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Who Will Shape the Art World in 2021?: ARTnews Presents ‘The Deciders’

Who and what determines what counts as art in the year to come—and for the sake of the future farther out on the horizon? Artists, curators, gallerists, museum directors, auction specialists, social and political activists—the cast of active players in the art world is eclectic and diverse. And then there are the institutions that help give that cast a pedestal or a stage. For our second issue dedicated to Deciders, the editors of ARTnews looked to the present in an attempt to foresee what’s yet to come in a year with a lot on the line.


Patrisse Cullors
Lucas Museum of Narrative Art
Easy Otabor
David Schrader

NXTHVN founders Jason Price, left, and Titus Kaphar seated on the steps at the entrance of NXTHVN.
NXTHVN founders Jason Price, left, and Titus Kaphar. Photo: John Dennis; Courtesy NXTHVN and Gagosian.


Vaughn Spann: Beach Side, 2019
Vaughn Spann, Beach Side, 2019. Courtesy Almine Rech

When artist Vaughn Spann became a fellow in 2019 at NXTHVN, an art center in New Haven, Connecticut, his name was not familiar to many in the art world. Since then, his presence has grown more and more inescapable through representation at Almine Rech, a network with five locations around the world, and shows at closely watched galleries (Night Gallery in Los Angeles, David Castillo in Miami, Kaikai Kiki in Tokyo).

Spann is one of many success stories seeded at NXTHVN—founded in 2017 by artist Titus Kaphar in collaboration with Jason Price and Jonathan Brand—which offers apprenticeships, work spaces, and exhibitions that provide a pipeline for young emerging artists. Price said that when NXTHVN was launched, he and the other founders asked a question: “How do you create environments for collaboration and trust—but in my own backyard, for the benefit of NXTHVN and the artists?” The operation now attracts major financial supporters—including mega-gallery Gagosian, which, when it started representing Kaphar in 2020, also began endowing NXTHVN apprenticeships and having Gagosian gallery directors mentor NXTHVN fellows. Alex Greenberger

Faith Ringgold, Maya’s Quilt of Life, 1989.
Faith Ringgold, Maya’s Quilt of Life, 1989. Courtesy Swann Auction Galleries.

Nigel Freeman

In the years since he initiated Swann Auction Galleries’ inaugural African American Art sale in 2007 in New York, Nigel Freeman has helped the category achieve new milestones as recognition of Black artists has grown throughout the modern and contemporary art market. In April 2018, the category brought in Swann’s highest sale result that year when the African American Art auction realized a total of $4.5 million, double the $2.4 million total for the 2007 event. But Freeman, recently appointed as a vice president at Swann, has more than just sales figures in mind. “It’s always been the goal of the department to raise the monetary value of the artworks,” he said, “but also the stature of African American artists.” Of the recent swell of attention for a category for which Swann helped lay the foundation, Freeman added, “we’ve seen continued growth in the breadth of the market and individual prices. We were the first auction house to sell a major Charles White drawing or a Barkley L. Hendricks large figurative painting.” In the years since, Swann has worked to meet demand for a widening group of contemporary artists.

Portrait of Nigel Freeman.
Nigel Freeman. Courtesy Swann Auction Galleries.

Introducing artists who have never before been seen at auction has been a pillar of the department’s foundation. “It greatly expanded the secondary market in the first five years,” Freeman said of work that has also proven profitable outside the salesroom. Some consignments that have come through the auction house’s doors have appeared in important museum shows. Two works in the watershed traveling exhibition “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” changed hands in Swann sales, including David Hammons’s Untitled (Double Body Print Collage) from 1976 (sold at Swann in April 2017 for $389,000) and Kay Brown’s The Devil and His Game from 1970 (sold in October 2008 for $6,480).

In the past few years, Freeman has led the category to new highs with big estate sales. In 2015, Swann sold Faith Ringgold’s Maya’s Quilt of Life (1989) from the estate of Maya Angelou for $461,000 (nearly twice its high estimate of $250,000) to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. “It’s a very significant contribution,” Freeman said of one of Ringgold’s quintessential story quilts. In April 2015, Freeman brought Norman Lewis’s Cathedral (1950) to auction from a Vermont family estate—it was purchased by Tate Modern.

