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.
YM: Why is it important that these artists are newcomers?
SB: There is a way the younger generation is actually working through their issues, and it’s coming across really strong to me. They’re speaking about the world in such an incredible, raw way, that when you get a little bit more polished, you don’t really do. All of a sudden, you fall into the format of the art world: mind your words, be a little bit more careful, be a little bit more diplomatic. So then you need to be the voice that is able to pull out all these themes. It is important for me to continue to work with the emerging demographic, because I’m allowing them platforms to both be experimental, where I'm like, Yeah, do your thing, that's cool and also for them to feel like, do they need a B.A. to have a show?
YM: The space is so intimate and in some ways changes how art is observed. Was that your mission for this space?
SB: Art can often make people feel uncomfortable or confused, as there is a general assumption that you are supposed to “understand” what you see in front of you. I wanted to bridge that gap for the public by introducing them to art in a different type of way. I want the space to be inviting and a resource where art enthusiasts and budding collectors can speak with the artists and meet other like-minded individuals. Most people who come in have been a lot of new collectors of art. They don’t feel intimidated, because I want to talk to everybody. We don’t got to talk about art, we can just hang out. It’s on the walls, and it’ll just penetrate you in its own way.
YM: How do you envision the growth of Medium Tings?
SB: I think about all the galleries that I admire, the ones that are larger scale, like Hauser & Wirth. In five to ten years’ time, I would love to have a publishing press and perhaps a few domestic and international locations. I am ambitious but definitely want to grow Medium Tings organically.
YM: What is one piece of advice you would give to anyone looking to enter into the art world?
SB: Just start where you are. That’s always my advice. If you have an interest in art, then you need to go to art shows. If you want to do something more than going to an art show, then find allies. Find other people that are actually doing the work and just try to approach them and get to know these people. Go up to artists. I feel like we’re in a dawn right now where there’s always going to be somebody who says yes.
Ayana Evans’s If Keisha Jumped Off a Bridge, Would You Do It Too? is showing at Medium Tings until June 24.
Yaminah Mayo is a content creator and writer behind Spicy Mayo.