Foundation Consortium Acquires Historic African American Photographic Archive

News Release, Smithsonian Institutes

A consortium of foundations – the Ford Foundation, The J. Paul Getty Trust, the John D., and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation – today acquired the archive of Johnson Publishing Company (JPC), publisher of the iconic Ebony and Jet magazines. The acquisition is pending court approval and the closing of the sale. 

The archive includes more than 4 million prints and negatives comprising the most significant collection of photographs cataloging African American life in the 20th century.  The archive was acquired for $30 million as part of an auction of the assets of JPC in connection with its Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing.

The foundation consortium will donate the archives to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Getty Research Institute, and other leading cultural institutions for the public benefit to ensure the broadest access for the general public and used by scholars, researchers, journalists, and other interested parties.

Speaking after the sale, Ford Foundation president Darren Walker said, “We’re thrilled with the outcome.  This archive is a national treasure and one of tremendous importance to the telling of black history in America.  We felt it was imperative to preserve these images, to give them the exposure they deserve and make them readily available to the public.”

James Cuno, president of The J. Paul Getty Trust noted, “There is no greater repository of the history of the modern African-American experience than this archive. Saving it and making it available to the public is a great honor and a grave responsibility.”

The sale of the archive is a coda to the story of a company of great significance to the African American community. Elizabeth Alexander, president of the Mellon Foundation, added that the partnership to preserve and make publicly available this profound collection of African American history and culture represented a tremendous opportunity.  “The preservation and accessibility of this singular and remarkable photographic archive exemplify Mellon’s values and is of immeasurable service to picturing the vast and varied range of African American life,” said Alexander.

“This iconic and unique collection will stand the test of time, documenting an essential part of American history over an extraordinary period. We are pleased to collaborate to acquire the archive and to preserve it for the benefit of scholars, the public, and future generations forever,” said MacArthur President Julia Stasch.

“The MacArthur Foundation and JPC share a common home town in Chicago and a commitment to preserving and sharing the rich breadth and complete history of the African American narrative,” said John Palfrey, MacArthur’s incoming president.

The archive offers a remarkable insight into every day of life in Black America – up-close and personal pictures of artists, celebrities and leaders who provided much-needed representation in the media. The historic images also capture moments of grief and horrors like the mutilated body of Emmett Till in his coffin and Coretta Scott King at her husband’s funeral.

The consortium will transfer the archive to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Getty Research Institute, pending final disposition. 

“The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture is proud to collaborate with the consortium and the Getty Research Institute on this important endeavor to preserve and share the richness of these iconic publications,” said Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the museum and Secretary of the Smithsonian. “Ebony and Jet magazine helped shape our nation’s history, allowing Americans — of all colors — to see the full panorama of the African American experience. Together, our organizations will ensure these images, stories and the history of these publications are well-preserved and available to the public and future generations.”

In Los Angeles, Mary Miller, director of the Getty Research Institute, which houses one of the largest public libraries of art archives in the world, said, “It’s a privilege for the Getty Research Institute to participate in making the archive accessible to scholars everywhere, and to have the opportunity to work with other institutions, particularly the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, to secure and share this central American narrative. Perhaps the greatest archive of African American life and culture, the Johnson Publishing archive is a unique resource for the interdisciplinary work that grows from visual inquiry at the heart of research at GRI.”

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