Singer James Brown is captured off stage around Memphis, Tenn. (Ted Williams/Johnson Publishing Company Archive). Courtesy Ford Foundation, J. Paul Getty Trust, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and Smithsonian Institution.
Getty Trust Commits $30 Million to Digitize the Johnson Publishing Company Archive Which Features More Than 4 Million Prints and Negatives That Chronicle 20th Century Black Life
A consortium comprising the Ford Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Trust, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, and the Smithsonian Institution, announced today the official transfer of ownership of the acclaimed Johnson Publishing Company (JPC) archive to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) and to the Getty Research Institute, a program of the Getty Trust.
The Getty Trust has committed $30 million in support for the processing and digitization of the archive — an essential step in the critical work of making this preeminent collection available and searchable to scholars, researchers, journalists, and the general public. With work already underway, portions of the archive will be accessible to the public during the ongoing intensive digitization process.
The JPC collection is regarded as one of the most significant and substantial collections of Black American culture in the 20th century, and features images from the iconic publications Ebony and Jet. Though now jointly owned by the two entities who are sharing in the collection’s care and processing, the archive will be physically housed at the NMAAHC in Washington DC, ensuring its availability for the public to access in the years to come.
“The consortium is pleased to assure that this historic treasure is available to be viewed and studied in perpetuity,” said Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. “Both Getty and the Smithsonian have worked diligently for the past three years to safely house the Johnson Publishing archive, begin the digital archiving process and to plan for the archive’s future, so that these vital histories can be freely shared with everyone.”
“For decades, Ebony and Jet documented stories of Black celebrity, fashion, and the Civil Rights Movement and provided an opportunity for African Americans to see an authentic public representation of themselves while also offering the world a fuller view of the African American experience,” said Kevin Young, the Andrew W. Mellon Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. “Our museum is proud that this significant and iconic collection of African American images will be housed in our museum and preserved for generations to study, observe and enjoy.”
Since the consortium’s purchase, the full collection has remained carefully housed in Chicago – the city where JPC was headquartered since its inception – for ongoing conservation and select exhibition and programming. Notwithstanding the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, a Chicago-based team of archivists, funded by Getty and led by Steven D. Booth of the Black archivists collective, the Blackivists, has carefully assessed, cataloged, and begun the digitization process of the archive’s holdings. While the collection will be housed primarily at NMAAHC, a portion of the JPC archive pertinent to the history and culture of Chicago is expected to be housed permanently in Chicago.
In determining the final disposition of the archive, the consortium was guided by an advisory board of 11 experts led by Dr. Carla Hayden, the 14th Librarian of Congress, representing deep expertise in the fields of film and photography, African American history, and conservation to help determine the proper course of stewardship for the historic collection. The advisory board issued recommendations about the future of the archive, including its permanent home, curatorial planning, opportunities for partnership and community collaboration, and public and scholarly engagement that helped chart a path for the long-term care of the vast catalog of work.
“The Johnson Publishing Company Archive captures both the iconic and everyday experience of Black life in 20th century America,” shared Dr. Hayden. “The conservation and digitization of these materials will benefit countless scholars, professionals, and everyday Americans who will be able to access and explore this extraordinary archive.”
The photographic archives of JPC, which include more than 3 million photo negatives and slides, 983,000 photographs, 166,000 contact sheets, and 9,000 audio and visual recordings, represent the most comprehensive collection documenting Black life in the 20th century. Considered staples in Black homes across the nation, Ebony and Jet were the first publications to address the severe lack of Black representation in popular culture and media. Told from diverse perspectives in multiple mediums, including video and music, and documenting the Black experience over seven decades during a time of intense change, this incomparably rich collection embodies modern Black history of the United States.
From World War II through the Civil Rights Movement and the culture boom of the 1980s and 1990s, the archive reveals myriad facets of the Black experience and allows viewers to consider American life of the last century through the eyes of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, Shirley Chisholm, and scores of Black activists, advocates, artists, athletes, entertainers, poets, politicians, students, writers, and everyday people. Beyond the collection itself, the archive also reveals the processes and editorial practices of the company, founded in the midst of Jim Crow in 1942 by John H. and Eunice W. Johnson, which grew to be the most powerful Black-owned publisher in the United States.
Getty Research Institute
The Getty Research Institute, a program of the J. Paul Getty Trust, works to increase knowledge and understanding about art and its history through its research, exhibition, and publication programs. It houses the Getty Library, one of the largest art and architecture libraries in the world. The library collections include almost 900,000 volumes of books, periodicals, and auction catalogues encompassing the history of Western art and related fields in the humanities. The Library’s special collections include rare books, artists’ journals, sketchbooks, architectural drawings and models, photographs, and archival materials. Getty launched the African American Art History Initiative in 2019 to support this field of scholarship. Library access is free to all and many collection materials are available online at getty.edu.
The Ford Foundation is an independent organization working to address inequality and build a future grounded in justice. For more than 85 years, it has supported visionaries on the frontlines of social change worldwide, guided by its mission to strengthen democratic values, reduce poverty and injustice, promote international cooperation, and advance human achievement. Today, with an endowment of $16 billion, the foundation has headquarters in New York and 10 regional offices across Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.
John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation supports creative people, effective institutions, and influential networks building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world. MacArthur is placing a few big bets that truly significant progress is possible on some of the world’s most pressing social challenges, including advancing global climate solutions, decreasing nuclear risk, promoting local justice reform in the U.S., and reducing corruption in Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria. In addition to the MacArthur Fellows Program and the global 100&Change competition, the Foundation continues its historic commitments to the role of journalism in a responsive democracy as well as the vitality of our headquarters city, Chicago.
The Mellon Foundation is the nation’s largest supporter of the arts and humanities. Since 1969, the Foundation has been guided by its core belief that the humanities and arts are essential to human understanding. The Foundation believes that the arts and humanities are where we express our complex humanity, and that everyone deserves the beauty, transcendence, and freedom that can be found there. Through our grants, we seek to build just communities enriched by meaning and empowered by critical thinking, where ideas and imagination can thrive. Learn more at mellon.org.
National Museum of African American History and Culture
Since opening Sept. 24, 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture has welcomed nearly 8 million visitors. Occupying a prominent location next to the Washington Monument on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the nearly 400,000-square-foot museum is the nation’s largest and most comprehensive cultural destination devoted exclusively to exploring, documenting and showcasing the African American story and its impact on American and world history. For more information about the museum, visit nmaahc.si.edu or follow @NMAAHC on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.