At Some of New York’s Most Renowned Galleries, Black Women Take the Helm
Building on a long legacy, a growing community of Black women are guiding the city’s established and blue-chip names into their new eras
Building on a long legacy, a growing community of Black women are guiding the city’s established and blue-chip names into their new eras
This September, the internationally recognized mega-gallery White Cube arrives in New York at a multi-level space on Madison Avenue on the Upper East Side. Marking 30 years since it first opened in a small room in London, this next era of the gallery will be shaped by newly appointed US Senior Director, the dynamic Courtney Willis Blair.
A curator, writer and formerly Partner and Senior Director at the gallery Mitchell-Innes & Nash, Willis Blair will lead on White Cube’s New York programming and overall US strategy. At her former gallery, she brought Gideon Appah and Jacolby Satterwhite to the roster, and curated stellar shows, including 'Embodiment', a group exhibition featuring splashy and sensual works by Cheyenne Julien and Jonathan Lyndon Chase. She’s written for notable art publications and edited books on artists including Keltie Ferris, General Idea and Pope. L. Through Entre Nous, a supper club for Black women in the art world, which Willis Blair founded, she has fostered an intimate network and community of peers: including the four other accomplished dealers interviewed in this feature.
Black women are flourishing and innovating throughout the New York City art ecosystem. If you’ve done your homework, you’ll know that this isn’t just a 'moment', but rather due to decades of cultural labour performed by Black women, past and present, not only in New York but across the US. The groundbreaking influence of the storied Just Above Midtown (JAM), founded by film director, food activist and art dealer-disruptor, Linda Goode Bryant, was recently acknowledged by the establishment of an archive at New York’s MoMA. In 1974, Goode Bryant, then 25 and a mom of two, started JAM as an 'autonomous Black space', a first-of-its-kind, Black woman-owned enterprise, that ran for 12 years across three locations in Manhattan, where Black artists, as well as artists of colour, produced radical and freeing work, particularly for Black artists who explored conceptual art, video and performance. Taking place at MoMA (only four blocks from JAM’s original 57th Street location), the recent exhibition 'Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces' (2022–23) reimagined the space’s energy — very DIY, anti-establishment and brimming with non-monolithic ideas on Blackness — through archival videos of performance, photographs, painting, sculpture, with works by Dawoud Bey, Senga Nengudi and Lorna Simpson, among others. (JAM and its artists was subject of a tribute section at Frieze New York in 2019.) Funded by the Mellon Foundation, and supported by a one-year term archivist, the JAM archives will live within MoMA’s research collections, encompassing artists’ files and slides, press releases, gallery publications and more, available to arts professionals, students and the wider public.
Goode Bryant was not alone in laying foundations for Black women in the US art world today. Suzanne Jackson, dancer, artist and founder of Gallery 32, ran her self-funded community-focused art space from 1968 to 1970 in Los Angeles, showing Black feminist artists such as Betye Saar and the late great Gloria Bohanon. (Jackson’s own art was exhibited in 2019 at O-Town House, a gallery based in the same Granada Buildings complex which housed Gallery 32.) Shirley Woodson, an oil painter widely recognized as Detroit art royalty, served as gallery director at the Black-owned Pyramid Gallery in downtown Detroit in the late 1970s, where she promoted the vibrant figurative work of Ernie Barnes—recently a marquee auction name — and Varnette Honeywood. Back in New York City, Peg Alston, a venerable private dealer who started working in 1971, exhibits influential 20th century Black American artists like Charles White and Elizabeth Catlett, while also dealing in traditional African sculpture. Having managed Romare Bearden’s career during his final years, June Kelly opened her namesake SoHo gallery in 1987, and currently represents diverse practices including figurative painter Philemona Williamson, Korean-born Su Kwak and poet Derek Walcott.
