Black Artists and Gallerists on What a More Inclusive Art World Would Look Like
In Boston, the intersection of Washington and State Streets is sacred ground. In Sanford, Florida, the intersection of Retreat View Circle and Twin Trees Lane is sacred ground. In Minneapolis, the intersection of East 38th Street and Chicago Avenue South is sacred ground.
Separated by time and distance but intrinsically linked through the insidious nature of white supremacy in the United States, these intersections are markers of the country’s marriage of Black blood and death. Woven into the social consciousness, the killings of Crispus Attucks, Trayvon Martin, and George Floyd ushered in reckonings with capitalist industries that built empires on the accumulation of wealth and power from slavery. America’s principles of ownership and exclusion are intrinsic to the construction of the art industry’s capitalist value system, where those in power can make history through buying and selling. As the art world’s power brokers attempt to rectify their wrongs and plead for salvation from those who question the predominantly white, upper-class makeup of their ranks, the question of what, exactly, it would take to create more diversity and equity in the U.S. art world could be refined into: “What systemic barriers have been implemented to ensure diversity and equity do not thrive in the art world?”
Installation view of “Four as One and Three, four separate and overlapping solo exhibitions by Joshua Citarella, Tatiana Kronberg, Lap-See Lam, Anu Vahtra,” 2018. Courtesy of Gallery Kendra Jayne Patrick.
It’s a world largely sustained by a small group of influential, predominantly white people who have shaped art institutions in the United States. Untouched by the nation’s civil rights legislation, which attempted to correct centuries of racialized discrimination, the mainstream art world fought against pioneering Black dealers like Alonzo and Dale Davis—founders of Los Angeles’s Brockman Gallery—and Linda Goode Bryant, who created New York’s Just Above Midtown. Bryant understood her gallery’s position in the art world’s power structures all too well, describing a “hostile environment for Black folks” in a 2018 interview with T Magazine. She positioned her gallery as an entry point into the industry’s typically closed circuit, from which artists of color were historically excluded. Bryant, the Davis brothers, and others from their generation achieved success in the face of adversity and acquired a “seat at the table” in the art world.
In recent years, the ramifications of the Black Lives Matter movement have been felt by the country’s largest institutions. In response, a minority of members and stakeholders in the art world have pledged to increase diversity through initiatives like allocating funds to acquire work by Black artists, removing works by white artists from museum galleries in favor of more work by women and artists of color, hiring consultant curators, and making efforts to draw attention to the generations of artists who were ignored in favor of maintaining an overwhelmingly white canon. The overall numbers of Black museum curators and educators have increased, but in 2018, 80 percent of museum leadership positions were still occupied by white people, according to a survey published by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Spaces of belonging
Dawn Okoro, installation view of “Punk Noir” at the George Washington Carver Museum, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.
“Institutions have released [Black Lives Matter] statements, but time will tell whether they were genuine or performative,” said Dawn Okoro, a Nigerian-born artist based in Austin, Texas. “The majority of support [for my work] has been from Black institutions like the George Washington Carver Museum in Austin, Black artists, and Black curators as well. It’s important for them to have positions in leadership, because there aren’t many right now.”
Okoro, who previously studied law, has forged their path in a predominantly white cisgender male space. For their recent traveling exhibition, “Punk Noir,” they depicted Black artists, musicians, and writers who represent the punk spirit of truthfulness and resistance. Okoro’s work encourages other Black artists to remain authentic to themselves in an industry that too often constrains them with self-doubt and isolation, a sentiment they felt at their first show in Austin. Subsequently, the George Washington Carver Museum gave them space for their art to be shown and appreciated. “I created a space where I felt that I belonged,” Okoro said, “a space where others that felt left out and feel like they belonged as well.”
Exterior view of September Gray Fine Art Gallery. Courtesy of September Gray Fine Art Gallery.
