Art Market

8 Black Art Advisors Transforming the Art Market from the Inside

Folasade Ologundudu
Aug 6, 2021 8:20PM

Tariku Shiferaw, installation view of Are You That Somebody (Aaliyah), 2021. Photo by Parker Calvert. Courtesy of the artist, Galerie Lelong & Co., and Anwarii Musa.

As Black artists gain greater recognition, their successes underline how underrepresented Black Americans are in almost all other sectors of the art world. A lack of Black individuals in leadership and ownership roles perpetuates the problem. From galleries and art fairs to residency programs, private museums, and media outlets, so few are owned or operated by members of Black and African diasporic communities. This limits Black art professionals’ ability to control the narrative around the value and mastery of Black art and culture while building equity and wealth in the process. As the market and collectors’ tastes continue to diversify, who will provide opportunities to preserve Black art in the hands of Black collectors who seek to build a legacy of excellence through culture? Black art advisors are poised to play a singular role in this process, with the power to break down neo-colonialist practices that continue to run rampant in the art world.

The celebrated photographer Ming Smith recently told me: “In my day being an artist was like holding hands with poverty.” This is changing for many Black artists, but for others in the industry it may remain true. While Black artists are in positions to build sustainable careers more than ever before, pressing questions linger: How different is the consumption of Black visual art today from the exploitation of Black creativity during the Motown era, the appropriation of Black cultural forms such as dances, hairstyles, and handshakes, or the sale of Black bodies on auction blocks? And what of the slaves and formerly enslaved who created artwork in bondage? How can a society that’s kept Black Americans in a perpetual cycle of poverty and violence over centuries, in a system of power dominated by white men who’ve intentionally erased the contributions of Black ingenuity from the pages of history, right its wrongs?

Jamaal Peterman
You Know It's Coming, 2020
James Fuentes

The seismic shift in recent years in the ways Black art is discussed, displayed, bought, and sold means protecting and preserving the work is critical. The consumption of Black culture and dismissal of Black issues rears its ugly head in many forms, most often in the performative allyship of powerful institutions such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, which landed in hot water last year and canceled an exhibition featuring works—including pieces by Black photographers—purchased through fundraising sales and without asking artists’ permission. Akwugo Emejulu, professor of sociology at the University of Warwick, described this tendency to disregard Black life in a recent Guardian article, stating: “Blackness is still something to be consumed but not necessarily anything to engage with.” By virtue of having a seat at the table, Black art advisors have the power to redirect conversations toward artists who may otherwise go unnoticed, shaping the tone of those discussions, and building important relationships with collectors dedicated to safeguarding Black culture.

Stanley Whitney, Untitled, 2019. © Stanley Whitney. Courtesy of the artist, Lisson Gallery, and Sunserae Smith.

Research has consistently found a lack of diversity in the art world, from museum leaders to gallery representation and institutional programming. One article published by Sotheby’s in 2019, based on analysis of 216 solo shows by African American artists at 30 museums over the course of a decade, showed that nearly a quarter were focused on the same 10 artists. This illustrates how underrepresented the breadth of Black artists’ production is in the larger canon of contemporary American art. The lack of museums acquiring works by African American artists—which accounted for just 2.37% of all acquisitions between 2008 and 2018, according to an investigation by In Other Words and Artnet News—means large swathes of society today and in the future will remain unaware of the immeasurable contributions Black artists have made to the fabric and lifeblood of American culture. The erasure of Black artistic genius and cultural relevance from the conversation of American art history is a practice Black art advisors are working tirelessly to upend.

Today the primary and secondary markets for Black artists’ work are at all-time highs, driving some of the most closely watched sales in the industry. And yet gallery directors, curators, and museum leaders in the U.S. remain disproportionately white. Why do these racist systems of power persist and, more importantly, who is responsible for shifting the balance of power to include the very artists and practitioners who are creating and advocating for Black art and culture? Change must come from within the art world, and Black advisors can play a crucial role. The following eight advisors share their insights and experiences in the business of persevering and championing the legacies of Black art and artists for generations to come.

Kim Heirston

Portrait of Kim Heirston. Photo by Ylva Erevall. Courtesy of Kim Heirston.

Kim Heirston will tell you that, in her 30 years of experience in the art world, being a good listener emerged as an essential component to a successful art advising career. As she sees it, that’s what separates leaders of the pack from the rest and it gives attentive advisors the competitive edge needed to excel. A graduate of Yale’s art history program, Heirston established herself as an independent art advisor in 1992. At the outset, she worked with then-emerging artists who’ve since turned into household names, such as Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. In addition to being a thoughtful listener, Heirston said, “discipline would be another essential skill,” while a tendency to make impulsive decisions and “wing it in the heat of the moment” is detrimental to both artists and clients.

