At a moment when equity and diversity are paramount in the art world, Nicola Vassell, a former director of Pace and Deitch Projects galleries in Manhattan, is set to open her own showroom on Tenth Avenue on Thursday and plant her flag as a rarity gallery for contemporary art owned by a black woman in the heart of Chelsea.
“It’s time for a black-owned gallery to inhabit the New York art world in a really strong and dynamic way,” said 42-year-old Vassell, who stood in the room the other day before the furniture arrived. “It’s great to have landed in Chelsea.”
Vassell said last year’s “social passion” – which fueled a reassessment of that presented and promoted by museums and galleries – “really lit a fire” beneath it.
“We’re thinking about how the revision will take place now that people are calling for a re-examination,” she said. “It’s a window that wouldn’t have been opened two years ago. Psychologically it wasn’t possible or realistic. Suddenly people want to take different perspectives. “
Vassell’s company is also a bold move in business given some doomsday predictions for the future of brick and mortar galleries as well as pandemic-forced efforts to build online sales.
But the trader, who has an energy to be able to, said she believes that the personal and virtual experiences of seeing art “can coexist”.
“While there is evidence of resilience in the digital realm, artists still want to show it,” she added. “They want their work to be on the wall, they want an answer.”
The program in the 3,500-square-foot gallery between West 18th and 19th Streets, recently inhabited by the Lisson Gallery, which is 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’ll be showing both white and colored artists “because that’s the real story.”
Vassell, a veteran of the trade, said she knew pioneers like June Kelly in SoHo and smaller galleries of black women, including Welancora in Brooklyn, founded by Ivy N. Jones, and Housing on the Lower East Side, run by KJ Freeman.
“Lots of people have been an integral part of this storytelling,” she said, “and I’m one step along the way.”
Vassell also said she welcomed the presence of Ebony L. Haynes, a former director of Martos Gallery, who is opening a room in Tribeca with an all-black baton under the roof of the Zwirner Gallery. “This is my sister,” said Vassell. “We come from a coalition of young black women traders and we stand together. There’s not just room for one. “
Born and raised in Jamaica – her father was a professor, her mother a business woman – Vassell was discovered as a model and moved to the United States at the age of 17.
During her studies at New York University, where she studied art history and economics, Vassell met the dealer Jeffrey Deitch at an edition of the Armory Show. He offered her an internship in 2005.
“I’ve just seen a vibrancy and interest,” Deitch said of Vassell, adding that she had become “a crucial member of the team” and with artists like Tauba Auerbach, Francesco Clemente, and the Basquiat Estate (with Deitch and Franklin Sirmans) was co-editor of the book “Jean-Michel Basquiat 1981: The Atelier of the Street” published by the gallery.
“She has an understanding of what makes art interesting,” said Deitch. “She understands.”
Vassell’s first major artistic relationship was with Kehinde Wiley, who had just graduated from the Studio Museum in Harlem. They ended up working together on projects like his collaboration with Puma, which commissioned the artist to create portraits of three African soccer stars as well as a line of clothing, shoes and accessories for the 2010 World Cup.
As the director of the Pace Gallery between 2010 and 2012, Vassell worked with artists Raqib Shaw, Sterling Ruby and Adam Pendleton and was heavily influenced by Robert Irwin, the American installation artist. “The infinity, that idea that light and space could be tools, elements that were forged to create works of art,” 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 founded her own advisory and board of trustees, Concept NV, which is now being integrated into the operation of the gallery. Concept’s large group show, Black Eye, featured around 30 black artists, including Derrick Adams, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Sanford Biggers and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.
“I’ve thought a lot about Obama and how the black image can move from this dreaded and deserted place to the most powerful individual in the world,” said Vassell. “It occurred to me that this would have an impact, it would awaken many. There were people for whom this would be the guiding principle and those who would find it difficult to process. “
Nari Ward was one of the artists on the show “Black Eye”. “It connected me to other artists who asked similar questions about our relationship with the art world, with ourselves and the world at large,” said Ward. “It brought us all to the table and in dialogue.”
In 2015 Vassell and Vita Zaman organized the exhibition “Edge of Chaos” on feminism and ecology at the Venice Biennale.
“She has the eye and acumen of a curator,” said Sirmans, director of Pérez Art Museum Miami, adding that Vassell’s fashion and pop culture experience gives her valuable “experience in bringing visual art to a wider audience.”
Vassell’s best known collaboration was with Swizz Beatz, the hip-hop producer whose real name is Kassem Dean, and his wife, the singer-songwriter Alicia Keys. Together they 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.
Vassell recently felt ready to realize his long-standing dream of having his own gallery. “It occurred to me that it would be good to stabilize and feel rooted,” she said.
It is still uncertain whether this cultural moment – in which museums, galleries and collectors concentrate on color artists – will have a lasting effect. Vassell said there is no turning back that artists of color should be an integral part of the art world, not isolated.
By opening her new gallery, Vassell hopes to contribute to this long-term change.
“The best result has to be the sum of all of our efforts,” she said. “The journey will take several back roads, but ultimately the end game is parity.”
She added, “We are dropping anchor, we are here to stay.”