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Getty Trust Commits $30 Million to Digitize the Johnson Publishing Company Archive Which Features More Than 4 Million Prints and Negatives That Chronicle 20th Century Black Life

2022-07-31
Singer James Brown is captured off stage around Memphis, Tenn. (Ted Williams/Johnson Publishing Company Archive). Courtesy Ford Foundation, J. Paul Getty Trust, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and Smithsonian Institution.
Singer James Brown is captured off stage around Memphis, Tenn. (Ted Williams/Johnson Publishing Company Archive). Courtesy Ford Foundation, J. Paul Getty Trust, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and Smithsonian Institution.

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 today 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 DC, ensuring its availability for the public to access in the years to come.

"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 Kevin Young, the Andrew W. Mellon Director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. "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 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.

In determining the final disposition of the archive, the consortium was guided by an advisory board of 11 experts led by Dr. Carla Hayden, the 14th Librarian of Congress, representing deep expertise in the fields of film and photography, African American history, and conservation to help determine the proper course of stewardship for the historic collection. The advisory board issued recommendations about the future of the archive, including its permanent home, curatorial planning, opportunities for partnership and community collaboration, and public and scholarly engagement that helped chart a path for the long-term care of the vast catalog of work.

The photographic archives of JPC, which include more than 3 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 over seven decades during a time of intense change, this incomparably rich collection embodies modern Black history of the United States.

From World War II through the Civil Rights Movement and the culture boom of the 1980s and 1990s, the archive reveals myriad facets of the Black experience and allows viewers to consider American life of the last century through the eyes of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, Shirley Chisholm, and scores of Black activists, advocates, artists, athletes, entertainers, poets, politicians, students, writers, and everyday people. Beyond the collection itself, the archive also reveals the processes and editorial practices of the company, founded in the midst of Jim Crow in 1942 by John H. and Eunice W. Johnson, which grew to be the most powerful Black-owned publisher in the United States. 

Press Release