‘They Have a Lot More Control Than They Think’: How Black Art Promoters Are Urging Artists to Look Beyond Traditional White Gatekeepers

Black-run galleries, residencies, and advisories are playing key roles in the careers of emerging Black artists.

Artist Alfred Conteh and advisor Jeremiah Ojo. Photo: Funmi Foster (Out The Frame Photography).

A few years ago, the former Atlanta art dealer Jeremiah Ojo was FaceTiming with an artist when he noticed in the background some figural paintings incorporating African fabrics. Thinking the work had potential, he reached out to the artist who made them, an MFA student by the name of Patrick Quarm.

Ojo arranged for Quarm to show his paintings to a Houston-based collector of African diasporan art. Loading a bunch of work into a rental car, Quarm drove nine hours to the meeting—which ended with him securing his first art patron. 

Since then, Ojo, through Ilèkùn Wa, his art advisory firm catering to artists of African descent, has helped manage Quarm’s career, which includes professional advice and inventory and project management. 

Like a growing number of behind-the-scenes Black art professionals, Ojo is creating an alternate career path for Black artists that isn’t subject to the whims of white gatekeepers who haven’t historically provided them genuine and longstanding support. 

Ojo’s model, which is more like an agent than a dealer, aims to “build an organization that creates sustainability,” he says, for artists like Quarm.

Jeremiah Ojo and artist Patrick Quarm. Photo by Thurston Benda.

Serving Whose Interests?

Artists tend to defer to the market, and may give it more power than it deserves. After years of advising young artists of color on their careers, curator and educator Nico Wheadon noticed that there are “a bunch of myths that circulate around how the current system serves them.”

One of most pervasive is that artists buy into the idea that “you need all these different vetting systems to tell you what your value is,” she says, “and that there’s no other way for you to have that conversation and figure that out for yourself.” 

Given the intensity of interest in Black art today, that same market can also prey on artists’ desire for acceptance. Quarm says he has been approached by more collectors than he can count, and while reluctant to pass up opportunities, he’ll always run a name by Ojo first. During those times, Quarm recalls how Ojo would ask: “What’s your end goal? Do you think this collector will take you closer to that?”

“And I’d say, ‘I don’t think so,’” Quarm says, to which Jeremiah would reply: “Okay, then you have your answer.”

Why should artists continue to vie for acceptance into spaces that have systematically excluded them, Ojo wonders, “when they have the market power and the populace to create and support on their own?”

The New Black Art Incubators 

Two years ago, fresh off of graduating from art school at Pratt, Devin Johnson landed a solo show at a Black-owned gallery in Inglewood, California—and then had no studio to make the work for it. He happened to connect with artist Eilen Itzel Mena and Allen Kwabena Frimpong, a cultural strategist, who together started a studio incubator program in town for Black artists as part of their new creative studio cooperative, Zeal Press. While working on his paintings there, Johnson landed another residency at Black Rock, Kehinde Wiley’s program in Senegal, after which he got picked up by the prestigious Nicodim Gallery in Los Angeles. 

Johnson’s career models a distinct alternative to the old presumption that an emerging artist must be anointed by certain people at certain spaces—often none of which were Black led—in order to “legitimize their worthiness as artists,” says Frimpong. Asking for validation from that market then forced Black artists to comport themselves and their work to match the version of Blackness it’s willing to see. 

2020 NXTHVN curatorial fellow Michelle Phương Ting with her High School Apprentice
Artwork © Titus Kaphar. Photo: John Dennis. Courtesy NXTHVN and Gagosian.

Johnson’s career, on the other hand, has been lined almost entirely with Black dealers, patrons, and supporters. Residencies like Wiley’s Black Rock Senegal and Titus Kaphar’s NXTHVN program in New Haven create spaces where artists don’t need to have explosive market success in order to secure a place among peers “who look like them or are from places like them,” says Ojo. 

Black-owned galleries, like Richard Beavers and Medium Tings in Brooklyn, are another kind of incubator. “I am having transparent conversations about pricing, percentages, and resale,” says Medium Tings owner Stephanie Baptist. “Artists are authors of their own futures. They have a lot more control than they think.”

At these spaces, “the critique is from a guy who lives down the street,” Ojo says, “the guy that understands some of the cultural signals and the code switching in the visual language that is central to the community and needs to be protected internally before heading to Chelsea.”

Plus, these dealers can provide access to Black collectors who have historically been shut out of buying Black art—a scenario that has placed Black artists in the position of “becoming wealth creators for traditionally white institutions and organizations,” says artist Alfred Conteh, who is represented by Kavi Gupta in Chicago along with Galerie Myrtis, a bulwark in Baltimore’s Black community, and has regular shows with September Gray, a Black-owned gallery in Atlanta.

And the support should extend both ways: Black dealers have “as much acumen as anyone, but don’t have access because they are Black,” Conteh says. 

In redrawing these lines of legitimacy, Black artists not only give back to the community, but also re-engage it in a way that reflects the actual value of contemporary art—as opposed to the value made up by people who don’t even understand it in the first place.

“We’re training a whole class of emerging collectors who are beginning to understand African visual literacy,” says Ojo. “When they have disposable income, they see the value in the things that they understand and enjoy,” instead of perpetuating a system where Black artists feel compelled to make work to accommodate a person who can’t see beyond “a Black body with a colorful shirt.”

Devin B. Johnson, Black Madonna (2019). Courtesy of Nicodim.

Devin B. Johnson, Black Madonna (2019). Courtesy of Nicodim.

A Network of Disruptors 

Every two weeks, Ojo has a call with artist Nontsikelelo Mutiti and asks: “What keeps you whole and complete?”

He wants to remind artists that “there’s more than one path,” a fact that is “not understood by many Black cultural workers and producers because they only see what is being traded all the time.”

In that sense, Ojo is “not offering an alternative path,” Mutiti suggests, but “working to correct something that has been thrown out of balance.”

“I have a lot of issues with the broader sense of the way that professional development is often [deployed],” says Wheadon, “because it doesn’t focus on how to navigate this super precarious place where value is super subjective. So what does it mean to actually provide services that don’t promise an outcome that’s not necessarily attainable?”

Wheadon and her husband, Malik Lewis, started bldg.fund, an arts management company for artists of color. Urging artists to think outside of the traditional marketplace, its goal is to “find a solution that isn’t reproducing a system that’s fundamentally flawed,” she says, but to thrive within a wider ecosystem that’s both commercial and non-profit—while also exploring avenues not typically associated with building a career as an artist.

Currently the couple is managing an archival photographic project on Black local history by New Haven-based artist Alison Minto, taking an opportunity to link up a community-based artist with two community-based organizations: Stetson Library and Artspace New Haven.

Recently, a young artist told Wheadon that he was considering changing his work to accommodate a collector, and she said: “Is that the only place you want your work to live?” 

“No,” she recalls him answering. “I want it to live in people’s homes, I want it to live in the community, I want it to live in museums, I want everything.”  

“So then you should make everything,” she replied. “There’s no reason to limit what you’re producing based on a presumed outcome, which isn’t actually true.”

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