Unlike their white-owned and -led counterparts, Black-owned galleries and Black-run institutions operate as educational and communal spaces for audiences of color who have historically been denied the formal education and training considered essential to meaningfully engage with art. Through newsletters, art talks, Facebook groups, and a partnership with Spelman College, September Gray is adamant about creating a space that is welcoming—not intimidating—at her eponymous Atlanta gallery.
“[Galleries] are part of that community and members should understand what you do instead of asking about admissions costs and dress codes,” Gray said. “For years, Black galleries have had conversations about representation in cultural institutions and museums, and the need for the boards, trustees, and people that have money to reflect society and our community, instead of one or two Black [members] to check the [diversity] box.”
The limitations of diversity and equity initiatives, and gestures toward inclusion, are evident in the treatment of Black people within art institutions. In 2014, Carrie Mae Weems became the first Black woman to have a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum. In 2017, Solange Knowles performed “An Ode To,” an interdisciplinary installation and performance of her Grammy Award–winning album A Seat at the Table in the museum’s rotunda. In 2019, as the Guggenheim marked its 60th anniversary, Chaédria LaBouvier curated “Basquiat’s ‘Defacement’: The Untold Story”—making her the first Black woman to curate an exhibition at the museum.
Last month, LaBouvier described her time at the institution as the “most racist professional experience of my life” on Twitter, after the museum’s official account tweeted a message of solidarity with the family of George Floyd for #BlackoutTuesday. LaBouvier, a scholar of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work, detailed her interactions with Nancy Spector, the museum’s artistic director and chief curator, who attempted to co-opt LaBouvier’s scholarship, threatened to withhold payment, and declined requests from press who sought to cover the exhibition, according to LaBouvier. In a statement to Essence, the Guggenheim said: “The exhibition was one of the first programmatic efforts for the museum to confront its own role in our nation’s patterns of injustice, an effort that we are continuing to work on with a critical examination of inherent bias in both the workplace and in art history.” The Guggenheim has since hired a law firm to conduct an independent investigation into its practices during LaBouvier’s exhibition.
Black artists, curators, and gallerists are working against the art world’s systemic racism and tokenism.
In late May, Taylor Brandon, a former marketing associate at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, criticized her former employer for an Instagram post made in response to the uprisings following George Floyd’s killing. The post featured Glenn Ligon’s painting We’re Black and Strong (I) (1996) accompanied by a quote from the artist: “Why do we need to raise our hands in that symbolic space again and again and again to be present in this country?” Brandon wrote: “Using black artist/art to make a statement that needs to come from the institution. You don’t only get to amplify black artists during a surge of black mourning and pain. Having black people on your homepage/feed is not enough.” The museum quickly deleted the comment.
In an interview with Hyperallergic, Brandon explained her comment. “Ever since I started working at SFMOMA, I have watched leadership tokenize their non-white employees all while trying to silence them by implying that their concerns, frustrations, and experiences are not real,” she said. “The events that transpired regarding the Instagram post highlights leadership’s inability to recognize the racism within museums amongst employees and donors.” In recent weeks, five senior leaders have resigned from SFMOMA amid a growing chorus of accusations of institutional racism.
In the midst of this cultural and political moment, Black artists, curators, and gallerists are working against the art world’s systemic racism and tokenism, which aim to offer one or two individuals a “seat at the table” under the guise of diversity and equity. They are working to broaden the art world into an inclusionary space where Blackness is not regulated to themed exhibitions or Black History Month programming, where their presence is normalized, and where racialized experience is not presented as monolithic, but highlighted for its rich plurality.
Alteronce Gumby, installation view of When the Nightmare Comes - I Believe at Long Gallery 2020. Courtesy of Long Gallery, Harlem.
A growing cohort of Black artists and Black art dealers—some of whom have had or worked with galleries for years, others of whom organize projects on a roving basis—is filling out a picture of what a more inclusionary art world might resemble. Gallerists like September Gray, Lewis Long of Long Gallery Harlem, and Kendra Jayne Patrick of New York’s itinerant Kendra Jayne Patrick Gallery, as well as fine artists Okoro and Gianni Lee, are following the trail blazed decades ago by Bryant and the Davis brothers. This new generation is not classified by age or region, but unified through a collective belief that their contributions to contemporary art cannot be regulated to one seat at the table—that the complexity of Black art cannot be constricted.
