ArtPunk in the Place
nicola vassell on curating black art and reframing our visual narrative
October 25, 2019
Nicola Vassell is a pioneer in the rarified art world. A Jamaican-born womxn who occupies a position of deep influence in a space that is often white, rich and exclusive, she’s used her love of visual arts, writing, history, and fashion, to amplify the presence of Black artists in that world, helping them infiltrate it — and then, conquer it.
Vassell’s curatorial career began in big, well-known New York art galleries such as Deitch Projects and Pace, where she saw up-close the rising tide of young Black fine artists, working with many, including Kehinde Wiley and Nari Ward. When Vassell struck out on her own as a curator and facilitator, she launched Concept NV, whose first big group show, 2014’s “Black Eye,” helped announce the impending Black Art Renaissance. It gave her headway to assist Black collectors like Kaseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean, and to develop their collections and engagements with the art world. Together, Vassell and Dean have become an art-world powerhouse, working on projects such as Dean and wife Alicia Keys’ The Dean Collection, while also producing the global No Commission Art Fair, and shows like last winter’s Los Angeles smash, “Dreamweavers.” Yet, as she discusses with AFROPUNK her experience and her perspective, Nicola Vassell’s says her favorite part of the curation process is discovering new talent. Read on:
What drew you to work in the art world?
I was really intrigued I could be in a world where my job was to look at and critique beautiful images and objects, and then help bring them into the public realm. I had been in fashion, studied art history, and then joined a gallery. Each transition was invariably supported by what came before it in ways I hadn’t predicted.
When you started there were not many Black women working in galleries. Of course, there were Black women curators, academics, and artists. Why did you lean into the gallery space?
It didn’t happen so consciously. Back when I started at Deitch Projects, persona held more sway in New York than identity. It wasn’t as much about being Black or a woman, as it was about being an interesting downtown character who could join the ranks of storied downtown characters. A space opened up for me very naturally in that realm. I’d been in the downtown community from the late ’90s, when the do’ers and makers of art, fashion, film and music were connected by proximity and talent — quite organically, I might add. That bunch generally tried to compete with each other on creative fronts, whereas now people are far more self-aware, hyper-communicative, and compete on the political spectrum.
What excites you most about working in the art world?
I am excited that the art world is always trying to innovate and self-reflect, while making money doing both! I’m fascinated by the constant mutations of the administrative and custodial structures — gallery, auction house, studio, museum — and their survivability odds in any given season. The art world is a living, breathing creature that morphs depending on where pressure is applied.
You curated a revolutionary group exhibition called “Black Eye” in 2014. What was your intention and vision for that show at that time?
I was at a turning point in 2014. I’d just exited the the high-intensity, glamorous blue-chip-gallery world. I’d also lost my father. It was Obama’s second term and I knew that his presidency was going to shift the identity paradigm in such a way that the most feared social archetype would become a paragon of ultimate power. It was quantum leaping and undeniable that some corners of society would fail re-entry — suffer whiplash, if you will. That set the stage for dynamic storytelling. We got 30 of the brightest and best artists to participate. There was so much wattage in Black Eye. We see now that it foreshadowed what has come to be a very fertile period for the Black narrative in creative spheres. I don’t want to say that we helped start the revelation, but we kind of did.
Why are Black artists having such a big impact on the art world, the rarified museum spaces, and popular culture now?
The impact is outsized because the impediments are finally being removed from the cultural valve. I tell you, it is astounding for institutions and very erudite people to realize they embargoed an entire chunk of history. It is perspectival and professional failure, the story arc is incomplete. An imbalance sets in when culture itself becomes aware of that fact before the institution does. A kind of impotence looms, a suspicion of the critic and purveyors of cultural information takes hold. Therefore, a correction has to follow and that’s where we find ourselves.
Describe the feeling of discovering a new artist and what goes through your mind in that moment?
It is, bar-none, the most ecstatic part of my occupation. Not just discovering a new artist, but a promising or very talented one. If they tick all the boxes — one by one, aplenty and rigorous as they are — it’s as if the crust of the earth cracks open and magma begins to show. My first thought is, “Can they handle what is about to hit and will they plot the course wisely enough to reap all fruits?”
You now curate The Dean Collection for Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys. He talks about building an art collection that his children will own one day. How do you build a collection like that for such a creative?
This part of the work is a wonderful dance, unique to each collector. Swizz is highly instinctive, and tunes in at the frequency that a visual artist would, so he sees things elementally. He plugs directly into the artist community, and those conversations help define the shape of the collection. In general, you have to build idiosyncratically. Collecting for legacy means maintaining artworks long enough to hand to the children or to a museum. This is stewardship mind you, quite a big job.
You have worked with Kehinde Wiley several times in your career. How do you support and encourage a visionary Black artist in the rarified, mostly white art world?
You keep the ship in order so that they feel free to explore the bounds of their imaginations, a place where nothing except the sublime exists. One great lesson from my mentor Jeffrey Deitch is, “Look after your artist and make their well-being your top priority. Those relationships are life bonds.” Truer words have never been spoken.
What is next for you and Concept NV?
We’re growing the agency and will introduce some exciting new initiatives in 2020. My business partner Tanya Morgan and I prefer outcomes to speak for themselves, we don’t say much before anything materializes. Fortunately, we look at our life in art as a marathon, not the 100-meter dash.
“Black Eye” group show in TriBeCa, New York, curated by Nicola Vassell.
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