‘How Do You Build Spaces That Feel Inclusive?’

Erin Christovale talks to Troy Carter about the new generation of black collectors

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BY Erin Christovale | 17 FEB 20 in Frieze Week

Born in West Philadelphia in 1972, Los Angeles-based Troy Carter has managed acts including Eve, Lady Gaga and John Legend over his career. As a collector and patron, he sits on the boards of Art + Practice and LACMA. Curator Erin Christovale spoke to him at his home about art, music and community.

Erin Christovale One of the things that I always ask first is who is your family tree, in terms of artists? If you could consider a larger legacy of creatives that have inspired you, and helped shape your engagement with art? 

Troy Carter Number one would be Mark Bradford. Him growing up in LA and me growing up in Philly meant there were a lot of similarities. Mark understood the navigation of the streets and the fine art world. When I would walk around Leimert Park, there would be the guy selling stuff on the corner speaking to him. And then a few days later, you would see Mark at the LACMA Gala talking to art collectors and billionaires. I also had to navigate two worlds: the streets and corporate America. Being able to have this sort of balance where you can live in both and feel comfortable in both and not lose yourself in either: that was just a real connection between us.

Mark was a good entry point for me into practices that are built around community as well. I didn’t know that existed in the art world until meeting him. From there, I met Theaster Gates and Lauren Halsey. Those would be my three closest in the family tree.

Troy Carter at home with Amoako Boafo, White Hat White Shade, 2019. Courtesy: Troy Carter; photograph: Max Farago 

EC These are artists invested in their communities and who haven’t left people behind after entering the art world. They’re bringing art into the community in really organic ways. It’s important, especially in thinking about black folks and black artists, this notion of giving it back and community building. One thing I really appreciate about you as a collector is that you’re very much also a patron. You’re on the Art + Practice and LACMA boards. Can you talk about what that process was for you and what made you decide to invest in these spaces?

TC Joining the Art + Practice board was just doubling down on my connection with the work that Mark was doing in the community, specifically around foster kids. With LACMA’s board, it was really about representation. I like to go where I feel like I can be the most impactful. On some boards, you have people writing $50-million checks. They didn’t need me for that. Looking at projects like LACMA’s plans for South LA, that’s a project I can contribute to by actually being able to be there physically, so people in the community have other people there that look like them and come from similar backgrounds as them. I just joined the board at CalArts. I just felt like that was a place where I could also have some impact. Just recently, I pulled up to my first board meeting and there was a full-blown protest outside with picket signs and everything else.

EC CalArts students don’t play. 

TC They do not play. So, I walked upstairs and I sat in the meeting for about 30 minutes, and then I excused myself and went down and sat with the protesters and listened to them to understand where they were coming from. Tuition is high right now. 

And for them not to have a heads-up that tuition was going to be creeping up further. After that, we sat down with the other board members and all of us stepped up and basically wrote checks to help the people who wouldn’t have been able to stay in school to actually stay on. Having that level of empathy from somebody who’s been there before, I think that’s what representation is all about. And that’s why I think it’s important to be on those types of boards.

Troy Carter's home, 2019. Courtesy: Troy Carter; photograph: Max Farago 

EC From the educational space to the more local community space to the county museum. I feel like you have all bases covered. Speaking of representation, so many collectors are kind of behind the scenes, which is fine and makes sense, but I like that you’re very outward facing. You’ve done a few talks and you’re very much about ‘Let’s have these conversations in public.’

TC When you think ‘art collector’, I wouldn’t be the guy. But I became fascinated with the entire art ecosystem, the things I love and the things I hate, the things that are broken, what the future looks like – I go so deep that I go all in. When I was a kid, it was music, then later on it was technology, and then I became fascinated with art. I wondered ‘Is there nobody from urban culture that is deeply ingrained in it?’ and started pulling my friends into it. And now it’s started to sprinkle in, you have Swizz Beatz and Jay-Z, Jay Brown and Puff. Still, there is a younger group of individuals who are financially well-off but don’t feel like they have an entry point into the art world and don’t want to ask the wrong questions. They don’t want to be in rooms that feel too stuffy. I’ve been trying to be the on-ramp into the arts for some of my friends in the same way Mark Bradford was for me.

EC This burgeoning group of art collectors, I would argue you all are changing the game and what collecting looks like. As a curator in an institution, it’s super exciting for me to see
this new group making space and taking up space. You all are invested in culture and how culture moves, and knowing that art is a part of that.

TC The art market in general reminds me of hip-hop in the very beginning. We sort of built the hip-hop culture as a counterculture. People didn’t want to accept the value in the music that we were creating. Now it’s like, all of a sudden, people are discovering this value in art by African American visual artists. If you put Nathaniel Mary Quinn and Jay-Z in the same room, there’s a lot in common there. You know what I’m saying? That’s why Swizz has been able to do so well in terms of connecting with artists, because there’s a lot in common there.

With hip-hop, it wasn’t just music. It was fashion, lifestyle, all of these things – and art is a big part of that. Black music and Black art are very close cousins. That’s why I feel like we’re seeing this merger come together. You’re good friends with Jay Brown, and Jay and I, prior to both of us coming into the art world, shared a lot of information about music, about technology deals and investments. Even down to politics. So when I get excited about something, I want to share it with the community. We’ve been doing that in art lately. If one of us gets excited about an artist, we share information about their work and all go in to support them. Recently, me and my crew saw some PDFs from a show that was about to go up. Up-and-coming artist, really cool. Me and a few of my buddies, we bought out the whole show. We said, 'You know what? Before you even hang it, we got you on this.' We look for those artists who we can be there for when they really need it. We want to build a community that’s there early for them as well.

