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Art Market

Ghetto Gastro’s Jon Gray on Becoming a Steward of Black Art

Jewels Dodson
Apr 17, 2023 6:01PM

Portrait of Jon Gray. Courtesy of Jon Gray.

Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe
Jon Gray, 2022
Artsy Private Sales

“They call me the ‘dishwasher,’ but the technical role is the architect, and my partners are the engineers.” That is how Jon Gray—of the Bronx-based, Black-owned food collective Ghetto Gastro—describes his role in his dynamic partnership with his long-time friends, Pierre Serrao and Lester Walker, two acclaimed chefs and each a juggernaut in their own right. Gray called in from Los Angeles, where the trio had just created one of their exquisite gastronomic experiences for the Recording Academy’s Black Music Collective, during a glitterati-filled Grammy weekend.

While Gray is pioneering new epicurean frontiers, he is also part of a disruptive cohort of art collectors that have become imperative to the ongoing cultivation of today’s thriving Black art market, and furthermore are key stakeholders in the preservation of Black culture.

Food and art are universal languages; they transcend space and time. Both are catalysts for connection, community, and change. Gray’s early entry into a creative space occurred through food. Gray’s mother worked full-time while attending school at night when he was a child, so there was little time for homemade dinners. Mother and son explored a myriad of cuisines in one of the world’s gastronomic epicenters. This kind of exposure not only opened Gray’s palette for food, but also for the possibilities far beyond.

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“We would frequent this Chinese restaurant called First Wok on 88th Street and Third Avenue. We hit the Indian spot. I remember getting the big puffy bread and the different chutneys; I love the green spice and the mango. We went to the Dominican spot El Malecon uptown,” he said. “I started analyzing menus in a way that was scientific and thinking about ingredients that went together.”

Although he lived in public housing at the time, Gray attended the groundbreaking Central Park East School, where creativity and independent thinking were tenets of a progressive curriculum. He also co-authored his first cookbook as a kindergartner, participating in enrichment programs at the famed 92nd Street Y community center: Gray’s “Ants on a Log” recipe substituted dried cranberries for raisins.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye
Rose Nether Poetry, 2012
Omer Tiroche Gallery

As with food, Gray’s mother also exposed him to New York City’s major art institutions, with weekend excursions to MoMA and The Met. “I grew up with Black art on the walls in my grandmother’s house,” Gray recalled. In 2008, he attended the “30 Americans” exhibition at Art Basel in Miami Beach, which featured the work of 30 African American artists, including Glenn Ligon, Mickalene Thomas, and Nina Chanel Abney. Though the presentation was well received, Gray had an ulterior sense. “I felt like [it was] just for the consumption of other cultures, and it felt extractive. I wanted to learn more about this world to be part of it, and try to mitigate some of the extraction that happens,” he said.

Gray began his ongoing collecting journey in 2010 when he acquired his first piece: a diptych of Al Sharpton and Albert Einstein by Oasa DuVerney. He had discovered DuVerney at an MFA showcase, and connected with her being a Black woman, a mother, and a working artist. “When I think about the thesis of my collection, it’s nourishment, and when I think of nourishment, I think of Black women. I like to support Black and Brown women where I can. You’ll see Black women in the Ghetto Gray custodianship,” Gray told Artsy emphatically.

Although Gray is building a formidable repertoire of artworks, he doesn’t identify himself as a collector. For him, the term is synonymous with colonialism: “I’m not trying to take someone’s soul and put it on the wall. It’s a collaboration; I’m being trusted to be a steward of this work,” Gray said assuredly. He garners work by living artists with whom he has authentic engagement, and his custodianship is fueled by his deep love for communities, creators, and artists. Gray is enchanted when he discovers new elements embedded in a layered, mille-feuille kind of artwork: “It’s a pleasure and privilege to live with art and be reminded of Black genius,” he said.

