George Wells is the CFO of Quip, an online startup, and founder of the Wells Group, a New York consulting firm specializing in finance and accounting for start-ups and midsize businesses, as well as an avid art collector who recently donated notable works from his collection to help support students at Morehouse College.
When I think back to what has really shaped who I am today as a businessman, philanthropist, and mentor, I point to the education I received. My time at Morehouse College in Atlanta and, later, at the Stanford Graduate School of Business opened so many windows of opportunity and helped cultivate the fundamental motivations behind all my endeavors. As Howard Thurman—author, philosopher, theologian, educator, civil rights leader, and Morehouse graduate (class of 1923)—famously said: “Over the heads of students, Morehouse holds a crown that they are challenged to grow tall enough to wear.” Similarly, the Stanford business school’s motto is “change lives, change organizations, change the world.” Both of these messages have stuck in my mind and propelled the thinking behind my career as well as my efforts as a collector and philanthropist to live up to our responsibility to be the change we want to see.
I first entered the art world from a very fortunate vantage point as the chief financial officer of a major international gallery, Lehmann Maupin, and found myself confronted—time and again—by the fact that Black people are grossly underrepresented at almost every level of the art ecosystem. Soon after I started with the gallery, art consumed every facet of my life, including a desire to build my own prominent collection of primarily Black artists. The impetus behind my collection has been to support Black artists and offer greater visibility to those largely overlooked.
In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd last year, I felt powerless and found myself compelled to elevate Black voices beyond the echo chamber of social media. So I decided to donate a portion of my collection—eight artworks valued around $1 million—to Morehouse with the aim of helping the school play a more formative role in diversifying the art world. Educational institutions are the true spaces of change, and it felt important that I help make Morehouse part of the narrative.
There are many ways that philanthropists can support institutions like Morehouse, and they all begin with the ability to envision the desired impact we hope to make and the focus to work toward 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 from Morehouse, Spelman College, and Clark Atlanta University about the numerous paths that one can take to work meaningfully in the field of contemporary 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, gallerist, museum worker, and so on.
We also must not forget that, with the cost of education ever rising, many college students are in need of financial assistance to stay on whatever path they choose. This is why I started the George Wells Scholarship Fund at Morehouse, to help students for whom a little assistance can go a long way. I encourage those looking to get involved in philanthropic giving to consider funding scholarships as a means to make a lasting impact. Every bit counts, and no amount of money is too small.
View of Morehouse College.
Photo AP Photo/Mike Stewart
Over the past few years, there has been an uptick in visibility for Black artists in institutions, galleries, and auctions, as well as Black curators who are being given more prominent roles in major museums. But when one looks at the statistics, it’s all too clear that the needle has only barely begun to move in a meaningful way. Three years ago, a survey of 30 prominent institutions in the United States by In Other Words (a podcast and newsletter produced by an art advisory firm that was acquired by Sotheby’s) and Artnet News found that, since 2008, purchases and gifts of work by African-American artists accounted for a mere 2.3 percent of museum acquisitions. (At four of those museums, acquisitions of the kind accounted for less than 1 percent of total acquisitions over the 10-year period studied.) In the area of exhibition programming, the museums surveyed had dedicated only about 7.6 percent of shows to African-American artists. Furthermore, a 2015 study by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation found that only 16 percent of leadership positions in art museums were held by people of color, and only 4 percent of museum curators at the time were Black.
Mickalene Thomas’s Jet Blue #20, 2021.
©Mickalene Thomas/Courtesy the artist and Yancey Richardson, New York
There are a number of key individuals—artists, gallerists, fellow collectors—who have been driving efforts to make the art world more equitable and have, in many ways, inspired my own collecting, philanthropy, and worldview. Through my previous life as an investment banker at Morgan Stanley, I came to know the Studio Museum in Harlem by attending galas paid for by my employer. The Studio Museum has had a profound impact on young Black artists and curators by providing a platform through its residencies, exhibitions, and permanent collection. Two Black collectors I greatly admire—former professional basketball player Grant Hill and businesswoman Pamela J. Joyner—have built significant collections that include work by some of the most innovative Black artists today. Some of those artists, like Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley, have played pivotal roles in increasing the accessibility and visibility of Black art through their groundbreaking work. And I would be remiss not to mention Mickalene Thomas, who features prominently in my collection and has singularly transformed and inspired the way Black female beauty, desire, power, and resilience are represented.
My consulting firm—the Wells Group of New York—has had the distinct pleasure of working with Thomas’s studio as a business adviser over the years, and the momentum she is seeing in her practice is both deserved and exciting. One of my most recent acquisitions is Thomas’s Jet Blue #20 (2021), a large-scale mixed-media collage painting that was featured this summer in “Mining the Archive,” a group show at Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York curated by Racquel Chevremont (Thomas’s partner in life and work). The exhibition presented the work of nine African-American artists who engage the medium of photo collage to deal with issues related to identity, memory, beauty, and history, and it exemplified the type of exhibition making that is needed and that I hope to continue to support. In addition to the work by Thomas, I acquired another one by Alanna Fields, an emerging artist who is exploring queer identity through her own mixed-media collages. Supporting artists early in their career is one of the most important contributions collectors can make.
Tomashi Jackson in her studio.
Photo Jessica Dalene/Courtesy Watermill Center
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 cohosted a dinner in honor of Tomashi Jackson. While she was featured in the 2019 Whitney Biennial, Jackson remains relatively under the radar—which is shocking, given the significance of the rigorous social commentary embedded in her abstract paintings. But Jackson’s star started to shine a bit brighter with the opening of “The Land Claim,” a survey of her work curated by Corrine Erni for the Parrish Art Museum. The show tells the story of the oppression of Indigenous, Black, and Latinx community members living on the East End of Long Island. And when Kelly Taxter, the Parrish’s recently appointed director, asked me to cohost, I was honored, given the importance of the show and my new relationship with the museum—another of my consulting firm’s clients. It was a magical evening marked by the fact that a Black collector was hosting a dinner celebrating an exhibition devoted to a BIPOC artist—an uncommon occurrence even in New York, where claims of diversity are often touted.
In addition to the work I’m doing with Morehouse, I’m a member of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Painting and Sculpture Committee, and am part of the institution’s Artist Council. With the Whitney, I have the opportunity to participate in discussions about future acquisitions and 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 even more of my history, I worked as an executive producer on Debi Wisch’s feature documentary The Art of Making It, which is premiering at the Hamptons Film Festival this coming October. Wisch produced the 2018 documentary The Price of Everything, which aired on HBO, and her new film investigates 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 just 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 making and revering it invites introspection and observation that can expand all our minds in powerful ways. I believe art can foster creativity across all disciplines, and I hope my partnership with Morehouse College—and others I have the good fortune to work with—can help people both within the arts and well beyond.
A version of this article appears in the October/November 2021 issue of ARTnews, under the title “The Change We Want to See.”