‘I’d Say Our Timing Is Perfect’: Why Veteran Art Advisor and Dealer Nicola Vassell Is Opening Her First Gallery in New York Now

Vassell got her start at Deitch Projects in 2005.

Nicola Vassell. Photo courtesy of Nicola Vassell.

Nicola Vassell has been a leading tastemaker in the New York art world for more than a decade. She’s held director roles at Pace Gallery and Deitch Projects, and helped music producer Swizz Beatz and his wife, Alicia Keys, build a world-class art collection and an art fair, No Commissions, where artists take home 100 percent of their sales.

Now, the curator, writer, and art advisor is at last opening her own gallery.

“This has been a long time coming,” Vassell told Artnet News. “I felt it was the most logical next step in the journey of my professional life.”

Opening on Thursday on Tenth Avenue in Chelsea, Vassell describes the space as “both intimate and expansive—we can do ambitious shows here, but the scale won’t dominate.”

The gallery has three full-time employees and will represent artists, but as of now those are yet to be named. Vassell currently has shows in the works with artists Alvaro Barrington, Fred Eversley, Frida Orupabo, and Wangari Mathenge. She’s also partnering with the Ghetto Film School to enlist its filmmakers to shoot short films about each exhibition at the gallery, starting with Chelsea Odufu.

Vassell settled on the gallery’s location after a long search, considering different neighborhoods across the city. “I was thinking about where the artists want to be,” she said. “I just felt you can’t go wrong with Chelsea!”

Nicola Vassell galley at 138th Tenth Avenue in Chelsea. Photo courtesy of the gallery.

Nicola Vassell galley at 138 Tenth Avenue in Chelsea. Photo courtesy of the gallery.

Inaugurating the space will be a show of work by Ming Smith, the first female African American photographer to have work in the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

“Ming epitomizes so much of the arc of all our stories—as a woman, as a black woman, as a creative person, as a human being,” Vassell said. “I felt the way that she has told the story of life over a five-decade career would almost have a sense of summarizing the life plot at the inception of the new gallery.”

Vassell’s own career in art began in 2005, nine years after she moved to New York from Jamaica to work as a model, and had landed at Deitch Projects. There, Vassell worked closely with artists including Kehinde Wiley, Nari Ward, and Tauba Auerbach. When the gallery closed in 2010, after owner Jeffrey Deitch left to lead the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, Vassell moved on to Pace Gallery.

Just two years later, she set out on her own, founding the art advisory Concept NV. In addition to her work with Swizz Beatz, Vassell curated influential standalone exhibitions of her own, such as “Black Eye,” featuring the likes of Wiley, Hank Willis Thomas, Deana Lawson, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Nick Cave, and Rashid Johnson, among others—and she worked on season two of Empire, the art-filled television show on Fox.

Now, Concept NV’s work will become part of the operations of Vassell’s eponymous gallery,

Ming Smith, Amen Corner Sisters ( Harlem, New York), 1976. Photo courtesy Nicola Vassell.

Ming Smith, Amen Corner Sisters (Harlem, New York) (1976). Photo courtesy Nicola Vassell.

In opening her new space, Vassell joins the ranks of a growing number of Black women gallerists in New York, including veteran dealer June Kelly and Destinee Ross Sutton in Soho.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to really plant a flag. We can hold a space in the canon of dealers,” she said. “We’re here to help fill this void and expand the conversation a little bit more. We’re thinking about how a Black woman dealer can occupy this space in this time given everything that we know is happening in the social landscape and the economics of the art world.”

As New York City continues to reopen, Vassell is optimistic about the gallery’s prospects.

“Nothing is certain, but I’d say our timing is perfect,” she said. “I kept saying to myself, nothing is fixed and one must remain incredibly flexible at all times.”

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