As protests for racial justice continue, the art world has responded by featuring the work of black artists and exalting the influence of the Black Lives Matter movement on the art industry. Almost overnight, Twitter and Instagram has become flooded with lists of black galleries, black artists, and black musicians whose projects you can support. However, one black art dealer and critic, M. Charlene Stevens, remains suspicious.
“I find a lot of it insincere when I see emails from these galleries saying ‘Thank you for donating to these causes,’” Stevens said. “But black lives need careers. How many black people do you plan on hiring for leadership positions this year? That’s a real change.”
Stevens, a self-described black art critic who “has not yet made it,” is acutely aware of the challenges facing African Americans in a field dominated by white critics and curators. According to one study of 30 prominent American museums, the work of African-American artists accounts for just 2.37 percent of all acquisitions and gifts and just 7.6 percent of exhibitions. “We have been excluded from the art world and haven’t had the opportunities or wall space,” Stevens said. “There’s so much talent out there that just needs nurturing and the exposure.”
When Stevens majored in art history at UCLA in the early 1990s, the program catered to “rich white girls” whose parents were either private collectors or founders of the city, she said. Without rich and powerful connections to get high-profile internships, Stevens wandered at the outskirts of the art world for years, taking on temp jobs such as production and nonprofit work. But soon, she realized that “everything pointed back to art.”
In 2016, at the age of 46, she decided to craft her own space by founding the Arcade Project. Envisioned as a collectible print zine, it has since become a platform for bringing under-represented talents to the surface and narrowing the opportunity gap for all artists. Last year at the SXSW Week Art Fair, Arcade Project presented Dark Meat, a series of works on paper by Elizabeth Axtman that juxtapose Jeffrey Dahmer and O.J. Simpson and explore the fetishization and dehumanization of the black male body. At the Satellite Art Show, Stevens also curated an immersive photo and video installation by Eva Mueller, Twisted Twins – XXY, that portrayed two figures engaging in love, lust, and play in a dystopian environment.
“I am an art dealer,” Stevens said, “so I’m not going to close myself off on great work made by people of any color.”
In some way, the forced closing of physical gallery spaces has leveled the playing field for Stevens. When the creative world has shifted online, Stevens jumped on the opportunity and turned Arcade Project into an interactive virtual gallery, featuring the first online exhibition, Spring Forward, in collaboration with photographer Ruben Natal-San Miguel. Her upcoming exhibition for Pride month will feature queer abstraction. The theme, Gay Guerrilla, the title of a long-form piano piece composed by Julius Eastman, will pay homage to the black gay composer and inspire others to explore the intersectionality of race and gender.
Growing up in a black middle class family, and pursuing an art-teaching credential while teaching in the Los Angeles Unified School District has made Stevens keen to the inequalities still prevalent in the art world. Stevens said that while a segment of the population whose parents are collectors and on the executive board of galleries “get the fancy internships in high school,” another segment of the population goes to public schools where art programs get eliminated due to budget cuts.
“If you just look at 9th Avenue, there’s public housing on one side and galleries selling multimillion-dollar work on the other,” she said. “Especially after the pandemic, states and local budgets are getting drained, and the first thing that’s gonna go are art programs. Art becomes the playground of the well-off.”
Stevens’ training in art history, art studio and art education has given her a robust stance in voicing the unequal distribution of opportunities in the art world. Last year, the New York Times published an op-ed titled “The Dominance of the White Male Critic,” in which curators Elizabeth Méndez Berry and Chi-hui Yang pointed out the marginalization Stevens had always felt in the critics’ world and called for white male critics to make room for younger critics of color. Feeling threatened by the “step aside” mandate, Kurt McVey, a white freelance critic based in New York, published his personal pushback in Whitehot Magazine.
Stevens immediately reacted to the article in Hyperallergic, passionately sharing her personal experience fighting an uphill battle in the industry. “I don’t owe anything to a mediocre White male who has not achieved the requisite level of art historical scholarship and has, I believe, coasted on his privilege,” she wrote. “I don’t owe him a seat at the table, a pat on the back, or even a ‘thank you.’” The article received widespread support and had 1,800 shares.
Though Stevens cherishes the attention artists of color are receiving now, her long-time experience in a traditionally white art world has made her wary that the support white people are demonstrating will die down as the news cycle and national attention shift.
“There’s a horrible thing being said in the art world that black artists are a trend and it will pass. And that makes me so angry because black people have been here since this country was founded,” Stevens said. “I’m not a trend. I want to be a stepping stone. I want to lead people to bigger and better things.”