As a woman of color who entered the art world in the late 1980s, Heirston recalled the overwhelming feeling of being virtually alone at the start of her career. Much has changed since then, but Black art advisors are still severely underrepresented in the art world, she said. “The last seismic change I have witnessed has been the growth of power and prominence of women in the market,” she added.

Heirston attributes much of her success to her education. “Art historical knowledge has always been my bedrock,” she explained. “My grounding in art history helps me avoid costly mistakes—it is the potent antidote to trend fever, which can cloud perspective.”

The industry Heirston entered three decades ago is largely unrecognizable in today’s landscape, with newer and more diverse voices advocating for the collection of art by Black artists, and advisors playing bigger roles in the keeping of history and culture. The biggest changes Heirston has seen are found in race, gender, and the use of technology. There are far more women and people of color advising collectors, and new technologies, digital platforms, and online galleries and exhibitions have revolutionized the way art is bought, sold, and experienced.

“In the early 1990s, there were no Black archivists, no Black salespeople, no Black gallery directors, and, amongst the very few practitioners, there were definitely no Black art advisors,” Heirston said. “It is so radically different now! I am so excited when I walk into David Zwirner or Hauser & Wirth or Lehmann Maupin and see diversity from the front desk to the sales force.”

Alaina Simone

Portrait of Alaina Simone. Courtesy of Alaina Simone.

Alaina Simone worked at several galleries, including G. R. N’Namdi Gallery, before climbing up to artist liaison, curator, and board member. She approaches her interdisciplinary career with reverence and respect for the artists she works with and the clients to whom she sells, and draws on her own artistic training. “I grew up taking drawing, painting, piano, and dance classes as a child,” she said.

Simone has many roles, serving as a consultant for artists, galleries, and institutions while also writing, producing, and managing brand collaborations. Ruminating on what initially drew her to the art world, she cited her move to New York in 2006 and her first curatorial effort—a Howardena Pindell exhibition at G. R. N’Namdi in 2006—as pivotal moments in her career. The Pindell show featured the artist’s characteristic, monumental abstractions addressing both deeply personal and political topics. “The show received critically acclaimed reviews and was written up by the New York Times,” she recalled. “After that, I knew I wasn’t going anywhere, and I wanted to stay in New York City and live my dreams.”

Now Simone is focused on breaking down the barriers that have prevented new collectors from accessing art directly from artists and galleries, and speaking honestly about the persistent problems within the industry that are holding back change. “In the end, it is not about Blackness. It’s about ‘greenness,’” she said. “This is a business. The market romanticizes how galleries deal with art consultants. It’s not about community; it is about commodities.”

Too often, Simone said, Black artists leave Black-owned galleries to sign with larger, blue-chip galleries. This creates a destructive cycle for Black gallerists who invest in and nurture artists early on only to see them leave as their careers and markets take off. “It would be nice if more Black creators and consultants were able to benefit from art by Black artists since they are selling our culture in the process,” she said. “Generally, once an artist gets to a certain level, consultants are either marginalized or pushed out of the conversations.”

As Simone sees it, staying committed to Black gallerists and other champions of their work is in the interest of the Black artists who themselves have been systematically left out of the art world and oftentimes erased from the pages of art history. “Artists hold more power than they realize,” she explained.

Karen Comer Lowe

Portrait of Karen Comer Lowe by JLenz, 2021. Courtesy of Karen Comer Lowe.

The newly appointed executive director and chief curator of the Hammonds House Museum in Atlanta, Karen Comer Lowe, has a wealth of experience in the arts beginning with her education at Howard University, where she enrolled initially in hopes of becoming an artist herself. She quickly realized that artmaking wasn’t her strongest suit, but her passion for art was deeply tied to uncovering the history of Black art in the United States. She switched her focus to art history and began to trace the achievements of previous generations of Black artists who’d paved the way for newly emerging artists. “I’ve always yearned to stay connected [to art] in some kind of way,” she said.

The recent appointment is a full-circle moment for Comer Lowe, who worked at the Hammonds House Museum as a program coordinator in 1996. The museum’s permanent collection is an exceptional trove of works by Black artists, counting among its 450 objects pieces by Radcliffe Bailey, Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Kojo Griffin, and Jacob Lawrence.