“The Black gallerist’s gaze is not only valuable as applied to Black art, but...provides an incomparable perspective on all American art and symbolism.”
Encouraged by their peers, Long and Gray opened their respective galleries to provide platforms for emerging artists who lack the space to show, and to offer adequate representation for established artists to grow their practices and have their work acquired by institutions and major private collections. “Over time, I deliberately focused on providing opportunity to under-represented aspiring artists to be shown in full splendor at their first New York show,” Long said. “Full splendor,” for Long, includes full print catalogs, critical reviews in the press, and “placement of work with collectors and institutions who wouldn’t flip the work.”
Too often, the commodification of Black artists and tokenization of Black galleries reduces their multidimensionality to a monolith. “It seems that many art viewers don’t expect diverse, complex, and ambitious programming if the gallerist herself is Black,” Jayne Patrick said. “But my program, especially in today’s strained cultural climate, directly supports the extension of American democracy to its Black citizens because it unites a racially and formally diverse group of artists under the banner of the 21st-century radical. The artists, exhibitions, and ideas on view together communicate that the Black gallerist’s gaze is not only valuable as applied to Black art, but that it provides an incomparable perspective on all American art and symbolism.”
Representation and responsibility
View of Gianni Lee’s studio. Courtesy of the artist.
In lieu of taking responsibility for their roles in systemic violence and exclusion, too many galleries and institutions highlight the work of Black artists and their supporters in strategic moments to signal diversity or solidarity with struggles for Black lives. Yet their efforts of performative activism are often underwritten by individuals in positions of power (collectors, trustees, board members) whose intergenerational wealth benefited from centuries of slave labor. In order for contemporary art to evolve, those in power must address their flagrant and longstanding disregard for Black culture, Black galleries, and Black lives. They must also understand that Black artists are not solely making work aligned with the trends of a given political moment.
It’s not the responsibility of Black professionals in the arts to educate those in positions of power and wealth about the importance of representation.
“If you don’t represent what they feel as though you should represent, you’re no longer offered an invitation to the room or seat at the table,” said the artist Gianni Lee. “If you don’t speak their language, they won’t let you in.”
Lee’s belief in the accessibility of art is evidenced by his signature skeleton figures, which he has created on the streets of New York City and his hometown of Philadelphia, and in collaborations with Audi, Nike, Levi’s, Gucci, and more. Following the cancellations of physical exhibitions due to COVID-19, Lee elected to create an online gallery, Weaponize Gallery, for Black artists to showcase the spectrum of Blackness.
Qualeasha Wood, See God in the Mirror, 2019). Courtesy of Gallery Kendra Jayne Patrick.
Dawn Okoro, Word is Bond, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.
Black artists, curators, and gallery owners cannot express the wholeness of their selves and sustainably contribute to the art world without a multi-pronged approach that, instead of focusing on their trauma, centers on their comfort and contributions to contemporary art. That’s going to require sustained, systemic change: for the art press’s coverage of Black dealers to highlight their love of art instead of their small numbers; for institutions to train and fund opportunities for Black professionals in the arts; for museums to implement cross-cultural programming based on the demographics of their communities; for Black artists to be sustainably supported and not only commissioned for #BlackLivesMatter campaigns.
It’s not the responsibility of Black professionals in the arts to educate those in positions of power and wealth about the importance of representation. It’s the duty of those with power to be aware of the ramifications of bias, anti-Blackness, and white supremacy in order to redistribute resources to ensure long-term diversity and equity in the art world.
Header Image: Portrait of Gianni Lee Courtesy of the artist.
Thumbnail Image: Portrait of Dawn Okoro at her solo exhibition, “Punk Noir,” at the George Washington Carver Museum in Austin, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.