has long helped shape New York’s contemporary art landscape. After serving as the director at both Pace Gallery and
Projects, she launched her consultancy and curatorial agency, Concept NV, which was behind No Commission, an interactive art experience in the South Bronx, as well as a recent exhibition of the legendary photographer Gordon Parks’ work at the Cooper Gallery in Manhattan’s
Today, the Jamaica-born Vassell continues to strengthen her foothold in the industry, overseeing an eponymous gallery that opened its doors to the public in May. The gallery’s inaugural group show, The Earth, That Is Sufficient, is momentous not only for its subject—our ever-changing relationship to space—but for its home. At a time when the world is still grappling with the racialized experience of African Americans, Vassell is one of the few Black- and women-owned galleries in Chelsea, Manhattan’s premier art district.
Penta spoke with Vassell bout her background her journey to opening a business in one of art’s most unprecedented times, and the scientific theory that inspired the current exhibition.
PENTA: You have quite the portfolio. How long have you been working in the art space?
Nicola Vassell: Almost 20 years now. And I can’t believe I say it so casually, but it’s true, it’s coming up on my second decade in the business. So I’ve been active for quite a while, and you know, it keeps renewing and I keep finding new mountaintops to try to climb to.
Was there one piece of art that perhaps ignited your passion or at least made you think this is something I want to dedicate my life to?
What a great question. Once I got into art, I would say that the work of
Caspar David Friedrich
really cemented so many things for me. And then as I traveled, the work of
Kerry James Marshall,
became a fundamental anchor point for my purpose.
How did you establish yourself as first a curator, then a private art consultant?
It was very natural, in the sense that the need arose and I was never willing to necessarily give up all that I had learned from the previous role. So things kind of amalgamated in a sense. I also am a very curious person. Even though I know the core outlay of my business, it’s always interesting to travel down different paths of the administrative role. So yeah, it happened because the need arose and because I was looking for another sort of way to learn.
Is there a city you find yourself constantly returning to when it comes to art, that you never doubt will unveil something exciting?
Oh my God, the classics, you know, obviously my own city. There is never a shortage of truly mind-blowing experiences with art here. London has also always been a favorite. I have great friends and great memories there, and visiting great museums and galleries and gardens has been unique to my experience there.
Why did you decide to open your gallery now? Was it a concept you had been thinking about for years or was it more so based on an immediate need you saw that you decided to pursue?
It’s something that I thought about, but never really pursued vigorously for a number of reasons. First of all, timing, you know, the right window never seemed to present itself to me. And I always felt that because of the magnitude of the job, that in a sense, I would need near perfect timing to enter that stream.
However, once I felt like I had to push the boundaries of my consultancy, I started imagining in a more lively fashion what it could look like to have a gallery. I have one idea of what that might look like and I think in the swirl of the pandemic, of the social landscape, and an increase in activism generally for Black rights, women’s rights, a kind of perfect storm emerged. To have the amplification of those voices and at the same time to think about how to open a gallery in the middle of the worst sort of crisis our generation has ever faced, while trying to feed some of the narrative that the social fabric was calling for and at the same time being really creative and thoughtful was really my call to action.
I don’t think we can ever have enough spaces for art and for Black and brown stories that are centered in that space so thank you. Can you share a little bit of the background behind the current exhibition?
I’m so excited about it because I think this really speaks to the core of our vision, which is the storytelling aspect. I operate by a principle called cultural phenomenology, a little idea that I thought up which has its roots in the phenomenological theories of the light and space movement. It assesses how one looks and sees art specifically, but you can apply it to anything. Are you taking in all the right information or taking in enough? Is your perception functioning with the space of the most accurate information? It’s very scientific and I thought about what it would be like to apply this to cultural happenings.
We could obviously think a lot about our historical narrative of the landscape, which is a very real thing, but then also, the fact that people’s lives were changing so radically, and the landscape that they were standing up, looking out upon, was shifting. Historically, sort of literally about the land we’re inhabiting, and our relationship to it. And then we considered, metaphorically, who are we going to become when the landscape beneath our feet becomes firm again, when it stabilizes. It’s happening at all levels of magnitude.
So I was really excited to bring together some of the most important artists who could articulate this idea. And I think it gives people a bit of a journey, which is always nice.
This article has been edited for length and clarity.
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