Today, there is an ever-growing number of successful Black women-owned galleries throughout the US, including Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, Jenkins Johnson Gallery, Hannah Traore Gallery and Nicola Vassell. Meanwhile, Willis Blair, and a younger generation of Black women art dealers—all in director or partner roles at established blue-chip galleries—continue the work of their pioneering Black women dealer predecessors in a new context, guiding their respective galleries into the 21st century, engaging both local and global audiences, and leaving the door open for the next generation of young Black women in art.
COURTNEY WILLIS BLAIR
US Senior Director, White Cube
Jasmin Hernandez How are you developing a specifically US strategy that still feels tied to White Cube’s overall ethos?
Courtney Willis Blair Our presence in New York will allow us to expand several areas of the business, from artist engagement and programming to further developing our secondary market activities. White Cube New York will be a launchpad for exciting initiatives that build on what the gallery has achieved in Europe, Asia and online in recent years. We’re also thinking about the needs of artists, museums and collectors in other regions of the country and not just in the major cities. As for how this approach dovetails with our global personality: for 30 years White Cube has been known for being artist-led, pioneering and ambitious, and our New York space will maintain that core ethos.
JH Arts writing has been foundational to your career, what excites you about continuing this at White Cube?
CWB Scholarship is integral to an artist’s career. Oftentimes what remains after an exhibition ends is the writing. White Cube has, from the beginning, made truly astonishing publications, many of which have won prestigious honors. It’s exciting to think about being part of that lineage, to continue scholarship for our artists, and to create stunning objects that will be referenced again and again.
JH Who are Black cultural sheroes and trailblazers you admire?
CWB I couldn’t possibly name them all. We tend to think these lists will be short because we give so much weight to a certain level of visibility. But I know how much work is done in the shadows and how important it is to acknowledge those who have made invaluable contributions but never received the public accolades. So, this certainly isn’t an exhaustive list: Toni Cade Bambara, Peggy Cooper Cafritz, Julie Dash, Nikki Giovanni, Thelma Golden, Linda Goode Bryant, Lorraine Hansberry, June Jordan, June Kelly, Nancy Lane, Toni Morrison, Adrian Piper and Lowery Stokes Sims.
JH Can you expand on the inaugural show you’re curating at White Cube’s forthcoming New York space?
CWB I’m really excited at the opportunity to curate the debut exhibition at the new White Cube gallery at 1002 Madison Avenue. The show considers how artists are using the same frameworks we see in music traditions—sampling, the cover, the remix and the mashup—to rethink or subvert established ideas. It’s really a look at the use of experimentation and distortion as both conceptual and technical tools that can lead to innovation. We’ve received an incredible response from artists so far.
White Cube is known for programming rigorous, thought-provoking group exhibitions: from the survey of surrealist tendencies in the work of fifty women artists, 'Dreamers Awake' (2017), to 'Sweet Lust' (2022), curated by Michèle Lamy with Mathieu Paris, exploring the body. I think it will be an elegant, searing addition to that tradition.
Partner, Paula Cooper Gallery
Starting out at 1301PE in LA, Alexis Johnson was Associate Director at Paula Cooper Gallery for six years, before becoming Director & Artist Liaison at Lévy Gorvy. In 2021, she returned to Paula Cooper as Partner, as part of the esteemed founder’s succession team, and one of two Black partners.
JH Something I find fascinating about your journey is that you’ve returned to two galleries twice, 1301PE in LA, and you’re now back at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York. How have these decisions to return, and to lead, impacted your art dealer trajectory?
Alexis Johnson My decision to return reflects the honesty and endurance of my relationships. Even after I departed each gallery, I remained in contact with the owners, staff and artists out of genuine affection. My trajectory in the art world has been organic. I’ve never done a job search for a gallery position. All of my experiences are born out of friendships. I was once told by a former employer that I don’t take enough advantage of my relationships in the art world: i.e. for sales purposes. My response then is still true today: the reason I have these relationships is specifically because I don’t exploit them.
JH Now as Partner, what does success mean?
