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Home / Arts / Getty Trust gives $30M to digitize Black life photo archive

Getty Trust gives $30M to digitize Black life photo archive

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The Getty Trust announced Thursday it has promised $30 million to digitize more than 4 million prints and negatives from the iconic publications Ebony and Jet documenting Black life in 20th Century America.

The Johnson Publishing Company collection is regarded as one of the most significant and substantial collections of Black American culture.

Now jointly owned by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Getty Research Institute, who are sharing in the collection’s care and processing, the archive will be physically housed at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., 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,” Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, said in a statement. “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.”

Since the purchase, the full collection has remained in Chicago — the city where JPC was headquartered since its inception — for ongoing conservation and select exhibitions and programming. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, a Chicago-based team of archivists, funded by Getty and led by Steven D. Booth of the Black archivists collective, the Blackivists, has been working to assess, catalogue and begin the digitization process of the archive.

While the collection will be housed primarily at the Smithsonian facility in Washington, a portion of the JPC archive pertinent to the history and culture of Chicago is expected to be housed permanently in Chicago.

“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,” Kevin Young, the Andrew W. Mellon director of the NMAAHC, said in a statement. “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.”

The archive documents facets of the Black experience, and explores 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, according to the Getty.

Ebony was founded in 1945, patterned after the format of Life magazine. One of its best-known features was its list of “100 Most Influential Blacks,” which began in 1963.

Billed as “The Weekly Negro News Magazine,” Jet was printed from November 1951 in digest-sized format in all or mostly black-and-white until December 1999.

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