Long before taking the helm of such an important collection, when she was starting out as an art advisor, Comer Lowe connected with collectors through mutual friends and colleagues. “My very first client I met at an art gallery, and I was introduced through another collector,” she recalled. Attending art events remains a crucial way to build a robust client base, she said, not only exposing advisors to new clients, but also building relationships with artists.

Jurell Cayetano, installation view of Rochelle & Brittany, 2017, in “The South Got Something to Say,” Atlanta, 2021. Photo by Erin Sintos. Courtesy of the artist and Arts and Entertainment (A&E) Atlanta.

For Comer Lowe, another crucial channel for connections is her curatorial practice. She recently organized “The South Got Something to Say,” an outdoor digital exhibition that was on view throughout downtown Atlanta in June and July; in 2009, she and Andrea Barnwell Brownlee co-curated “Undercover: Performing and Transforming Black Female Identities” at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, which included works by Lyle Ashton Harris, Emma Amos, Ellen Gallagher, Renee Cox, Cindy Sherman, and others.

In addition to curating and advising, Comer Lowe has worked as a consultant and educator for galleries, institutions, and private clients, collaborating with artists such as Amy Sherald, Rashid Johnson, Carrie Mae Weems, and Elizabeth Catlett. In her new role as the director of the Hammonds House Museum and its first chief curator, she’ll be a devoted custodian of the institution’s prominent collection of Black art. “I love so much about [what] I do,” she added. “I love working with artists.”

Gardy St. Fleur

Portrait of Gardy St. Fleur by Charlie Rubin. Courtesy of Gardy St. Fleur.

For Gardy St. Fleur, working with big names such as the late Peggy Cooper Cafritz—a prolific collector and patron of Black art—or high-profile clients such as Amar’e Stoudemire, Kyrie Irving, and Misty Copeland is not the most gratifying part of his work. It’s the intimate relationships he’s built with artists throughout his nearly 20-year career that are the most meaningful. “It’s always about the artist for me,” he said. “[When] I came in this space, no one gave me an opportunity. It was the artists that gave me the opportunity.”

The notoriously reclusive advisor has been a stalwart advocate for the stewardship of Black art and its preservation by Black collectors since the beginning of his career. “I’m a very private person. The only people I talk to are artists,” he noted. Through his extensive network of friends and colleagues, St. Fleur has brokered the sales of works by Nathaniel Mary Quinn, Deborah Roberts, Eric Mack, Tschabalala Self, and others.

The Haitian-born, Brooklyn-raised entrepreneur has deep roots in the art world. “My journey started with collecting,” he recalled. “I come from an art collecting family.” Living with art and discovering an artist’s practice is something St. Fleur has done for the greater part of his life. It’s why he is guided by the deeply personal friendships he’s built with artists over the years. “I’m a person that always looks outside of the box,” he said. “I don’t follow the market. I don’t follow trends. I don’t follow what other people say is best.”

He works directly with artists and advises clients on future planning through art acquisitions. Since the beginning of his career, St. Fleur has worked to support artists not only by selling their works but also helping them plan for the future, set up companies, deal with galleries, and make strategic financial investments.

“The best thing that ever happened in my career has been spending time with David [Hammons],” St. Fleur said. “It gave me a whole understanding of why I collect art. This journey with art—it’s spiritual.” He has an indefatigable curiosity and desire to understand and connect deeply with the work. From the outsider artists he admires to conversations with Hammons on the art market today, a sense of discovery guides his work.

In St. Fleur’s eyes, Black artists and Black collectors need to support each other to ensure the stewardship of Black art. Understanding the importance of leaving a legacy behind, he is creating a foundation for future generations to access the excellence of Black art and preserve the cultural traditions and creative expression of African diasporic art and artists.

Anwarii Musa

Portrait of Anwarii Musa by Oliver Covrett. Courtesy of Anwarii Musa.

Anwarii Musa entered the art world at age 19. The Queens native began his journey as an outsider in a center of power thanks to an entry-level position at Sotheby’s, which he secured with the help of a family friend. From interning as an art handler and assisting in the Sotheby’s showroom to later working in the 277-year-old auction house’s contemporary art department, this level of access afforded Musa a rare glimpse into not only the art world but also the $60 billion business undergirding it. Over his tenure with the company, from 2007 to 2012, Musa learned the ins and outs of the art market, building relationships with emerging artists and potential clients along the way.

