The New Innovators: How ArtNoir’s Larry Ossei-Mensah Went From a Bronx-Born Art-World Outsider to the Ultimate Insider

"The first couple years I went to Basel I was staying in the hostel," Ossei-Mensah says.

Larry Ossei-Mensah. Portrait by Aaron Ramey Photography.

The New Innovators is a four-part series of long-form interviews with change-making art-world figures originally featured in Artnet’s Fall 2020 Intelligence Report. Read the first interview here

As a teenager, Larry Ossei-Mensah wanted to be a “music man,” he says. Not quite Puff Daddy, but someone like him. It takes a certain kind of person, who after breaking out of the archetype of what he is “supposed” to be, creates an entirely new one with what he has ultimately become—a curator. 

Here’s the thing about in the art world: despite the calls to action against its continued racism, and the high-profile initiatives in response to it, perhaps the biggest roadblock to achieving real diversity is its insistence on not making people—least of all minorities—feel like they belong there. While the invitation-only nature of the business tends to scare people off—leaving the same-old types cycling in and out—Larry Ossei-Mensah has not only stayed the course but redefined who he can be as a curator within it. 

By working independently, his network is always growing, and he’s influencing the inclusion of artists of color in shows and collections in ways both seen and unseen. In 2013, he co-founded ARTNOIR, an art collective that develops collaborative platforms for cultural producers of color. After growing up in the Bronx and spending part of his 20s abroad (which included a run-in with Quincy Jones, who told him that the secret of life is “seeing the world”), Ossei-Mensah has moved up in the art world. He has graduated from this omnipresent guy around town to a well-established player in the field by understanding the importance of relationship building, and also by never—if he can help it—squandering an opportunity.

I want to hear about you growing up in the Bronx. Did you have any idea then that you’d be working in the arts?

I grew up in the Bronx, and my parents are both from Ghana. My neighborhood is predominantly Black, Caribbean, African, Latinx. I was talking to someone yesterday because I said that something I’m going to be shifting my focus to is Latinx artists, outside of Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Because for me growing up in that environment, I embrace that as part of my identity as much as my African-Ghanian identity.

Growing up in the Bronx, music as a career goal probably seemed less far fetched. Being in sessions with musicians and watching how someone runs the session; it’s just how you would watch a photographer and how they run the shoot.

All of this gave me a sensitivity to the creative process. I had dinner with a friend of mine who’s in A&R, and he wants to get into collecting. He was like, everything you’re telling me is similar to music in terms of discovering the talent. So there’s a particular reason why I lean more toward emerging artists—because there’s a joy in meeting an artist and spending time with them. And your gut brain is like, “Oh, this, this, this is gonna be something.”

Larry Ossei-Mensah shot in his high school art class. Photo: Aaron Ramey Photography.

It’s like you’re tapping into this same skill set, right? 

Exactly. Plus, the Bronx teaches you how to hustle. Being Black in America teaches you how to hustle. I don’t look at it like a dual identity anymore. I’m learning how to embrace the fullness [of it]. I’m blessed to be able to do this work and make a living doing it, but then also, I’m still in my neighborhood being cognizant that there’s a reality beyond this. I’ve begun to question, how do I change not only how I exist in the space but also the benefit of my community?

If you think about ARTNOIR—I’m reading this book now, In the Spirit of Intimacy, and it talks about community from a West African lens—when one person benefits, we all benefit.

In a profile on you in the New York Times, it says that the time you spent in hospitality school in Switzerland is when you found yourself as a Black man.

I was living in the romance of what it is to be a Black American in Europe. I had classmates from India, Greece, Mexico, and China. I’m dealing with the multitude of cultural differences within humanistic commonalities. I’m really just trying to get my backbone as a man.

Larry Ossei-Mensah, photo: Dario Calmese.

It must have been interesting pivoting to the art world, which has a lot of hangups around race.

But Europe also has hangups about race. I basically started shooting photographs and documenting my experience for people in my hood who will never see most of this. And then also trying to just capture stuff for myself.

That’s also where it clicks for me: I’m going to Barcelona, to Italy, seeing the Blackamoor sculptures and not really understanding what that means—what is this history that nobody’s told me? 

That triggered curator Denise Murrell’s research for the show “Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today” too. When she was traveling around in Europe, she would see all these Black people in the paintings and wonder why no one was talking about them.

Right. So that became the seed of my curiosity. And then, when I moved back to New York, I was working on my thesis, and worked at a hotel. And I was still making pictures. And then, in 2008, [some friends offered me] my first formal exhibition. They have a gallery space in the back of a boutique, Harriet’s Alter Ego. So again: community. My first exhibition, which was with Stanley Lumax, is in the back of a boutique. So my community came out, it was my art world. It was cats from Brooklyn and the Bronx—people I grew up with. 

I also joined the Guggenheim’s Young Collectors group. That was my education. I had access to these curators and was able to ask them questions. And I’m going to see shows. And then I met my mentor, Bob Buck, who ran the Brooklyn Museum for 13 years. I randomly met Bob on the train. 

Really? You guys just struck up a conversation on the subway? 

Yeah, I was going to see a show on the Upper East Side. I was just really committed to understanding [the arts] outside of the market. So I had Adam Lindemann‘s book with me, Collecting Contemporary Art, and I’m like looking through it and Bob sits next to me, and he’s like looking at me. And I’m like, what the hell is he looking at? And he’s like, that’s my industry, I’m a curator.

