Why Have There Been No Great Black Art Dealers? (Published 2018)

CONTRARY TO THE assumption that society moves toward equality on its own, the ascent of black artists into the status quo has been a result of diligent actors. It has been helped enormously through a dedicated group that includes Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels, a director at Jack Shainman, New York gallery with a roster of largely black artists including Nick Cave, Carrie Mae Weems and the estate of Gordon Parks; Mariane Ibrahim, who founded her Seattle gallery in 2012; the San Francisco-based Karen Jenkins-Johnson, who recently expanded to Brooklyn; and a rising population of black staffers, who for so long were not present in most galleries at all. [1][2][3]

But in 2018, even as black artists enjoy growing acclaim, American art continues to privilege the perspective of white men. While Shainman is a longstanding champion of artists of color, Bellorado-Samuels — who has worked at the gallery for ten years — is still one of the few black dealers in Chelsea. This kind of perspective has marginalized black artists in a way that is only just being reversed. All the way back in 1975, a young David Hammons, now one of the most famous and highly valued living artists who would bring his early paintings into Brockman Gallery while they were still wet, described the phenomenon of white curators lumping black artists together in shows, no matter how dissimilar their work, as if being black alone was their only distinguishing virtue. “Throwing everyone into a barrel — that bothers me, that that’s still happening,” he said. Almost 50 years later, it is still happening, though having more black gallerists helps matters.

“If someone wants to do a ‘black art’ show and put together several of my artists who are only thematically linked only by a thread, we’re going to have a conversation about that,” Bellorado-Samuels says. “We’re the artist’s first line of defense; part of our responsibility is to build their market, and another is to navigate how we talk about them, and how we contextualize them.”

In 2017 Belloarado-Samuels opened We Buy Gold[4], her own roving exhibition space that began in Bedford-Stuyvesant and currently resides in Chinatown before it moves on again. Unconfined by the art world establishment, it provides space for emerging and mid-career artists, of color or not. Working outside the limited perspective of a predominantly white art world, spaces like hers effectively broaden it.

Likewise, Ebony L. Haynes, director of Martos Gallery[5], has put on two group shows based on pivotal works by black authors: Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” and, at the gallery’s project space in New York called Shoot the Lobster, Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild.” Each showcased black artists without needing to bill itself as an “all-black show.” Karen Jenkins-Johnson, who opened her first gallery[6] in 1996, has been proactively growing the small percentage of black collectors in the art market, and in 2017 opened a second space in Lefferts Gardens dedicated to providing artists of color space to curate. Mariane Ibrahim, who grew up in Somaliland, opened her namesake Seattle gallery[7] with a roster largely of African and diasporic artists as a corrective to all the African folk art exhibitions she had seen growing up. To her, they felt as though, “Europe and America were holding a telescope to Africa with white gloves on.”

The work of Brockman Gallery, JAM, and many of their artists rode the activist momentum of the Civil Rights movement; it was through the persistence of the Black Arts Council (BAC) that LACMA had its first show of black artists, “Three Graphic Artists: Charles White. David Hammons. Timothy Washington,[8]” in 1971. The Davis brothers had to cross picket lines to get their artists in — BAC had subsequently staged a protest of the museum’s exhibiting a nationally recognized name like White’s alongside two emerging artists, inside a small prints and drawings department gallery, no less.


  1. ^ Nick Cave (www.jackshainman.com)
  2. ^ Carrie Mae Weems (carriemaeweems.net)
  3. ^ Gordon Parks (www.gordonparksfoundation.org)
  4. ^ We Buy Gold (webuygold.wtf)
  5. ^ Martos Gallery (www.martosgallery.com)
  6. ^ first gallery (www.jenkinsjohnsongallery.com)
  7. ^ namesake Seattle gallery (marianeibrahim.com)
  8. ^ Three Graphic Artists: Charles White. David Hammons. Timothy Washington, (www.lacma.org)
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