The call from famed auction house Christie’s came right in the middle of George Floyd protests. Destinee Ross-Sutton, a 24-year-old art curator based out of Brooklyn, New York, admits she was “a bit wary” at first.
“Christie’s reached out to one of the artists I worked with and he directed them to me,” she told Business Insider. “Around the time of all the protests, [I was] a bit wary [about the outreach], but after talking to them, I realized they were really genuine about this — they wanted this to be the beginning of something good.”
Ross-Sutton is known for highlighting the work of Black artists, and her collaboration with Christie’s led to the “Say It Loud …” exhibit that showcased artwork from all over the African diaspora. It ran from July 31 to August 21 and helped to propel both Ross-Sutton and a collective of Black artists into the international spotlight.
“It’s not just about getting Black people in the room. It’s about making sure that they feel welcome,” she said. “Christie’s was really excited about the people I suggested, and it just snowballed from there.”
But Ross-Sutton’s success didn’t just stop at the Christie’s exhibit. At the end of July, she was contacted again — by direct message this time, on social media. Someone alerted her that Beyoncé just released “Black Is King,” and it featured a portrait of Ross-Sutton by one of the artists that she has worked with on projects, Derrick Adams.
“Beyoncé had found out about Derrick’s work because [her family has] been collectors for a really long time,” she said. “They had started venturing into Black art more, and so they already had some of his work.”
Despite already reaching such success at a young age, Ross-Sutton says her entry into the art world wasn’t intentional
Born and raised in Harlem, New York, Ross-Sutton attended Brooklyn’s Kingsborough Community College and shacked down in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Most of her childhood, she says, she spent around art, but she actually started off studying journalism and photography.
“I’ve always sort of been surrounded by art,” she said. “So this is me returning back to it.”
Her career in the art world began with a volunteer gig at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts in Brooklyn, where Ross-Sutton did menial tasks — things like inserting names into a database and picking up picture frames. But one day, she says, she began to really study the art around her and figured she could make a difference in helping to boost the narratives of Black artists, not just at MoCADA, but at other museums around the world.
“I can begin to level the playing field so that Black artists, who’ve been basically put to the side, now have the chance to reach their full potential,” she said. “This is just my way of trying to make the world a little better. I guess it’s like my little brand of activism.”
In 2018, she decided to take the ideas she had about exhibiting Black art and put together a show near New York University in Greenwich Village. The show was called “I met God and She is…” and focused on how Black women are portrayed or portray themselves in art. This spring, she did another show, in Stockholm, Sweden, called “BLACK VOICES / BLACK MICROCOSM” which was in collaboration with the CF Hill art gallery.
Then, Christie’s called.
Ross-Sutton’s exhibit at Christie’s comes at a time of change in the art world and a reimagining of the role Black artists play in it
The art world has not been immune to the social upheaval that has been occurring in the United States. Black professionals in all industries have been calling for more representation and equity in the sectors in which they work, and it’s been no secret that the art world has been notoriously white.
In 2016, the American Alliance of Museums found that museums are overwhelmingly led by white people: 93% of museum directors, 92.6% of museum chairs, and 89.3% of board members are white.
In 2018, Artnet found that artwork by African Americans accounts for only 1.2% of the global art market. The year before, the website found that only 8.8% of artists represented by top New York galleries are African American, while 80% are white. The numbers are even worse for those of Latinx, Middle Eastern, Pacific Island, and Native American descent — those groups represent 2.1%, 1%, 0.2%, and 0.1% of the market respectively.
The numbers are even slimmer when it comes to art curators specifically.
In 2018, the New York Times reported on the percentage of art curators at the top museums in the country that identify as being people of color — LACMA ranks near the top, with 36% BIPOC art curators, while the Met was at the bottom with just 11%. That particular report didn’t break down ethnicities within the “people of color” generalization, but in 2015, a study by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation found that though 16% of museum leadership positions are held by people of color, only 4% of that number consisted of African Americans.
“I definitely think that there is a movement,” Ross-Sutton said. “When you think of music and you think of food and you think of dance and clothing — a lot of it originates from black culture. So we have to consider that and we have to appreciate that. And we have to realize that there is true value in what we create, and we need to be able to build our legacies off of what we create.”
Ross-Sutton wanted to ensure she made a statement with her Christie’s exhibit
For her Christie’s exhibit, she commissioned work by artists from all over the world: from Nigeria to Ghana, South Africa, to Queens, New York. Ross-Sutton says that Instagram is the main place she finds her talent and the platform helps tremendously when it comes to finding and highlighting Black talent.
In fact, Nigerian artist Juwon Aderemi, whose work is present in the Christie’s exhibit, reached out to Ross-Sutton via Instagram. Aderemi is part of a Nigerian art collective, and connecting with Ross-Sutton now gives her more access to artwork in that region.
“People will tag me in posts and get me to see their art,” she said. “Social media been a huge tool, especially now that we can’t go outside and meet people.”
After working with Christie’s and learning her portrait had been featured by Beyoncé, Ross-Sutton found herself working with celebrity stylist Law Roach for Zendaya’s cover shoot with InStyle magazine. The shoot has become notable for making use of only Black talent: Black designers, Black hair and makeup artists, Black photographers, and, thanks to Ross-Sutton, Black art work.
“Law Roach has been very good with using his platform for promoting Black creativity,” Ross-Sutton said. “He realizes he has his platform and that he needs to use it for good, and he can use it for not just self-promotion, but also for the promotion of other Black people. I advise him on building his art collection and was really grateful when he told me he wanted to include Black artists.”
A post shared by Law Roach (@luxurylaw)
But the journey is just beginning for Ross-Sutton. And at just 24, she is already in the perfect position to help lead the next generation of leaders in the art world and to help define the next generation of Blackness around the globe.
“The tides are turning where Black art is being seen as more valuable,” she said. “And we can’t have just a room full of rich, old white men deciding what this value is, because they don’t understand the cultural significance. They didn’t live the cultural significance. They just don’t know. And so we need to realize that their voices aren’t the most important ones just because they’re sitting in those chairs.”
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