Citing New York City as a major source of inspiration, Musa understands the value of proximity and exposure to art. “As an advisor, being here makes it much easier to discover new artists and build relationships with galleries,” he said. From the biggest museums and most blue-chip galleries to the smallest, most emerging art spaces and closely watched art schools, New York City is home to many of the most important institutions and businesses at every level of the art industry. “I like to only work with living artists and artists of [a] younger generation,” he added. Through his extensive base of private and corporate clients, he’s placed works by Derrick Adams, Alteronce Gumby, Janiva Ellis, Tariku Shiferaw, and others.

Alteronce Gumby, installation view of Just like water (Just like the water Flint, MI still doesn't have), 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Anwarii Musa.

Since the founding of his firm, ArtMatic, in 2014, Musa has fostered a network of private and public-facing clients by working closely with artists, institutions, and galleries to preserve the work of Black artists. For Musa, building generational wealth and conserving Black art through institutional acquisition are driving motivators behind his activity. “When I came into the business learning about art history and knowing that a lot of these works you see in museums and you see going for crazy amounts of dollars—none of them really come from people of color,” he explained.

Institutional acquisitions especially bring validation to an artist, while also ensuring that new and larger audiences will see their work. One recent museum acquisition Musa helped broker, and the first photograph he’s placed in an institution, was a piece by his childhood friend, the photographer Steve Sweatpants. It was donated to the Museum of the City of New York by well-known collector and chief financial officer at Unanet, Kent Kelley—and represents an important achievement for Sweatpants, who doesn’t have gallery representation. The work captures a significant moment in recent U.S. and New York history, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020. Sweatpants marched, protested, and shot dozens of images following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the racially charged murder of Ahmaud Arbery. Now his indelible record of that vital uprising will be held for posterity by an institution that tells the history of the city and the nation.

Autumn Breon

Damon Davis, installation view of “Darker Gods in The Garden of Low Hanging Heavens” at The Luminary, St. Louis, 2018. Courtesy of the artist, The Luminary, and Autumn Breon.

In 2017, Autumn Breon, a graduate of Stanford University who studied aeronautics and astronautics for NASA, launched Autumn Breon Projects, an art advisory and creative firm working with private collectors, brands, corporations, and institutions. Breon’s winding path to the arts led her from the U.S. to South Africa and throughout the African continent. Living and traveling throughout Africa and attending local art fairs sharpened her understanding of contemporary African art. Before Breon began advising clients, brands, and larger institutions, she was collecting art and building close relationships with artists. For the advisor, relationships are the cornerstone of her profession.

“I get so much joy out of facilitating the materialization of a client’s vision,” she said. “My company manages every step of the process from aesthetic development to acquisition and installation, so sharing the journey is very personal and sacred.”

Breon said her method focuses on curated art programming that “encourages impactful cultural conversations.” Her firm’s activities include sourcing and acquiring art for both private collections and public spaces, as well as producing programming and dialogues around art. “Relationships are integral to my work, and collaboration absolutely fuels my creativity,” she added. “As an entrepreneur and a creative, relationships provide mentorship and opportunities for learning.” Earlier this year, Breon was included in the “What Are You Made Of?” campaign developed for Madewell by Issa Rae’s production company, ColorCreative, and music label, Raedio. The campaign highlighted the diversity of a newer generation of Black creatives including poet Tonya Ingram, novelist Yaa Gyasi, and Breon, drawing attention to her curatorial prowess.

Bobby Rogers, The Blacker the Berry, n.d. Courtesy of the artist and Autumn Breon.

Rakeem Cunningham
Archer, 2021
Ochi Projects

While many advisors advocate for a traditional approach—including a formal educational background in art history—Breon believes that entering the art world through a unique path is equally valuable. She sees being an art advisor as an inherently entrepreneurial activity. Discovering the ins and outs of the business, whether through mentorship, relationship-building, or working for other advisors before branching out on one’s own, provides crucial entry points, especially for Black advisors who were long shut out of the industry.

“Decades ago it was harder to be successful,” she said. The democratization of social media, online catalogs, and the use of digital technologies means aspiring advisors can access more information quickly. Barriers to entry still exist—namely access to education, exposure to the art business, and Black entrepreneurs’ ability to raise seed capital and secure funding—but for Breon it’s paramount to “use everything you have at your disposal to create a business.”

“The challenge of being an art advisor is the combination of responsibility and privilege,” she added. “I think about what James Baldwin said in an interview when he described himself as ‘a witness.’ He compared his cultural role to the role he was raised to fulfill when growing up in the church—bearing witness to the truth. I feel an immense responsibility to bear witness to the truth of Black stories through art. It’s an act of defending and liberating legacies that I’m honored to do.”

