Ford, Getty Trust, MacArthur, and Mellon Transfer Ebony and Jet Photo Archives to Getty and Smithsonian
July 28, 2022 | Press Release

Foundation Consortium transfer ownership of Johnson Publishing Company Archive to the Getty Trust and Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture.

Getty Trust commits $30 million to digitize collection containing more than 4 million historic Ebony and Jet photographs that chronicle 20th-century Black life.


  

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.

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.  

“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 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 the 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 Johnson Publishing Company Archive captures both the iconic and everyday experience of Black life in 20th century America,” shared Dr. Hayden. “The conservation and digitization of these materials will benefit countless scholars, professionals, and everyday Americans who will be able to access and explore this extraordinary archive.”

"The MacArthur Foundation and JPC share a hometown in Chicago and a commitment to preserving and sharing the rich breadth and depth of the African American narrative."

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.

“The MacArthur Foundation and JPC share a hometown in Chicago and a commitment to preserving and sharing the rich breadth and depth of the African American narrative,” said MacArthur President John Palfrey. “We are excited that a material portion of this iconic and unique collection will remain here. And we are confident that the NMAAHC and Getty will collaborate with Chicago-based partners to co-steward these resources on behalf of the public and, in particular, the African-American community.”

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