George Wells is the CFO of Quip, an online startup, and founder of the Wells Group, a New York-based consulting firm specializing in finance and accounting for start-ups and midsize businesses, as well as a avid art collector who recently donated outstanding works from his collection to help students at Morehouse College.
When I think back to what really shaped who I am today as a businessman, philanthropist and mentor, I highlight the education I received. My stint at Morehouse College in Atlanta and, later, Stanford Graduate School of Business opened up many opportunities for me and helped cultivate the core motivations behind all of my efforts. As Howard Thurman – author, philosopher, theologian, educator, civil rights leader, and Morehouse graduate (class of 1923) – famously said: “Over the heads of the students, Morehouse holds a wreath that they are challenged. to grow tall enough to wear. Likewise, the motto of Stanford Business School is ‘change lives, change organizations, change the world.’ These two messages have stuck in my mind and have sparked the thinking behind my career as well as my efforts. as a collector and philanthropist to take responsibility for being the change we want to see.
I first entered the art world from a very privileged point of view as the financial director of a large international gallery, Lehmann Maupin, and I have found myself confronted, time and again, with the fact that Blacks are grossly under-represented at almost every level of the artistic ecosystem. Soon after starting with the gallery, art consumed every facet of my life, including the desire to create my own prominent collection of predominantly black artists. The impetus behind my collection has been to support black artists and provide greater visibility to those who are largely ignored.
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder last year, I felt powerless and found myself compelled to raise black voices beyond the echo chamber of social media. So I decided to donate part of my collection – eight works worth around $ 1 million – to Morehouse with the aim of helping the school play a more educational role in diversification. from the art world. Educational institutions are the real spaces for change, and it seemed important to me that I help make Morehouse part of the story.
Philanthropists can support institutions like Morehouse in many ways, and they all start with the ability to envision the desired impact we hope to have and the focus on a sustained commitment to give space to black narratives. As part of a career week organized by the Atlanta University Center Art History + Curatorial Studies Collective, I recently spoke to students at Morehouse, Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University about the many paths one can take to work significantly in the field of contemporary art. art. It is important for young people to understand that their role in making substantive change can take many forms, including artist, curator, art historian, collector, gallery owner, museum employee, etc.
We should also not forget that with the constant increase in the cost of education, many students need financial assistance to stay on the path of their choice. That’s why I created the George Wells Scholarship Fund at Morehouse, to help students where a little help can go a long way. I encourage those who wish to get involved in philanthropic giving to consider funding scholarships as a way to have a lasting impact. Every action counts and no amount of money is too small.
During the last years, there has been an increase in the visibility of black artists in institutions, galleries and auctions, as well as black curators who are given more prominent roles in major museums. But when you look at the statistics, it’s all too clear that the needle has barely started to move in any meaningful way. Three years ago, a survey of 30 major institutions in the United States by In other words (a podcast and newsletter produced by an art consultancy company acquired by Sotheby’s) and Artnet news found that since 2008, purchases and donations of works by African-American artists represented only 2.3 percent of museum acquisitions. (In four of these museums, acquisitions of this type represented less than 1% of total acquisitions during the 10-year period studied.) In the area of exhibition programming, the museums surveyed had devoted only about 7.6% of exhibitions to American artists. In addition, a 2015 study by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation found that only 16% of leadership positions in art museums were held by people of color, and only 4% of museum curators at the time. were black.
There are a number of key people – artists, gallery owners, fellow collectors – who have led efforts to make the art world fairer and have, in many ways, inspired my own collection, my philanthropy and my vision. of the world. During my previous life as an investment banker at Morgan Stanley, I discovered the Studio Museum in Harlem while attending galas paid by my employer. The Studio Museum has had a profound impact on young black artists and curators by providing a platform through its residences, exhibits and permanent collection. Two black collectors whom I very much admire – former professional basketball player Grant Hill and businesswoman Pamela J. Joyner – have built up significant collections that include works by some of today’s most innovative black artists. . Some of these artists, like Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley, have played a central role in increasing the accessibility and visibility of black art through their groundbreaking work. And I would be remiss if I did not mention Mickalene Thomas, who features prominently in my collection and has singularly transformed and inspired the way the beauty, desire, power and resilience of black women is represented.
My consulting firm, The Wells Group of New York, has had the pleasure of working with Thomas’ studio as a business advisor over the years, and the momentum she sees in her practice is both deserved and exciting. One of my most recent acquisitions is that of Thomas Jet Blue # 20 (2021), a large-scale mixed media collage that was featured this summer in ‘Mining the Archive’, a group show at the Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York curated by Racquel Chevremont (Thomas’ life partner and job). The exhibition showcased the work of nine African-American artists who use the medium of photo collage to address issues related to identity, memory, beauty and history, and it exemplified the type of making exhibitions which is necessary and which I hope to continue. to support. In addition to Thomas’ work, I acquired another from Alanna Fields, an emerging artist who explores queer identity through her own mixed media collages. Supporting artists early in their careers is one of the most important contributions collectors can make.
My gift to Morehouse is just the beginning of my own efforts in the mission to support, engage and celebrate artists of color. This summer, at my home in Bridgehampton, New York, I co-hosted a dinner in honor of Tomashi Jackson. While she was featured at the 2019 Whitney Biennial, Jackson remains relatively under the radar, which is shocking, given the importance of the rigorous social commentary embedded in her abstract paintings. But Jackson’s star started to shine a little brighter with the opening of “The Land Claim”, a study of her work curated by Corrine Erni for the Parrish Art Museum. The show tells the story of the oppression of members of the Indigenous, Black and Latin communities living in the East End of Long Island. And when Kelly Taxter, the recently appointed director of the Parrish, asked me to co-host, I was honored, given the importance of the exhibit and my new relationship with the museum, another client of my firm. of advice. It was a magical evening marked by a black collector hosting a dinner celebrating an exhibition dedicated to a BIPOC artist – a rare event even in New York City, where claims of diversity are often touted.
In addition to the work I do with Morehouse, I am a member of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s painting and sculpture committee, and I am a member of the institution’s artist council. With the Whitney, I have the opportunity to participate in discussions about future acquisitions and to advocate for artists whose work deserves to be seen. We cannot forget the importance of bringing diverse voices into existing institutions, which is why I decided to deepen my relationship with a museum committed to shaping the history of American art. And to share my story even more, I worked as an executive producer on Debi Wisch’s feature documentary The art of doing it, which will premiere at the Hamptons Film Festival next October. Wisch produced the 2018 documentary The price of everything, which aired on HBO, and her new film examines how members of the ecosystem can make the art world a more viable place for a broader set of artists like Jenna Gribbon, Chris Watts and Gisela McDaniel, to name a few.
With the right support from institutional, academic and collecting communities, artists and those who appreciate them are able to provide a truly unique lens through which to see the world. Art informs and inspires, and the creativity inherent in its creation and reverence invites introspection and observation that can powerfully expand all of our minds. I believe that art can foster creativity in all disciplines, and I hope that my partnership with Morehouse College – and others I have the chance to work with – can help people both in the field. of the arts and beyond.