Mashonda Tifrere

Portrait of Mashonda Tifrere by Jonathan Mannion. Courtesy of Mashonda Tifrere.

Ask Mashonda Tifrere what she’s passionate about, and her eyes will start to twinkle. The Harlem-raised art advisor finds an endless well of inspiration in the artists she represents and the clients for whom she brokers sales. And, like many advisors, Tifere is also a collector. “When you grow up in New York City, art is a part of your everyday life,” she said. “When I was 19, I bought my first piece of art. It was a photograph by Ansel Adams and I have been hooked since.”

Early in her career, she found herself wanting to help place the right pieces in the right collections. “One of the most rewarding parts of what I do is seeing work hung in someone’s sacred space, becoming part of their home and everyday life,” she said. In her multifaceted approach to art stewardship, the curator, studio manager, and founder of ArtLeadHER and Art Genesis works diligently to stay informed. Like Heirston, Tifrere understands that listening to her clients is a superpower. “I think of myself as a great listener and a person who pays close attention to detail,” she said. “I ask the basic questions: Is this collector building a legacy collection? What’s their budget? And most importantly, what is their intention for the work?”

Lauren Pearce, Blues in my Bedroom, 2021. Courtesy of the artist, Urban Zen, and Mashonda Tifrere.

Amani Lewis, Hello Ms. Kam, 2021. Courtesy of the artist, Urban Zen, and Mashonda Tifrere.

Since she founded ArtLeadHER in 2016, Tifrere has showcased over 100 artists in galleries and art fairs across the country. “Collectors come to me because they know my roots go deep in this industry and I can find them the perfect piece from the perfect artist for their needs and tastes,” she said.

Recent sales she’s brokered include works by emerging and established artists, from Genesis Tramaine and Amani Lewis to Keith Haring and Sam Francis. She keeps the needs of her clients top of mind, she said, “but ultimately [my] goal is to protect the artists and [their] work.”

As for how she discovers new artists, Tifere said social media is secondary to more analog research. “From residency programs to art fairs, word of mouth, introductions, and generally just depending on my network, there are so many talented artists who are out there,” she said.

Sunserae Smith

Portrait of Sunserae Smith by Itaysha Jordan Studios, 2017. Courtesy of Phenomenal Woman and Sunserae Smith.

A relatively new entrant to the advising business, Sunserae Smith began her career in the arts in 2016. She studied architecture at the University of California in Berkeley and public affairs at Columbia University before launching a full-service interior design business in 2014. Surrounded by art and architecture in her youth, the San Francisco native now works as an interior designer and art advisor liaising between artists, estate attorneys, collectors, and contractors. Placing art in clients’ homes is a large part of her business. Through her relationships working in asset management roles with clients in New York, California, and London, Smith assists families with the practicalities of buying art and maintaining their collections. As she put it: “I know what value art can bring to a space.”

Ultimately, she said, art advisors are responsible for the transmission of culture. They guide collectors through history and beyond trends in the market to build lasting collections. “An advisor will help their client to develop a strategy and tailored focus to build an important fine art collection which is rigorous and scholarly,” Smith explained.

Damien Davis, Election Eve (Blackamoors Collage #173), n.d. Courtesy of the artist, LatchKey Gallery, and Sunserae Smith.

Prince Gyasi
Restoration, 2020
Nil Gallery

She considers analysis of the art itself to be integral to her work. She engages with clients through trips to galleries, art fairs, and institutions to explore and discuss ideas. “Advisors are important because they provide education, tailored focus, and direct access to art,” Smith said.

“Great advisors spread powerful stories and images to collectors,” she added. “Advisors have a close understanding of art market trends and help devise an approach to acquisitions that considers both market trends and timeless ideals of beauty.” Works in this vein that she’s placed with collectors include pieces by Derrick Adams, Prince Gyasi, Damien Davis, Jamaal Peterman, and Stanley Whitney.

Access remains difficult for the novice Black collector who is interested in purchasing the work of high-profile Black artists represented by blue-chip galleries. Black art advisors work to cut through still all-too-common practices that exclude collectors of color from purchasing artworks. Undoing unwritten, entrenched industry practices is a slow process, but Smith takes a long view of her work. “I am building long-term relationships with families who not only believe in generational wealth, but also love and appreciate art and supporting the arts,” she said.

Folasade Ologundudu