Swann has continued to push artists’ records. In October 2019, a new auction high of $389,000 was achieved for Elizabeth Catlett when the St. Louis Art Museum acquired her 1962 sculpture Seated Woman. This past January, Swann’s sale of the collection of Johnson Publishing—the company behind Ebony and Jet magazines—saw a 100-percent sell-through to realize $2.7 million, more than double the presale high estimate. That sale featured auction debuts for 22 artists and set new records for 85 percent of the artists offered, including Carrie Mae Weems, Richard Mayhew, and Loïs Mailou Jones.

This past June, Swann sold a Richmond Barthé sculpture, Feral Benga (1986), for more than 10 times its high estimate, setting a new artist’s record at $629,000. And historical and contemporary Black artists’ auction records are quickly climbing, with Ed Clark, Romare Bearden, and Simone Leigh each seeing new records in Sotheby’s October “Contemporary Curated” sale—a testament to the strong momentum that Swann has helped build. “Now it’s quite clear that [there are] more African American artists coming to auction,” Freeman said, “and more competition.” Angelica Villa

Installation view of the exhibition 'Black Voices/Black Microcosm,' 2020, at CFHILL, Stockholm.
Installation view of the exhibition “Black Voices/Black Microcosm,” 2020, at CFHILL, Stockholm. Courtesy Destinee Ross Sutton.

Destinee Ross Sutton

Destinee Ross Sutton, a 25-year-old independent curator and art adviser, has had a big year. Over the summer, Christie’s tapped her to organize a showcase featuring 22 emerging and mid-career Black artists, with all proceeds going directly to the artists. “The response was almost overwhelming, a feeding frenzy,” she said of the sale organized under the title “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud).” Ross Sutton said that while the sale drew typical attention from speculators, it also brought in a flood of serious inquiries. “All of a sudden I was getting requests from true patrons applauding my efforts and wanting to support [them].”

Portrait of Destinee Ross Sutton.
Destinee Ross Sutton.

An exhibition earlier, this past spring, put her on the map. Ross Sutton’s acclaimed “Black Voices/Black Microcosms” at the CFHILL exhibition space in Stockholm featured 30 emerging Black contemporary artists, including Rashaad Newsome, David Shrobe, Amoako Boafo, and Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe. Through such showcases, she has forged ties with collectors building portfolios of Black artists spanning the U.S., Europe, and Asia. Ross Sutton is also unique among conventional art advisers in that she is a recurring figure in the work of artists like Boafo, Kehinde Wiley, and Derrick Adams, whose portrait of her appeared in Beyoncé’s visual album Black Is King. In one of her latest endeavors, she also collaborated with her client, fashion stylist Law Roach, for a feature in InStyle magazine. (Roach also added a work by Khari Turner from “Say It Loud” to his collection.)

Following the Christie’s sale, Ross Sutton has been recognized for her efforts in protecting Black artists from speculative buyers. “In all my placements I am very picky and strategic,” she said. “I want to know how dedicated the buyer is. How well do I know them? If I don’t know the potential buyer, I do my due diligence. It’s a lot of research at times to find out if they are patrons rather than speculators.”

Hoping to place the works of young talent in collections with long-term promise, she has developed a special sales agreement. Since February, she has been fine-tuning her contract and folded in terms taken from the 1971 “Projansky Agreement,” a legal document created to protect artists’ rights over their works. Ross Sutton’s terms state that 15 percent of all resale proceeds will return to the artist; no auction resales will transpire for three to five years; and artists retain first right of refusal for that period in case of a private sale. Ross Sutton learned lessons from market movements surrounding artists like Julie Curtiss, Jordan Casteel, and, most notoriously, Boafo—and so far, none of the 15 Boafo works she has placed in private collections have surfaced at auction.

Now, Ross Sutton is in the process of starting her own VR gallery as well as developing a nonprofit organization called Black Artist Collective. She also put together a virtual show, “Black Voices: Friend of My Mind,” for which she focused on the theme of respite for Black subjects. “There are so many moments where others try to deny us that simple pleasure,” she said, “and we are often encouraged to deny it ourselves because some of us are too often struggling to survive. I want to show us thriving, reclining, enjoying small moments of happiness or quiet.” Angelica Villa

Covers of, from left, Arlene Dávila's Latinx Art: Artists, Markets, and Politics; José Esteban Muñoz's The Sense of Brown; and Lorraine O′Grady's Writing in Space, 1973–2019 (edited by Aruna D′Souza).
From left: Arlene Dávila’s Latinx Art: Artists, Markets, and Politics; José Esteban Muñoz’s The Sense of Brown; and Lorraine O′Grady’s Writing in Space, 1973–2019 (edited by Aruna D′Souza). ©Duke University Press

