde Wiley unveiled his 27-foot-tall response to Richmond’s Confederate monuments in Richmond Tuesday. According to his agreement with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which paid $2 million for the bronze sculpture, he can cast two more full-size editions.
Where would the artist like to see them go?
“It’s a really important question to ask,” Wiley said Tuesday. “Obviously the South has any number of these types of monuments and it’s a really great replacement act or confrontation with history. But it’s also kind of cool to see it in places like New York, where it’s just like, ‘What the fuck is that?’ It’s like, Times Square, it fell out of the sky. And there’s kind of a weirdness to it, which as an artist I kind of enjoy as well.”
Wiley also floated a potential international destination. “You know, Africa, might be interesting. I do a lot of work in West Africa and building art studios there. There’s a lot of promise. I don’t want to give any one location, but I could totally see this being a series of interventions that has legs.”
The director of the gallery that represents Wiley, Sean Kelly, said he’s already been approached by institutions interested in purchasing the second and third editions, which have not yet been cast.
“We really wanted it to be unveiled here as a permanent work before we started any further conversations,” he said. “I’m almost certain they’ll either go to major museums or public institutions — hopefully around the world.”
Wiley said he was inspired to create the work during a 2016 visit to Richmond, where the VMFA was hosting a travelling exhibit of his work. His first monumental-scale sculpture, it depicts a black man with dreadlocks astride a muscular horse, closely mimicking a sculpture of Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart a few blocks from the museum on Richmond’s Monument Avenue.
That fact, says VMFA Director Alex Nyerges, means that “regardless of whether the second and third will ever be cast and installed, no place on the planet is more appropriate or more special than right here on Arthur Ashe Boulevard here in Richmond Virginia.”
As for the $2 million price tag, which the museum has not previously disclosed but made public in response to a Freedom of Information Act Request, Nyerges stressed that the purchase was funded through endowment earnings and private donations rather than tax dollars, as with all the museum’s acquisitions.
The sum compares favorably to other art on the market, Nyerges said, noting that a 10-foot cast balloon animal by Jeff Koons once solid for nearly $60 million. (“And I’ll say this, it’s not even art,” he said of Koons’ work.)
It’s also in line with recent and past spending on Confederate monuments. UNC-Chapel Hill agreed this year to pay the Sons of Confederate Veterans $2.5 million to transport and preserve a Confederate statue known as Silent Sam, which was torn down by protesters in 2018. The original Stuart statue that inspired Wiley, itself a copy of another artist’s work, cost $30,000 in 1907, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch — just south of $1 million in today’s dollars.
Wiley’s “Rumors of War” is the most museum’s most high-profile acquisition by an African American artist and the latest in a more than decade-long effort by museum leaders to increase the diversity of its collections.
The museum says it’s been spending 28 percent of its roughly $7.5 million annual budget for acquisitions on African and African American art. In comparison, Nyerges notes an artnet News investigation found work by African American artists comprised just 2.37 percent of all acquisitions at 30 prominent major museums.
That VMFA’s focus has coincided with a broader shift in the art world that has seen the prominence of black artists rise and the value of their works skyrocket.
“The market for African American art — I’ve been a museum director for almost 40 years and been collecting African American art at my museums for the entire time — has gone from being absolutely completely ignored and a nonexistent market on a national scale to being, in 2019, probably the hottest segment of the market,” Nyerges said. “The artists are finally seeing the benefit in their lifetime. Many have passed on and never saw it. And that’s virtually criminal.”
It’s a shift that’s evident in the VMFA’s own collections, he said: The museum purchased a six-foot-tall oil painting by Wiley in 2006 for $25,000. Today, a similar piece by Wiley would be 30 times more expensive.
Wiley called the museum’s efforts to correct for longstanding underrepresentation and bias important, particular for the next generation of artists it might help inspire.
“As a kid going to art museums, I loved the art,” he said. “But the level of, the ability to relate to it and feel personally invested in the stories was limited. And I think that having work like my own and any number of artists who are now in the collection, it allows young potential artists to walk in there and engage on a personal level. It’s consequential at this point.”