When Nicola Vassell opened her namesake gallery on a busy stretch of Chelsea's Tenth Avenue last month, it was in many ways the culmination of over a decade and a half of work across all aspects of the art world. After getting her start working at the famed Soho space Deitch Projects, Vassell has had her hand in curation, artist management, book editing, and collection consulting, with all of those skills culminating in Concept NV, the agency she founded in 2013 to ground fine art firmly within the swirl of cross-disciplinary cultural ferment that presides today through her connections to the worlds of music and fashion. "The decision was that we had, in a sense, tried it all and that it would be good to anchor the entire scope of our experience in a gallery format," she explains. "We were just looking at how to become a better business, how to become more efficient, and of course to have a wider expanse of impact. We concluded, after really beginning in the gallery sphere all those years ago and trying all other things, that the gallery still retains more punch. It just still remains one of the most effective measures of so many components of our business."
As a Black woman, Vassell is a rarity among gallery owners—who have tended over the decades, as in the upper echelons of most fields, to be white men—and she says that her new space was influenced by not inspired by the movement for racial justice that took prominence last year, when industry after industry rushed to prove their devotion to diversity and representation. The inaugural exhibition is a retrospective of the work of Ming Smith, herself the first Black female photographer to be acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, and aims to broaden her legacy beyond her best-known themes. "I felt her work was only being partially really truly understood and that there was a huge palette of angles that she captured in her work over the decades that had never really been brought to the fore," Vassell explains, noting the way many artists of color have been pigeonholed over the years even on the infrequent occasions when they are included in the establishment. "By virtue of people or institutional bodies wanting to present specific pictures, only certain things emerged from her work in the public's view."
A former model who first moved to New York after being discovered in her native Kingston, Jamaica, Vassell has always had an intimate understanding of the ways in which fine art can respond to and also elevate other cultural forms, whether they be fashion, music, or film. With her current partnership with Smith, she has turned her attention to the sports world, as the retrospective will make way next week for Here for a Reason, a collection of new photographs in collaboration with Jordan Brand celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the WNBA and styled by Carlos Nazario. For Vassell, the project is both a step forward and a reminder of her early days making unexpected connections on the cobblestone streets of downtown Manhattan, a reflection of how the culture has, in a sense, caught up to where she was years before. "It was in the spirit of creative endeavor and pushing the boundaries and finding that space, that in-between where everything felt seamless, even though separate," she recalls. "I think that is more true to how we digest and consume cultural matter so to speak. If you feel specifically about anything, you will perhaps look to fine art, music, fashion through pretty similar lenses. I loved that, in fine art, to be able to do that storytelling."
Looking ahead, Vassell says that, as with most ventures she has undertaken, the goal is to flourish by not imposing unnecessary restrictions upon her own creativity. She plans to showcase painting, sculpture, and photography, but also more experimental and experiential work, from both newcomers and established names. Even as most of the stories about the gallery have focused on its status as Black-owned, Vassell notes that she will showcase artists of all races to offer a fuller picture of the scene. The halting steps the art world has been taking toward increased inclusivity in the wake of last year, she says, have only served to affirm her trust in her own instincts. "I think it gave it more urgency. I think we have more wind beneath our wings. I think it affirmed what we have been quietly and measuredly laying out over the years," she elaborates. "In a sense, it hit a fever pitch but this is discourse that we have been having quietly amongst ourselves for years. I think basically it just lit a flame in the cultural sphere, in the social sphere, but certainly in terms of the concepts and the ideas, we have been thinking about these things and framing them in our own ways for years."
Nicola Vassell Gallery is now open at 138 Tenth Avenue, New York. Ming Smith: Evidence is on view through Saturday. Jordan x Ming Smith: Here for a Reason will be on view from June 29 to July 2.