In May 2018, in a buzzing salesroom at Sotheby’s New York, the hammer fell on Kerry James Marshall’s Past Times (1997), a sprawling masterpiece that surveys a contemporary pastoral scene in which black figures are seen picnicking, boating, golfing, and playing croquet. Not long after, the price—$21.1 million, the highest figure for a work by a living African-American artist at auction—set off a fierce debate.
Were black artists suddenly too trendy and recent rises in attention an overcorrection for generations of discrimination and racism in the art world? Could the handsome sum shelled out by the buyer, music mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs, have been better spent? The auction that featured Marshall’s painting also included lots in a special sale that brought in $20.2 million for 42 works by other leading black contemporary artists to benefit a future home for the Studio Museum in Harlem. If Diddy had purchased all of those, he would have established himself as a major contemporary art collector just the same, saved nearly $1 million, and embodied his favorite term, “black excellence,” by ensuring that an African-American institution in his native Harlem would benefit artists and curators of color for generations.
For artists, the Marshall sale—for which the painter himself received nothing—was a stark reminder of a more pressing question: Should visual artists receive royalties from the resale of their works on the secondary market? That question has become of particular interest to the collectors Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean, the hip-hop super producer, and his wife, Alicia Keys, the 15-time Grammy Award–winning R&B artist. Through their holdings amassed in what has come to be known as the Dean Collection, the couple have minted themselves as avid patrons with a mission to build a protective community around the artists they support. Dean, an evangelist on the subject of art he admires, orchestrated the acquisition of the Marshall painting by his longtime music-world colleague and friend. “It took me 10 years for that to happen,” he told me of the time needed to convince Diddy to spend big on important black art. “I was like, ‘This Kerry James Marshall has to stay in the culture.’ ”
Settled in a seat at a low-key Italian restaurant across the street from his sprawling recording studio in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, where stars like Jay-Z, Keys, and Adele record, he remembered the historic sale of the Marshall painting as a “tough wrangle.” Diddy was nervous, as he had never done anything of the sort before, and after the sale, he told Dean, “Don’t expect me to do that every day.” Sipping rosé, the Bronx native laughed and grew defiant. “But we had to do that! It was a monumental moment.” That same night, in a show of solidarity, Dean and Keys snapped up Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s fictive portrait An Assistance of Amber (2017), for $550,000, to add to their collection.
“There are far too many artists of all kinds—musicians, painters, sculptors, dancers—who have unfortunately contributed so much to the culture and have died with nothing,” Keys said when we spoke a few days later. “That’s crazy—it’s not the way it’s supposed to be.” Keys said she believes that society should revere those who contribute greatly to their communities. “As artists [ourselves], we care about living artists and the just due that we receive.” It is with that in mind that she and Dean are continuously thinking about ways to fight for more fairness and sustainability in the market, for themselves and for others. “We just want there to be a beautiful community where everyone gets what they deserve.”
From the start of their romance, visual art has played a central role. On their third date, Dean said, he was running late because he was busy buying his future wife a painting of a piano with paintbrushes for keys by the Russian-born, French Art Deco artist Erté. A couple months later, he organized a small private survey for Keys, for which he flew in works from around the world and presented them in “Alicia’s Erté Experience” at the dealer and collector David Rogath’s gallery in Manhattan. “I hired a private educator on Erté,” Dean recalled, with an accomplished grin. “I had a sushi chef there. We were walking around being educated on every single piece.” Years later, Keys returned the show of affection by throwing him a surprise 30th birthday party at the Guggenheim Museum.
Dean has been a collector since he found early success producing DMX’s 1998 mega hit “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” when he was 18 years old. Early on, he worked on notable albums for Jay-Z, Busta Rhymes, Eve, and Cam’ron, and, when he purchased his first home, he noticed that art mattered to people he admired, like the storied music executive—and formative mentor—Clive Davis. “I wanted something on my walls,” Dean said. “I wanted to impress Clive Davis when he came to my house.” (A Ducati motorcycle signed by Davis is now on proud display in the foyer of the mansion owned by Dean and Keys in Englewood, New Jersey.)
[See a video of Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys giving a tour of their collection.]
In the late ’90s, Dean started visiting galleries and asking questions in an effort to “understand how people were paying $50,000 for a small picture.” He kept at it, even when he didn’t feel welcome. “I started being super-inquisitive, going and coming and going. They wouldn’t ever take me serious. I had braids in my hair, baggy pants on.”
Eventually, dealers took notice when he started buying, including early purchases of works like an Andy Warhol Campbell’s soup can and Dracula, from the Pop artist’s diamond-dusted 1981 “Myths” series. “They’re all masters,” Dean recalled of the artists he bought first. “But it meant nothing, because I didn’t have a connection.”
The situation changed around 2005, when he started engaging artists closer to home. “There was something about flying Ernie Barnes to my house to pick the places he wanted to hang paintings,” Dean said of working with the late African-American artist from Durham, North Carolina, who played professional football before becoming known for works such as Sugar Shack (1971), a surreal scene of black figures dancing beneath banners bearing the names of music greats like “Big Daddy” Rucker and Marvin Gaye.
Delving into black art, Dean realized “there wasn’t enough of us collecting us.” And though he maintains an interest in “all colors and backgrounds,” the Dean Collection focuses on African-American artists because they have for too long been ignored. Before the meteoric rise in interest in the past few years, museum curators rarely organized monographic exhibitions for black artists, and collectors, both private and public, were not known to acquire their work in prominent ways. Black artists who have managed to create meaningful markets have done so largely with support from a small group of patrons, such as A. C. Hudgins, a longtime collector and board member at the Museum of Modern Art, the late Washington, D.C.-based activist and collector Peggy Cooper Cafritz, and other black artists like David Hammons, a devoted collector of Ed Clark’s sweeping abstractions.
In an effort to expand the network, Dean and Keys “doubled down big” on collecting black art. “These artists should get recognition,” Dean said, explaining, “we have to be the energy that we want.”