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Black Gallerists Press Forward Despite a Market That Holds Them Back


Art Basel’s online viewing rooms went live on Thursday, presenting 281 of the world’s leading modern and contemporary art galleries.

Not one of them is owned by an African-American.

Despite the increasing attention being paid to black artists — many of whom have been snatched up by mega dealers and seen the prices for their work surge at auction — the number of black-owned galleries representing artists in the United States remains strikingly, stubbornly low. There is only one African-American gallerist in the 176-member Art Dealers Association of America, a professional group.

Now, as the country focuses on systemic racism amid the George Floyd protests, some black dealers say the mostly white art market is long overdue for a radical transformation. “Until we have a seat at the table, this is going to continue to be an exclusive club,” said Karen Jenkins-Johnson of Jenkins Johnson Gallery in San Francisco and Brooklyn. “We are not playing on a level playing field.”

To speak to more than a dozen black gallerists in this country — including dealers who work at white-owned galleries — is to hear weariness at having to explain why there still aren’t more of them. The answers remain the same, namely, less access to capital and exclusion from a rarefied network of connections that includes collectors, dealers, curators, critics and auction houses.

“The art world is still very segregated,” said Myrtis Bedolla, the founding director of Galerie Myrtis in Baltimore. “Galleries are primarily owned by white men.”

It is expensive to run a gallery and to participate in the art fairs, which are where galleries did nearly half their sales in 2019. As with many black-owned businesses in America, black dealers often struggle to get bank loans, and they lack patron support. “Let’s not pretend lending is equal in this country,” said Harry Jones, of Stella Jones Gallery in New Orleans, which was started by his parents, Stella and Harry, in 1996.

In recent years, museums have focused more on developing and hiring curators of color, and New York City has tied its cultural funding to demands for diversity, equity and inclusion.

But the current demonstrations nationwide have highlighted the need for equal opportunity in all fields, including the art market. This month, Artsy, an online forum for buying and selling art, posted a list of 26 black-owned galleries to support,” and some black art executives are seeking other concrete solutions.

“The moment calls for structural action,” said Nicola Vassell, a former director at Pace Gallery who now runs her own advisory, Concept NV. “What better time to be imaginative and inventive than now?”

Ms. Vassell said she is assembling a task force — including the artist Carrie Mae Weems and the curator Helen Molesworth — to design tool kits to help museums and galleries “energize a discourse around race.”

“We want to approach it as equal parts education, policy engineering and communication,” Ms. Vassell added.

She is also organizing a pop-up exhibition in Manhattan on the photographer Ming Smith, whose work would have been featured in the now-postponed July show at the Whitney Museum of American Art about the Kamoinge Workshop, a 1963 collective of black photographers in New York.

To be sure, there are networks of black art professionals that already exist, among them, Entre Nous, a dinner series started a few years ago by Courtney Willis Bair, a director of the Manhattan gallery Mitchell-Innes & Nash.

She is part of the constellation of black dealers — pioneers like June Kelly and Linda Goode Bryant in Manhattan, along with newer gallerists like Arnika Dawkins and September Gray in Atlanta — who have informally supported one another.

But black dealers also say the largely white art market could be doing more, namely helping them qualify for art fairs like Art Basel, where the cost of running a booth can run as high as $100,000.

“We need to be at those fairs, we need to be reaching the upper echelons of the collector community,” said Mr. Jones. “You have to say, ‘We are going to have these allotments to make sure we have these black-owned galleries,’ he added, likening such an effort to affirmative action at colleges.

Marc Spiegler, the global director of Art Basel, noted there are dealers of color in the fair from other countries but added he would look at how to better support black American gallerists. He suggested providing dealers “space in the fairs, putting them on our talks program to shine a light on them, to give them the visibility that they need,” saying that these efforts would help owners “build the networks that they haven’t inherited.”

He also maintained there are not a lot of black-owned galleries seeking entry to the fairs in the first place. “This is not an Art Basel issue. This is an art-world issue,” he said. “There are very few black-owned galleries in America.”

The marginalization is cyclical. Black galleries tend to be excluded from art fairs because they don’t have the track record to be admitted, but they can only gain stronger track records if they can gain exposure at a fair.

“If galleries such as mine are not allowed to participate, then it limits our access to major collectors, it limits our access to museum curators who may not find me in Baltimore,” said Ms. Bedolla.

