Art critic in the New York Times and Kansas City Star compared Dean Mitchell to Vermeer. The Hartford Courant chose Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper.
Private collectors have rewarded his great talent by making him a millionaire.
Mitchell even met with President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama when the couple interviewed artists to paint their official portraits.
So how is it that Dean Mitchell (American; born 1957) remains largely unknown even among art lovers? How is it that few of America’s leading art museums own or exhibit his work?
Mitchell has provocative opinions on the subject, starting with the portraits of the president.
Friends in high places
“I knew I wasn’t going to get (the commission) because Thelma Golden (the Obamas) was a curator,” Mitchell told Forbes.com. “I said, ‘There’s no way I’m going to get this because I didn’t train at the Harlem Studio Museum’ – that’s a big challenge, using an artist who trained among them, that’s a big endorsement.”
For black artists, there is no more powerful kingmaker than the Studio Museum in Harlem and its director and chief curator since 2005, Thelma Golden. The Studio Museum is the world’s leading institution dedicated to the visual arts of artists of African descent, and Golden has been the most influential curator of black artwork for at least 30 years, maybe ever. What the Studio Museum has done to showcase black art and what Golden has done to develop and advance the careers of black artists cannot be emphasized enough.
A number of curators, scholars, collectors and artists would like to line up from Harlem to Midtown Manhattan to defend Golden because they went out of their way to help them personally.
Dean Mitchell wouldn’t be in that line.
âI’ve got a lot of recognition among private collectors who have bought my work around the world, but what I found is that as a color artist, you don’t have any particular institution endorsement. Like at the Studio Museum in Harlem, you’re on your own on my own, âsaid Mitchell. âI was not supported by the studio museum. I don’t have the political machine behind me. “
When Mitchell saw a video of Golden taking Michelle Obama on a tour of the studio museum, Mitchell knew the president’s portraits were gone. The portrait of President Obama is painted by Kehinde Wiley, 2001-2002 Artist-In-Residence of the Studio Museum.
At one time, Mitchell was in the good hands of the studio museum. Under the direction of Lowery Stokes Sims from 2000 to 2005 his work was shown in the exhibition “Black Romantic” from 2002 for the New York Times The art critic Michael Kimmelman compared him to Vermeer.
“I think Dean Mitchell is certainly one of the unsung masters of American art,” Sims said in an interview that was taped as part of an incomplete documentary about Mitchell. “He’s unsung because he doesn’t do anything that the mainstream art world thinks is exciting or appropriate.”
Keep it real
Sims hints at a highly charged criticism of Mitchell working against his wider embrace. Mitchell bluntly confronts the criticism.
âThere is prejudice among people who think that my work looks like white people – I paint like white people; I heard this from black people, âsaid Mitchell.
All of these legendary artists Mitchell has been compared to – Vermeer, Wyeth, Hopper – are all white. Mitchell works realistically like her.
“I know it’s just a lot of prejudice about (my) work style,” said Mitchell. âIt doesn’t look black. It doesn’t look ethnic. It’s a very traditional style of painting. “
Mitchell’s realism deviates dramatically from the more “stylized” depictions of the black figure that Wiley and today’s famous black painters like Kerry James Marshall, Tshabalala Self, Titus Kaphar and Mickalene Thomas – all of whom were artists in the Studio Museum. In-Residence – and whose work now fills museums and New York’s elite galleries.
The black figure is THE hot genre in contemporary art but Mitchell was left out of this conversation despite having addressed it in his work since the 1980s.
âI was never accepted into the so-called ‘black art world’ – and it’s not the blacks who collect – it’s this curatorial world. They feel like I’m reaching out to a white audience based on what my work is like, âsaid Mitchell. âI paint a lot of barns and (rural scenes) because that’s my story. I grew up with tobacco, I grew up in the south. I grew up with a different sensibility from the American Negro (Mitchell’s wording) from the south and my work reflects that. There is something about the stereotypical idea of ââthe educated negro in the north versus the negro in the south. (Southern blacks were) stereotyped by a certain black elite group, that’s a reality. “
If you can do it there
Dean Mitchell grew up poor in rural Quincy, Florida, in the deep south of the state. Black, poor, and rural are hard-to-overcome barriers to entry into any number of fields, not least the arts. While industry likes to ascribe itself to ideas of meritocracy and the Enlightenment, it harbors as many prejudices and prejudices as agriculture, manufacturing or Wall Street.
After graduating from Columbus College of Art and Design in Columbus, Ohio, Mitchell moved to Kansas City to illustrate Hallmark greeting cards. There he took part in painting competitions – and won them. While he received more and more admiration and gallery display, his recognition fell from New York.
âIf you really want to get known, you have to move to New York – to really get recognized for your talent, you have to be in New York,â said Mitchell, who now lives in Tampa, recalling in so many words his career was told, including by Sims.
And although his work has been sold successfully in galleries across the country for decades, his work was never represented in New York, another blow to his endorsement in the eyes of some.
âNew York has the psychological aspect of what people collect under control. Is it really about talent, or is it linked to the flow of trade that money flows into the New York economy? âMitchell asks rhetorically.
Hold on when you let go
“What I’ve had to deal with in the art world is that there are many layers,” said Mitchell. “These layers are woven into the place where you go to school, which institutions, which foundations support you, grant you scholarships – there are many layers in which an artist becomes known, it’s not always about your talent.”
Does Dean Mitchell have a chip on his shoulder?
He also has the financial security to speak his mind regardless of who makes the exceptions and understand that the walls that were placed before his journey to the highest level in the art world are unlikely to be removed after all these years.
“Had I been to Yale or Harvard or an Ivy League school in the Northeast, I would have had an institution behind my name,” says Mitchell. Wiley is a graduate of Yale. âThis is a conversation the art world doesn’t like to have because it’s all tangled up in the curatorial worlds – who’s making the calls and who’s making the judgment that is reality – I’m not part of it, not based on my talent. “
Mitchell’s talent will be shown to visitors for self-assessment at the Daytona, Florida Museum of Art and Science during the Time Honored: The Art of Dean Mitchell exhibition, which runs through September 19, 2021.