When Easy Otabor was growing up in Chicago, he didn’t know what to make of an art world that can be forbidding even to those who know its entryways. But he soon found his way in as a gallerist and tastemaker through fashion, music, and other cultural portals now playing an increasingly important role in changing the rules.
“Back then you didn’t see how you can use art, and what you can do with it,” Otabor said of his early aspiring-artist years spent sketching sneakers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. “It was kind of like one of those things kids make fun of you for—like, ‘What are you going to do with that? You’re going to be an artist?!’”
Decades later, Otabor is hard at work to change that for the sake of an art world that can be more inclusive and inviting to input of different kinds. Anthony Gallery, which he opened at the end of 2019 in Chicago’s Fulton River District neighborhood and named in tribute to his late father, has played home to exhibitions like “Unite Through Culture” (dedicated to the Windy City basketball legend Michael Jordan) and “Festival: A Visual Exploration of Hip-Hop & Music” (featuring 30 artists working with photography to document the social significance of rap). And Otabor, who is 34, has been active all around his beloved hometown, collaborating with artist Theaster Gates’s community-minded Rebuild Foundation and doing what he can to be a connector.
“I’m a middle child, always in the middle—between younger generations and a lot of OGs and older people I’ve known,” Otabor said. “I have to bring all these people together who wouldn’t normally be together so all parties can be involved.”
After a year at the Art Institute of Chicago, he changed course early on and started looking to fashion for its functional appeal. For a brand he started in his early 20s called Fallen Stars, he made T-shirts devoted to forgotten celebrities—including one riffing on a famous Esquire magazine cover featuring Muhammad Ali from 1968. (“Nobody really got it,” he said, “because no one my age even knew about that magazine.”)
He started to see a future in front of him when his designs caught the eye of heroes around town. “We were shopping the shirts around and ran into Kanye West and GLC at a store on the South Side,” he said. “They were cool and took a picture with us—and it gave me a sense that this is possible, that we can make it happen.”
The concept of curation was something he learned at RSVP Gallery, a storied destination for fashion hounds, sneakerheads, skateboarders, and connoisseurs of collectibles that was founded by Virgil Abloh and Don Crawley. He worked for years as a buyer and brand director for the self-described “conceptual retail experience,” where he developed an interest in rarity and modes of display that pointed him toward art. The graffiti-inspired creations of KAWS were an early interest, and a trip to Atlanta solely to see a 2012 exhibition of his work at the High Museum of Art opened up new ways of engaging art through the ages. “That was a rabbit hole that forced me to start going to museums,” Otabor said.
While consulting in various ways for style makers and pop stars (among them Rihanna and Travis Scott), Otabor devoted more time to artists he started to work with. One such artist, Tom Sachs—with whom he created a T-shirt to benefit Rebuild—said, “Easy brings positive energy to everything he touches. He has an indefatigable spirit and knows that art is not limited to galleries and museums but is also in stadiums and the streets. Instead of pigeonholing ideas into genres, he challenges traditional understanding of how culture is made and creates an open exchange for ideas to be generated and shared.”
For an Anthony Gallery show titled “1988”—an allusion to an illustrious NBA All-Star Game in Chicago—Otabor assembled work by 30 artists including Nina Chanel Abney, Sterling Ruby, and Wes Lang. He also assembled crowds that were more mixed than usual. “I wanted to see all types of different people,” Otabor said. “In everything I do, I want diversity.”
Prospects on the horizon include a group show titled “Something About Us” in January and a possible Anthony Gallery expansion to Hawaii. “I want a relaxed vibe,” he said. “Artists can come. They can chill. They can do a show.” Otherwise, Otabor said he will keep following the muse that has led him down fruitful paths before, with hopes of passing on what he can. “I’m always trying to learn and get better to give other people platforms to succeed too. It’s not just about me. I want to show people what’s possible and what we can do when we work together and give back to the places we’re from.”