Ms. Jenkins-Johnson, who was repeatedly rejected by both Frieze and Art Basel, said she ultimately confronted fair executives directly, challenging them to appreciate the black artists she was showing. She was finally admitted to Art Basel Miami Beach in 2015 with the modern artist Roy DeCarava and then in 2017 to its Switzerland edition, where she exhibited the photographer Gordon Parks.

“I’ve had to go in through the back door and fight and fight and fight to get in,” Ms. Jenkins-Johnson said. “It was very frustrating, but I’m stubborn. I know that what I have to offer is of the same substance and quality as those other galleries and artists being accepted.”

She suggests gallerists be more proactive in asking fair executives, “How can I grow so that I will be considered a gallery that will fit within the standards of your fair?” Ms. Jenkins-Johnson said she has recently been advised by Noah Horowitz, Art Basel’s director of the Americas, on how to better position herself for eligibility.

Mariane Ibrahim, who runs a gallery in Chicago, said it is also important to have people of color on fair selection committees; she recently joined one for the Armory Show. “I’m in touch with galleries that are based in Zimbabwe, in Haiti,” she said. “If you have a black dealer in those circles of decisions, you add another voice.”

Some dealers posit that white-owned galleries could be doing more to help their black-owned brethren, along the lines of what David Zwirner did in 2018 when he offered to pay more at art fairs if it would help smaller galleries participate. Recently, he invited smaller galleries onto his online platform during the pandemic (none, however, were black-owned).

“I would hope that some of the galleries that are doing really well would seek to substantively partner with someone like me,” said Lewis Long, of the Harlem-based Long Gallery, “to either market the work or to do some kind of creative programming.”

While many galleries are putting out statements in support of Black Lives Matter, only a handful in Art Basel’s viewing rooms, which run through June 26, seem to be featuring black artists. (Richard Gray, for example, shows McArthur Binion and Theaster Gates; Petzel offers Rodney McMillian and Derek Fordjour; and Yancey Richardson shows Zanele Muholi and Mickalene Thomas.)

“There are larger questions that our society is facing right now about what we need to dismantle, and I think no one really has the answers,” said Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels, a black director of the white-owned Jack Shainman Gallery. “The art world is going to have to sit with some really uncomfortable truths.”

Ebony L. Haynes, the black director of the white-owned Martos Gallery, said galleries need to do more than show black artists. “Do you try to make sure your artists of color are collected by collectors of color? Do you try to reach out to curators?” she said. “If you have a gallery or museum that is full of white bodies, how can you fully speak to the practice and the intent of the work?”

“Don’t just put an artist name on your website and say you’re doing your part to represent artists of color,” she added.

Black-owned galleries also tend to be excluded from professional associations. “To be accepted, you have to be nominated,” Ms. Bedolla said. “But no one has ever approached me to become a member of any of those organizations.” (A spokeswoman for the Art Dealers Association said it is working “to expand and diversify the membership.”)

As black artists have become increasingly popular, white-owned galleries have been able to snatch them up by offering them more money and greater international exposure. (Hauser & Wirth, for example, recently added Lorna Simpson, Amy Sherald, Simone Leigh and Henry Taylor.) This can make the prices for work by black artists prohibitively high for many black collectors.

“Competition for the work now includes white galleries and the cost of entry has increased,” said Sherman K. Edmiston Jr., of Essie Green Galleries in Harlem, which he started in 1979 with his late wife, Essie Green. “The black collector audience is not at that price point.”

Then there is the casual racism that every black dealer encounters day-to-day, such as when visiting a client’s home. “You get a look from the doorman — why aren’t you going through the service door?” said Steve Henry, the black senior director of the white-owned Paula Cooper Gallery in Manhattan.I’ve actually had to say, ‘I’m going for an appointment.’ Or you talk to a collector for months or years on the phone, and then they meet you. They don’t actually say, ‘I didn’t know you were black,’ but you see it.”

Ms. Bellorado-Samuels of Jack Shainman said these insults are “particularly heightened in art fairs, when someone approaches the table and asks every single other white person a question, and you’re the only director.”

However exhaustingly familiar this moment in history feels, most of the black gallerists interviewed say they remain hopeful and determined to move forward. “The secret is in continuing,” said Mr. Edmiston. “The secret is persevering.”

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