AJ Success is a moving target. The world is overflowing with galleries and their rosters, so I’m always brainstorming ways in which to shine a light on our artists. There have been so many shifts in the workplace since March 2020, and the present challenge is maintaining the profoundly human spirit that has always guided the gallery, while also evolving to serve our artists within an increasingly professionalised art world. Personally, I became a wife and mother the same year as my gallery partnership, so it’s a learning curve to balance all of that at once.
JH You began championing the legacy of Terry Adkins during your time at Lévy Gorvy. How will this continue now at Paula Cooper Gallery?
AJ Working with the Estate of Terry Adkins is an honour that is bittersweet. It’s a pity that Terry isn’t here with us to see his work being celebrated by a wider audience. Nevertheless, I’m proud of the work I’ve done in collaboration with his widow Merele Williams-Adkins and the Estate on several major museum exhibitions and important acquisitions. There is much the world has yet to discover about Terry, and I’m committed to continuing to champion his work—the poetics, relevance and influence of his work are enduring.
JH Who are some Black women in the art world that you share a sisterhood with and what makes that bond special?
AJ When I began working in galleries in the late 1990s, I didn’t know of any other Black women working in a contemporary art gallery. When I met Steve Henry, my colleague at Paula Cooper, friend and brother from another mother, around 2003, he was the only Black person I knew working in a commercial gallery. [A Director since 1998, Henry was made a Senior Partner at Paula Cooper Gallery in 2021.] In a way, from this experience, I feel I share a sisterhood with all Black women in the art world. We work in a field that has largely been dominated by a white Western perspective and aesthetic. I cannot help but feel bonded in some way to any of us who have carved out a place for ourselves here.
EBONY L. HAYNES
Senior Director, David Zwirner & 52 Walker
For the last two years, Ebony L. Haynes has been leading 52 Walker, a blend of commercial gallery and Kunsthalle, established by David Zwirner. Also a curator and writer, Haynes was formerly Director at both Martos Gallery and the project space Shoot the Lobster, in New York and Los Angeles.
JH You envisioned 52 Walker as a slow-down—for galleries, artists, art workers and visitors. Coming up on two years this fall, what takeaways do you have about 52 Walker’s success? And especially its engagement?
Ebony L. Haynes My main takeaway is that people really understand and show up for the 52 Walker mission. They seem to enjoy this Kunsthalle gallery model and the ethos we’re cultivating, which has been rewarding to say the least. Engagement varies depending on the show, but we get such a range—collectors, students, artists, writers, even haters of all ages— and I think that’s an integral part when measuring the success of an exhibition.
JH At 52 Walker, you’ve reunited with artists such as Kandis Williams and Tau Lewis, whose work you’ve curated in the past. Can you describe how this hybrid space allows you to nurture their careers (and those of other artists)?
ELH I’ve previously worked with so many of the artists included in the first two years of our programming. It’s really their work that nurtures my curatorial practice. If there was something that piqued my interest in the past, that doesn’t disappear with time. On the contrary, I’m eager to show the world more! And 52 Walker offers a unique opportunity as a gallery model that allows for flexibility, growth and exploration.
JH Can you talk about the Clarion publishing series with artists?
ELH Clarion is absolutely collaborative and a product of true partnership. It’s great because it allows for another element of the exhibition to exist, and for a closer look at the artist(s). It also becomes an addition to our 52 Walker archive—an archive that is integral to the space. We get to take a broader look at what the work and the show mean in a larger context, both culturally and historically, within the gallery and in an art world setting.
JH How do you pay it forward to Black women and femmes seeking pathways in the gallery world?
ELH Anytime you see a Black woman in a gallery, know that it wasn’t an easy road. For that reason, I teach a free course for Black students called 'Black Art Sessions' which advises on pathways to work in art galleries, museums and not-for-profit spaces, and I work with HBCUs for our internship programme. I hope to always provide a space for Black people to feel welcome and free to ask questions about how to access a world that may otherwise feel opaque and guarded.