Currently, the work and practices of Lauren Halsey, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Firelei Báez, and Jennifer Packer all have Gray’s attention. One of the challenges he has encountered while cultivating his repertoire is moderating what his eyes respond to. “When I’m thinking about visuals, I take a pause. My eye likes what it likes, but I also try to reject the retina and find a deeper resonance with the work. Rejecting the retina is a big goal. It’s got to be more than a pretty face: ‘What is this work really saying?’” Gray reflected aloud.

Patrick Alston
Golden Echo: Symphonies of Joy, 2023
Bode
Melissa Joseph
Baby's first Bharatanatyam, 2022
Mindy Solomon Gallery

His collection is filled with works by emerging artists, including Cheyenne Julien, Amoako Boafo, Patrick Alston, Melissa Joseph, and Drew Ham. Part of his affinity for supporting burgeoning artists is to witness their growth, and Gray, too, admits he is emerging: His growth happens in tandem with the artists. “We all come up together and say, ‘Remember when?’” he said with delight. “It’s a beautiful thing.”

After a visit to collector Arthur Lewis’s house, Gray was inspired to treat the walls of his Bronx apartment like a gallery. Despite being a place with a culturally rich history, the Bronx, isn’t so easily associated with contemporary art. Yet as both a steward of art and the architect behind a food collective that intentionally touts the word “ghetto,” and creates unlikely culinary concoctions like “jerk Wagyu beef,” “Black power waffles,” and “caviar and cornbread,” Gray makes a playmate of juxtaposition.

It has been a constant companion throughout his life. As a 20-year-old facing the prospect of serious jail time, he enrolled at the esteemed Fashion Institute of Technology, applying the business acumen he learned in the streets to start his own fashion brand. “I present a certain way. You’ll see me and think a certain thing,” he said. “You don’t see a kid that went to Central Park East and comes from a family of educators.” Gray is one book that shouldn’t be judged by its cover. He so cleverly dances between worlds that are thought to be opposites, often doing what’s been said can’t be done, in places no one ever thought they’d be done in.

Larissa De Jesús Negrón
God Open Doors, 2023
Guts Gallery

In 2020, for example, Gray found himself at an interesting intersection as an artist in residence at The Met through its Civic Practice Partnership Artists in Residence. The program is for creatives with socially minded practices, implementing projects throughout New York City. And in 2021, Ghetto Gastro brought their Bronx Brasserie to Paris’s Place Vendome in a partnered event with Cartier.

“I think the institutions are important because when you think about the preservation and the public consumption of art, a lot of times that public is not us,” Gray said. “It’s about engaging with communities that aren’t often coming to The Met. How do we have these conversations and be inclusive and intentional about talking to audiences that are from cultures that are historically underestimated and underserved?”

Perhaps initially inadvertently, subversion has now become a powerful tool for Gray. With his mere presence—a tall, statuesque, Black man with locked hair, a particular language cadence, and a textured life story—he is often challenging the perceptions that are projected onto him. The margins of elite spheres are so narrow, it doesn’t take much to be deemed an interloper.

Gray doesn’t deviate from Blackness like some of the old guard felt coerced to do. In fact, he leans into it. In being Black and from the Bronx (a place that houses some of the poorest zip codes in the U.S.), Gray holds steadfast to being authentic. He highlights and celebrates places and ideas that for so long have been deemed inadequate and worthless; he quiets shame with resounding empowerment. “I think about the pan-African connection of art and art collecting people leaning into their Blackness that might not have happened 10 years ago,” said Gray. “I think it’s great that people see the possibilities.”

Like so many of his fellow cultural custodians, Gray contests the rhetoric that Black art is a “trend,” or that the Black art boom will bust. He pushes back: “When you look at our history and how long we’ve been excluded, people have said it’s a bubble that’s going to burst, when thinking about the market. But that’s if you’re depending on white validation and white dollars, or dollars outside our community,” he said. “If we build the support internally and we stay true to it and our choice in the market, then it’s not going nowhere because we’re not going anywhere.

“Black artists are born every day. Black collectors are born every day. I think it’s incredible and it’s just getting started.”

Jewels Dodson