Nicola Vassell has long helped shape New York’s contemporary art landscape. After having been director of Pace Gallery and Dietrich Projects, she launched her consultancy and curatorial agency, SA Concept, which was the originator of No Commission, an interactive art experience in the South Bronx, as well as a recent exhibition of the work of legendary photographer Gordon Parks at the Cooper Gallery in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood.
Today, Jamaica-born Vassell continues to strengthen her presence in the industry by overseeing an eponymous gallery that opened to the public in May. The gallery’s inaugural collective exhibition, Earth is enough is important 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 racial experience of African Americans, Vassell is one of the few black and female-owned galleries in Chelsea, Manhattan’s premier arts district.
Penta spoke with Vassell about his journey, his journey to opening a business in one of the most unprecedented periods of art and scientific theory that inspired the current exhibition.
PENTA: You have a whole portfolio. How long have you worked in the art space?
Nicola Vassell: Almost 20 years now. And I can’t believe I’m saying it so casually, but it’s true, it’s for my second decade in the business. So I’ve been active for a long time, and you know, it renews itself and I keep finding new heights to try to climb.
Has there been a work of art that maybe ignited your passion or at least made you think it’s something I want to devote my life to?
What a great question. Once I got into the art, I would say the work of Caspar David Friedrich and Robert Irwin really cemented so much for me. And then, over the course of my travels, the work of Kerry James Marshall, Alma Thomas and Edna Manley has become a fundamental anchor for my goal.
How did you establish yourself as an exhibition curator, then a private art consultant?
It was very natural, in the sense that the need arose and I never necessarily wanted to give up everything I had learned from the previous role. So things got a little mixed up in a way. I am also a very curious person. Even though I know most of my company’s expenses, it is always interesting to explore the different paths of the administrative role. So yes, it happened because the need arose and because I was looking for another way to learn.
Is there a city that you constantly return to when it comes to art that you never doubt will unveil something exciting?
Oh my God, the classics, you know, obviously my own town. Here, truly breathtaking artistic experiences never fail. London has also always been a favorite. I have good friends and fond memories there, and visiting great museums, galleries and gardens was unique to my experience there.
Why did you decide to open your gallery now? Was this a concept you had been thinking about for years or was it more based on an immediate need that you saw and decided to pursue?
It’s something I thought about, but never really pursued vigorously for a number of reasons. First of all, the timing, you know, the right window never seemed to present itself to me. And I always thought that due to the sheer scale of the work, in a way, I would need almost perfect timing to get into that flow.
However, once I felt I had to push the boundaries of my advice, I began to imagine in a more vivid way what it might be like to have a gallery. I have a sense of what that might look like and I think in the whirlwind of the pandemic, the social landscape, and an increase in activism in general for black rights, women’s rights, sort of. perfect storm has emerged. To have the amplification of those voices and at the same time think about how to open a gallery in the midst of the worst kind of crisis our generation has ever seen, while trying to nurture part of the narrative that the social fabric has been clamoring 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 space for the art and for the black and brown stories that are centered in that space, so thank you. Can you share a bit of the background of the current exhibition?
I’m so excited about this because I think it really speaks to the core of our vision, which is the storytelling aspect. I operate on a principle called cultural phenomenology, a small idea that I came up with that has its roots in phenomenological theories of the movement of light and space. It assesses the look and feel of particular art, but you can apply it to anything. Are you collecting all the right information or are you collecting enough? Does your perception work with the space of the most precise information? It’s very scientific and I thought about what it would be like to apply that to cultural events.
We could obviously think a lot about our historical account of the landscape, which is a very real thing, but also, the fact that people’s lives were changing so drastically, and the landscape that they stood on, looked on, was changing. Historically, sort of literally about the land we inhabit and our relationship to it. And then we thought, metaphorically, who are we going to become when the landscape beneath our feet becomes firm again, when it stabilizes. It happens 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 that makes people travel a bit, which is always nice.
This article has been edited for length and clarity.