Troy Carter at home with Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Waves and Crests, 2019. Courtesy: Troy Carter; photograph: Max Farago 

EC It’s important because what doesn’t get discussed in the art world is class. We don’t talk about where some of these artists are coming from and how the choice that they make to
be artists can be the riskiest choice of their entire lives. But they can’t help but make art. You understand that in a very personal way. I’m curious, what’s your take on this moment? Why is it that everybody wants artworks by Black artists?

TC We’ve come to this moment where, if you don’t have Black artists or female artists within your orbit – whether you’re a museum, whether you’re a gallery owner or whether you’re a collector – you’re looked upon in a certain way. I saw the same thing happen in tech, where Black companies couldn’t raise money for a long time, women couldn’t raise money for a long time. It moved in to the public spotlight and then, all of a sudden, they were being brought into the fold. I also think people are asking where to find value in terms of growth, looking at collecting as an investment. When you look at the work Sam Gilliam or Jack Whitten might’ve been doing in the 1960s and ’70s and see that the work of their white contemporaries has easily gone into seven and eight figures. Yet, Sam’s work and Jack’s work was just as great, by the way. What’s interesting, though, is where it’s going. Whether it’s businessmen, athletes, musicians – you’re seeing a lot of wealthy African Americans that are beginning to collect. These are people who want to hang black faces in their homes as well. I feel like we’re creating our own platform for artists. So even if the bottom drops out of these artists the community is creating a space where they’re still going to have a home regardless. I’m not going to stop collecting. It’s not a trend for me.

Jonas Wood, Bullets (mini), 2017. Courtesy: Troy Carter; photograph: Max Farago  

EC I want to talk about origins. What was your access to art as a child in West Philly?

TC One of my memories was like those velvet pictures: the ones of a guy with an afro or a beautiful woman. They almost had a glow-in-the-dark little element in the lines. That was our art. I never felt connected to the museums that I visited. The guards in the museum... It almost felt a bit like you were going to a prison. It didn’t feel welcoming, so it’s not a place I felt inspired by.

Now, I could go to Philly and I’ll go to some museums. The Barnes Foundation, it’s probably one of the best museums in the world and it’s a more relaxed environment, but there are still some places that I’ll go and won’t feel connected.

EC Because a lot of museum spaces can feel colonial. 

TC I think it’s this historical thing, as well as a matter of design and space, grandeur and intimidation. How do you build spaces that feel inclusive? We’re not just talking about what’s on the walls and making people feel represented, but also about how you feel energetically when you walk in. If you come from a place where you’re used to being followed around, like if you go into a store and you’re used to being watched, when you go into a museum and you have that guard there, it evokes that same sort of feeling. How are you supposed to relax and really look at a work and feel like you’re not supposed to move on?

Maynard Monrow, Untitled/Conversation (Gold/Black), 2018. Courtesy: Troy Carter; photograph: Max Farago  

EC Can you walk me through some works in your collection that feel like touchstones?

TC This one was a gift from Mark for our first Art + Practice board meeting. These two Tacita Deans we paired with those two Julie Mehretus. They did a show in Paris two years ago for Marian Goodman, it was for Marian’s 90th birthday and they wanted 90 pieces in the exhibition to commemorate her age. But, in order to get to 90, everything came in pairs. I was in Paris for Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s On the Run Tour, woke up in the morning to take a walk and I just saw the paintings in a window. I just got a piece from Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and a piece from Nathaniel Mary Quinn that I really, really like. Nathaniel’s work is called How Come Not Me?; I connected even with the title because, in my very early years, it was just like that: I was trying to make it in life and would see other people succeding.

EC Any surprises?

TC I have a Jonas Wood, whose work I like a lot. Specifically, the piece that I have from him is of Manute Bol and Muggsy Bogues when they were playing for the Bullets. It’s this depiction of the tallest guy in basketball and the shortest guy in basketball, with some sort of Picasso cubist features that are taken from African masks. I’m able to incorporate Jonas’s work into the collection through the lens of an African sensibility. I had Damien Hirst’s butterfly prints, which I just feel are beautiful works, and then some fun Takashi Murakami in the kids’ room. We mix it up a little bit.

Robert Rauschenberg, For Channel 13, 1990. Courtesy: Troy Carter; photograph: Max Farago

EC Finally, who are the artists right now you feel are the innovators — the future of this art world?

TC Kenturah Davis is one of my favorites. I think Vaughn Spann has done some really cool stuff. Lauren Halsey, I love. February James. Derek Fordjour. Samuel Levi Jones. Alfred Conteh.

Main image: Troy Carter's home, 2019. Courtesy: Troy Carter; photograph: Max Farago 

Erin Christovale is the co-founder of Black Radical Imagination and associate curator at the Hammer Museum, based in Los Angeles. She is the curator of 'Collective Constellation: Selections from the Eileen Harris Norton Collection', on view at Art + Practice, Los Angeles through August 1st, 2020.

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