CHRISTIANA INE-KIMBA BOYLE
Senior Director of Sales & Global Head of Online, Pace Gallery
Christiana Ine-Kimba Boyle was formerly Senior Director at New York’s Canada, where she implemented digital strategies, including the gallery’s first online viewing room and a virtual performance platform. She joined Pace Gallery in 2021.
JH Your role at Pace Gallery is robust, from online and IRL curation, to artist liaising. Can you talk about bringing on your first artist Kylie Manning?
Christina Ine-Kimba Boyle My role at Pace is incredibly multifaceted: artist-liaising, curation, sales and leading on digital programming and strategy— but what I enjoy most about my position is that all aspects of my job filter into championing and supporting artists. Kylie Manning is the first artist I brought to Pace and began working with. This relationship has taught me so much about being a true advocate and the patience and nimbleness it takes to build a longstanding career. Most importantly, the trust you must instill in your artists.
JH As Senior Director of Sales, what are some interesting trends you’re seeing amongst millennial collectors in 2023?
CB Millennial collectors are diversifying their collections beyond mid-career and emerging. Many are aging up and have more spending room to acquire works by established artists. Works on paper, domestically scaled paintings and sculptures are brilliant entry points for many.
JH You curated two shows in New York in 2021 that, for me, were standouts: 'Black Femme: Sovereign of WAP and the Virtual Realm' at Canada and 'Convergent Evolutions: The Conscious of Body Work' at Pace, both exploring agency and autonomy of the body. What led you to explore these ideas in both projects?
CB I’ve always been hyperconscious of agency as a Black woman: how my body exists within society and a white cube, and how it’s outwardly perceived. The pandemic drew us to the internet/social media as our only means of connecting with art. 'Black Femme' was the entry point—a commentary on the cultural contributions of Black femme-identifying creatives who’ve constructed and contributed to the virtual canon (the internet) and how their work was adopted in real time and space. 'Convergent Evolutions' extended this investigation, as we physically returned to the white cube, and was an inclusive conversation on agency through technical practice. I’m continuing this research, with two follow-up exhibitions planned for the next two years.
JH Who are some Black women and femme artists working at the intersection of digital art, technology and the internet that you admire?
CB There are many: Linda Dounia, Eileen Isagon Skyers, Kenya (Robinson), Ada Pinkston, Qualeasha Wood and @yungprempelli. I could go on!
Director, Jack Shainman Gallery & Founder, We Buy Gold
Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels is a long-time Director at Jack Shainman Gallery and the Founder of We Buy Gold, a nomadic gallery of six years.
JH The state of the world is constantly shifting, but what are the values you think of when planning an artist’s exhibition at the gallery?
Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels Supporting the artists and their vision for presenting what’s most often their newest body of work, is what we do the vast majority of the time. When I think about values, I’m always brought back to the artist and being a platform for them to realise their ideas. That’s always at the core.
JH Your nomadic gallery, We Buy Gold, just turned six this year and you’ve curated exhibits inside empty storefronts in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, to commercial billboards all over New York City. What has this freedom and flexibility taught you over the years?
JBS The flexibility was birthed out of necessity but the freedom that it has brought me was of more value than I could’ve imagined. To this day, I try to centre myself in those lessons, or at least remind myself... There’s a responsiveness that can come when you work outside of a structure or rubric. I deeply appreciate the balance it has brought me. Most importantly, I look back and think of how the rules I made in the beginning were mere guardrails, not limitations.
JH How do you mentor Black women and femmes seeking entry into the art world?
JBS I hope that the representation that was so important to me is something that I can continue to provide for others. I also try to be accessible and available. We all engage in our own worldmaking and I try to act consciously when building my own.
JH How do you balance business and softness with the artists you work with?
JBS When you care deeply about someone, their ideas, their goals and their wellbeing, then the balance comes. Like any relationship, trust is at the core, on both sides.
This article first appeared in Frieze Week, May 2023 under the headline ‘The Next Generation’
Main image: 'Tau Lewis: Vox Populi, Vox Dei', 2022–23, installation view, 52 Walker, New York. Courtesy: 52 Walker, New York