A Rare Black-Owned Art Gallery Lands in Chelsea

At a moment when equity and diversity have become paramount in the art world, Nicola Vassell, a former director of both the Pace and Deitch Projects galleries in Manhattan, on Thursday will open her own exhibition space on Tenth Avenue, planting her flag as a rare contemporary art gallery owned by a Black woman in the heart of Chelsea.

“It’s time for a Black-owned gallery to inhabit the art world in New York in a really strong, dynamic way,” said Vassell, 42, standing in the space the other day, before the furniture had arrived. “It’s great to have landed in Chelsea.”

Vassell said the “social fervor” of the past year — which fueled a re-evaluation of whom museums and galleries present and promote — “really lit a fire” under her.

“We are thinking about how revision will take place, now that people are calling for reconsideration,” she said. “It’s a window which would not have been open two years ago. Psychologically, it wasn’t possible or realistic. Suddenly people want to embrace different perspectives.”

Vassell’s venture also represents a bold business move, given some doomsday predictions about the future of brick-and-mortar galleries as well as pandemic-enforced efforts to build online sales.

But the dealer, who has a can-do energy, said she believes the in-person and virtual experiences of seeing art “can live together.”

“While there is proof of robust life in the digital sphere, artists still want to show,” she added. “They want their work to hang on walls, they want response.”

The program at the 3,500-square-foot gallery between West 18th and 19th Streets — recently inhabited by Lisson Gallery, now a few blocks north — will be “expansive” and “experimental,” Vassell said, showing painting, drawing, sculpture and film (the gallery has a content development partnership with the Ghetto Film School in the Bronx).

Vassell said she will show white artists as well as artists of color, “because that’s the real story.”

The gallery will open with a show of the photographer Ming Smith, whose work was recently exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art in “Working Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop.” Among those Vassell also plans to feature are Alvaro Barrington, Fred Eversley, Frida Orupabo and Wangari Mathenge. Exhibitions will change about every six weeks.

“I’m really interested in the whole scope,” Vassell said, “the breadth of conversations.”

A veteran of the field, Vassell said she is keenly aware of pioneers, such as June Kelly in SoHo, and of smaller galleries owned by Black women, including Welancora in Brooklyn, founded by Ivy N. Jones, and Housing on the Lower East Side, run by KJ Freeman.

“Many people have been integral to that storytelling,” she said, “and I am one step along the way.”

Vassell also said she welcomed the presence of Ebony L. Haynes, a former director at Martos Gallery, who is opening a space in Tribeca with an all-Black staff under the Zwirner Gallery umbrella. “That’s my sister,” Vassell said. “We come from a coalition of young Black female dealers, and we stand together. There is not space for only one.”

Born and raised in Jamaica — her father was a professor, her mother a businesswoman — Vassell was discovered as a model and moved to the United States at 17 years old.

While still a student at New York University, where she majored in art history and business, Vassell met the dealer Jeffrey Deitch at an edition of the Armory Show; he offered her an internship in 2005.

“I just saw a vibrancy and an interest,” Deitch said of Vassell, adding that she became “a crucial member of the team,” working with artists like Tauba Auerbach, Francesco Clemente and the Basquiat estate (with Deitch and Franklin Sirmans, she was a co-editor of the book, “Jean-Michel Basquiat 1981: The Studio of the Street,” published by the gallery).

“She has an understanding of what makes art interesting,” Deitch said. “She gets it.”

Vassell’s first major artist relationship was with Kehinde Wiley, then fresh out of a residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem. They eventually worked together on projects like his collaboration with Puma, which, for the 2010 World Cup, commissioned the artist to create portraits of three African soccer stars as well as an apparel, footwear and accessories line.

As a director at Pace Gallery between 2010 and 2012, Vassell worked with the artists Raqib Shaw, Sterling Ruby and Adam Pendleton and was heavily influenced by Robert Irwin, the American installation artist. “The infinitude, this idea that light and space could be tools, elements, forged to create artwork,” she said of Irwin’s influence. “It taught me a lot about how to look. There is always more. There is the frame, and there is everything that sits outside the frame.”

In 2014, she started her own advisory and curatorial business, Concept NV, which will now be folded into the gallery’s operations. Concept’s big group show, “Black Eye,” featured about 30 Black artists, including Derrick Adams, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Sanford Biggers and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.

“I was thinking a lot about Obama and how the image of the Black man could go from this feared and forlorn place to the most powerful individual in the world,” Vassell said. “It occurred to me that this was going to have implications, this was going to rouse many. There were people for whom this would be the guiding principle and those for whom it would be a difficult thing to process.”

Nari Ward was one of the artists in the “Black Eye” show. “It connected me with other artists who were asking similar questions about our relationship to the art world, to ourselves and to the world at large,” Ward said. “It brought us all to the table and in dialogue.”

In 2015, Vassell with Vita Zaman organized the exhibition “Edge of Chaos” about feminism and ecology at the Venice Biennale.

“She has a curator’s eye and acumen,” said Sirmans, director of the Pérez Art Museum Miami, adding that Vassell’s experience with fashion and pop culture gives her valuable “experience in making visual art more widely accessible to a general public.”

Vassell’s highest-profile collaboration has been with Swizz Beatz, the hip-hop producer whose real name is Kasseem Dean, and his wife, the singer-songwriter Alicia Keys. Together, they have developed the Dean Collection, the global art fair No Commission (where artists receive 100 percent of the proceeds) and shows like “Dreamweavers” in Los Angeles.

Recently, Vassell felt ready to realize the longtime dream of having her own gallery. “It occurred to me that it would be good to stabilize and feel rooted,” she said.

Still uncertain is whether this cultural moment — in which museums, galleries and collectors are focusing on artists of color — will have a lasting impact. Vassell said there is no going back, that artists of color should be an integral part of the art world and not siloed.

By opening her new gallery, Vassell hopes to contribute to that lasting change.

“The best outcome of this will have to be a sum total of all our efforts,” she said. “The journey will take different byways, but ultimately the end game is parity.”

She added: “We’re placing our anchor, we’re here to stay.”

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