Picture an art gallery. What’s the first thing that comes to mind: bare white walls, an aloof, sometimes unwelcoming atmosphere, and, if you’re a black woman, few people in the space — from owners and curators to patrons and artists — that resemble you. In April, an NPR article, “Not Enough Color in American Art Museums,” made the issue more clear: the lack of black people occupying American art spaces is a systematic problem, with no real measure in place to make a change. In the collective makeup of museum staffs (curators, conservators, educators, and leadership), white people make up 84 percent, while black people make up only 4 percent.
Familiar with the dire climate, Stephanie Baptist decided to create a space of her own: eggshell-white walls, bare wooden floors, a marble fireplace, and a few potted plants, all in an unlikely place: the living room of her Crown Heights brownstone. “I’m sitting here like, Is anybody going to come to the living room? It’s not good enough; it needs to be in a brick and mortar. But I don’t have money for a brick and mortar,” Baptist says.
Joining the ranks of other black-women gallerists such as Karen Jenkins-Johnson, Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels, and Michelle Papillion, Baptist opened Medium Tings in 2017. “Medium” is a reference to both the size of the gallery and the method in which the art is made (photography, painting, and sculpture), and “Tings” is a nod to the West Indian influence in the neighborhood.
After working stints as head of exhibitions for Tiwani Contemporary in London and then as program director for En Foco in the Bronx, Baptist set out to create a space that would help combat the lack of jobs for black people within the art world. Now Medium Tings has morphed into a space that amplifies the voices of up-and-coming artists of color, and through programming it creates opportunities for dialogue around the work. So far, the gallery has introduced artworks from seven different artists, including photographer Arielle Bobb-Willis, mixed-media artist Temitayo Ogunbiyi, and performance artist Ayana Evans (currently on view).
In an industry that often excludes people of certain races and class, Medium Tings serves as an intermediary between art-world neophytes and serious collectors, acting as an environment that not only attempts to melt away the stigmas and broaden the access we have to these spaces but also helps us reconsider what we think of as art.
For Lenny Letter, I spoke with Baptist, who works in production by day and burns the midnight oil as a gallery owner and curator, about the importance of Medium Tings within the art world and the rebellious spirit of its mission.
Yaminah Mayo: Medium Tings follows in the lineage of places like Studio Museum in Harlem and the former Papillion gallery in Los Angeles, setting out to incubate and nurture young artists, especially black artists. How important is the nurturing of artists versus being thrown into the mainstream?
Stephanie Baptist: There is something to be said for a little bit of nurturing, because the art industry can be really brutal and disconnected. Many collectors that buy work, are not necessarily understanding the pieces but buying on the strength of what will sell and acquire in value later down the line. This isn't the case for everyone, but some collectors are purchasing figurative works by black artists from a more observational view of the beautiful black body, without doing some of the research or deep-diving into some of the heavier conflicts or content as it is often not relevant to their own lived experience. However, there is a responsibility to decode some of the clues packed in the artwork and to understand the context of what is in front of you and what sits on your wall. There’s an importance to having somebody who looks like the artist who’s actually representing the artist, because I can tap into some of the nuances and we actually can talk about it.