WASHINGTON and LOS ANGELES – 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 July 28 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, 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 Andrew W. Mellon Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture Kevin Young. “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 known as 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.
The photographic archives of JPC, which include more than three 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 during seven decades during a time of intense change, this incomparably rich collection embodies modern Black history of the United States.