Reviewing the Studio Museum in Harlem's powerful, yet disappointingly small exhibition of Alma Thomas's work in 2016, Ken Johnson wrote in the New York Times that "A full-scale New York retrospective of Ms. Thomas’s oeuvre is long overdue. Someone with the space and resources should get on it." Three years later, Sukanya Rajaratnam has answered that challenge with the recently opened, bewitchingly-installed, and widely-encompassing show, Alma Thomas: Resurrection at Mnuchin Gallery where she is a Partner.
With a concerted priority to show "artists of color and women; and give them an elevated platform for their work" which she spoke about in last December's edition of The Canvas Monthly, Rajaratnam was first inspired to stage a show of Thomas's work in 2015 after reading an article about how the Obamas hung Resurrection, a vibrant concentric circle work by the artist in the Old Family Dining Room at the White House.
Born in Columbus, Georgia in 1891,Thomas began teaching kindergarten immediately following high school, eventually enrolling at Howard University before becoming the school's first graduate with a degree in fine arts in 1924. It was only after her thirty-five year career as a Washington, D.C. public school art teacher that she fully committed to a career as a painter. And at the age of 80, she became the first African American female artist to have a solo show at The Whitney. When Thomas passed away in 1978, she left no official estate. Most of her works were sold while she was still alive to collectors who gifted them to museums; and any still in her possession upon her death were left to her sister, who in turn gave the paintings to the Columbus Museum in Georgia. There are therefore relatively few– at least that we know of– still in private collections. Drawing from the roughly 20-year period after Thomas retired from teaching and devoted herself full-time to painting, the show at Mnuchin mostly features loans from institutions such as George Washington University, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Howard University, the Miami-Dade County Art in Public Places Trust, and the Tampa Museum of Art.
This of course means that almost all of the works in the show are not for sale. However, as any well-informed reader of The Canvas knows (and if you're reading The Canvas, then you're clearly fairly savvy), just because a show mostly includes works that aren't for sale, it doesn't meant that the exhibition won't end up being a profitable endeavor for the gallery. Through the process of facilitating loans, blue-chip galleries regularly connect sellers with buyers before a show even opens its doors. And with the kind of museum-quality, historically-minded, eye-catching shows that powerful secondary-market galleries such as Mnuchin are uniquely capable of staging, often, the hope is that private collectors will be catalyzed to come out of the woodwork to explore market opportunities for any potentially overlooked gems in their collections. If that's happened yet in this case, Rajaratnam isn't telling (though The Canvas has a strong suspicion it has).
And while increased market value makes for a happy byproduct of a show such as this, Rajaratnam's goal was to ultimately reposition Thomas as an important voice in the Post-War cannon apart from the Color-Field artists she's traditionally been grouped with. Because while Thomas may have been respected and well-regarded in her lifetime, her pioneering nature and the under-appreciated emotionality of her work leaves significant room to further solidify her place in history. For better or worse, that kind of at attention which subsequently galvanize the sedate auction houses, tony Upper East Side collectors, and surrounding art world cognoscenti who control the ups and downs of the market, can really only be delivered via the kind of platform a blue-chip, widely-respected, market-maker gallery such as Mnuchin can provide. And Rajaratnam, her team, and Bob himself deserve a lot of credit for devoting their considerable resources to the cause. Today, September 22nd, is Thomas's birthday. Go see the show at Mnuchin Gallery- open through October 19th. You won't regret it.