We’re on the 6 train—so wherever we have to go, it’s going to take forever—and we struck up a conversation.

From left: Tom Finkelpearl, Deborah Willis, Wangechi Mutu, and Larry Ossei-Mensah at the American Federation of Arts Gala & Cultural Leadership Awards. Photo by Sylvain Gaboury/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images.

And at this point, you weren’t officially working in the art industry yet?

For a good chunk of my career, I had a job. So, I’m curating, I’m reading, I’m researching, I’m meeting artists and trying to build a rapport.

Bob helped me in terms of going to go see these obscure films at Film Forum together that I would never go see on my own. The greatest gift Bob taught me was separating what I like from what could be important. As a curator, I sometimes show things that I don’t like. And not that it’s bad, but it’s not something I would want to live with. But that artist is offering something that is pertinent either to the exhibition, or just within the zeitgeist. And then making sure you make that distinction because that’s going to help you engage in conversations that you normally wouldn’t, but that are still timely and necessary.

Toyin Ojih Odutola's Winter Dispatch (2016). ©Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Winter Dispatch (2016). ©Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

What kind of job were you holding down at the time?

It’s not something I talk about a lot, but it was temping. And when I wasn’t temping, I was enmeshed in the art world. I was trying to figure out where I fit and dancing around these qualifying questions. 

So I continued to work different jobs—advertising, media. I worked at some tech companies. And during that time, I’m writing. I write about Toyin Ojih Odutola for Arise Magazine, one of the first articles about her work when she was still in graduate school. I’m building a rapport with Hank Willis Thomas—he is one of the first artists I met. Then Derrick Adams, and Mickalene [Thomas], and then Rashid [Johnson]—all the artists that are icons of our moment—I met them in 2008 at Art Basel

You went to Art Basel way back in 2008? 

Yeah, because of the affiliation with the museum, we got all these VIP passes. This is also something I don’t tell a lot of people, the first couple years I went to Basel I was staying in the hostel. I couldn’t afford a hotel.

But I knew I needed that energy. And I learned early on the importance of just being present, and that’s been able to just open up so many opportunities. When Henry Taylor had an opening in LA, I flew myself to LA on my own dime to be in the room—artists remember that.

So in Basel, in the beginning, I’m gonna roll with six [folks] I don’t even know, but I’m comfortable doing that because of when I lived in Switzerland and traveled around Europe, that’s what we did.

How did you introduce yourself at Art Basel? Like what did Mickalene Thomas know you as back then?

I think she knew me as just a guy. It took me a long time to crystallize my identity in the space, because I thought being multi-hyphenate was what was sexy. So I was an artist/tap dancer/writer/producer, and then realized that that actually was confusing people. Noah Horowitz, who runs Art Basel for North and South America, who has become a good friend, one day he was introducing me and he didn’t really know how to frame it.

With Artist Glenn Kaino prepping for the exhibition “When a Pot Finds its Purpose” at Brooklyn Academy of Music in Fall 2019.

Was that like the “aha” moment when you knew how to define yourself?

Yeah, that’s why I just say now I’m just a curator—because curatorial practice is so expansive. When I started writing about art, I realized there aren’t enough platforms for Black and brown artists, so then I started curating exhibitions. Rush [Arts] gave me a number of opportunities to do that. 

Amani Olu, who is also a collaborator and friend that I met at my first Basel, he put me in a show that he was doing called “Young Curators, New Ideas.” And that was in 2012 and, in earnest, that’s when it began for me in terms of curating. 

You started ARTNOIR shortly thereafter, right? 

Yeah, ARTNOIR starts in ‘13, because I’m going up to Storm King and DIA and the Barnes Foundation, and realizing subconsciously I want to share these experiences with people. It started with these field trips; just exploring and wanting to understand more, and realizing that if I’m having these transformational moments in life, other people should be having them too.

So I’m basically curating group shows of artists, starting to collect artists and beginning to build a name. For a long time I was just a guy that was everywhere, that existed in the ether. And the guy who knew everybody. I’d pull up to the Venice Biennale and it’s like damn, this dude is f*cking everywhere. But again, it’s the importance of being present. 

Installation view "Peter Williams: Black Universe" co-curated by Rebecca Mazzei on view at MOCAD until January 10th, 2021. Photo: Tim Johnson.

Installation view of “Peter Williams: Black Universe” co-curated by Rebecca Mazzei on view at MOCAD until January 10th, 2021. Photo: Tim Johnson.

Hearing your backstory, it now seems like way less of a stretch that you started ARTNOIR the way that you did.

For me, the experience working in music, even though I was only an intern, you see the camaraderie that people have with each other. It also is an inflection point in terms of understanding how expansive curatorial practice can be: it could be writing, it could be doing an exhibition, it could be organizing dinners—all the things that I was already beginning to do with ARTNOIR was curatorial practice. 

I have this talk [where I mention] these principles that I’ve developed—so looking at access, thinking about the 16-year-old me and creating a sense of belonging. Because that’s a constant in the art world, where people don’t feel like they belong. So that is within the DNA of ARTNOIR—creating this sense of belonging and love.

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