Duke University Press

Many a university press publishes worthy books about art—but none engages the subject and all it can mean quite like Duke University Press. From its base in Durham, North Carolina, Duke has devoted fruitful attention to writers like Fred Moten (the recently awarded MacArthur Fellowship grantee whose trilogy of volumes titled “consent not to be a single being” mixes art criticism with theory, poetry, and philosophy) and José Esteban Muñoz (whose new book The Sense of Brown is a work of queer Latinx studies issued as part of the “Perverse Modernities” series edited by Jack Halberstam and Lisa Lowe). Then there are thematic overviews like Latinx Art: Artists, Markets, Politics by Arlene Dávila and books by artists themselves, such as Lorraine O’Grady’s Writing in Space, 1973–2019, and Maya Stovall’s Liquor Store Theatre, which draws on years of artistic and ethnographic research around Detroit.

Asked what makes a proposal suitable for Duke, Kenneth Wissoker, the press’s senior executive editor, said, “If you tell me what the book is and I can predict what it’s going to say, then it’s just the machinery clanking on.” Duke books, by contrast, tend to surprise and strike up a collective hum. Andy Battaglia

View of the exhibition 'Pacha, Llaqta, Wasichay: Indigenous Space, Modern Architecture, New Art,' 2018, at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
View of the exhibition “Pacha, Llaqta, Wasichay: Indigenous Space, Modern Architecture, New Art,” 2018, at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Photo: Ron Amstutz

Marcela Guerrero

Portrait of Marcela Guerrero.
Marcela Guerrero. Photo: Ron Amstutz

Since arriving at the Whitney Museum as an assistant curator in 2017, Marcela Guerrero has wielded outsize influence in how the museum shows Latinx art—especially through her 2018 exhibition “Pacha, Llaqta, Wasichay: Indigenous Space, Modern Architecture, New Art.” “I wanted to explore something that I felt was in the air,” she said of a show that marked the first time the Whitney had presented a thematic exhibition of emerging Latinx work organized by a Latinx curator. “It felt to me that I could make a powerful statement by working with artists from my generation and also examining a theme that would help show Latinx artists in a light that hadn’t been seen before.”

For future curatorial projects, Guerrero said her interests include contemporary art in Puerto Rico and artists who use deep listening in their practice. She has also worked behind the scenes to ensure that her colleagues are actively considering the work of Latinx artists in the full range of the Whitney’s activities, from acquisition committees to curatorial advisement around the Whitney Biennial. “There’s a lot of work happening in the background,” Guerrero said.

Guerrero is determined to help curators coming up, citing her own experience as a curatorial fellow to Cecilia Fajardo-Hill and Andrea Giunta on the widely acclaimed traveling exhibition “Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985.” “I started forming this idea of who I want to be for younger people—interns, assistants, fellows,” she said. “How can I leverage the relative power that I have? I’m trying to fill a void that I felt as a young assistant.” Maximilíano Durón

Kayode Ojo, Overdressed (Green), 2020.
Kayode Ojo, Overdressed (Green), 2020. Courtesy Martos Gallery

Ebony L. Haynes

Portrait of Ebony L. Haynes.
Ebony L. Haynes. Photo: Elliott Jerome Brown Jr.; Courtesy David Zwirner.

Ebony L. Haynes, who has described her curatorial vision as something akin to “Nina Simone mixed with Beyoncé,” made her name as the mastermind behind Martos Gallery, which, along with its project space Shoot the Lobster, became known in New York over the past decade for its offbeat, cutting-edge programming. Rising stars like Kayode Ojo, Carolyn Lazard, Juliana Huxtable, and Tau Lewis have all benefited from showings of various kinds there—and launched to fame not long thereafter.

In September, Haynes made an attention-grabbing jump into the fold of the mega-gallery David Zwirner, which revealed that after attempting to court her as a director, talks led to the idea of starting a new gallery space to be operated with an all-Black staff and a designated internship program for Black students to make their way into a much-needed pipeline. Haynes will head up the new operation, with plans to open in the spring, and the educational aspect of it is key. Of the staff she hopes to work with, she said, “they will be able to learn in an environment where they are not the minority and, hopefully, go on to long and prominent careers in the art world—and be the new and needed voices at the table.” Alex Greenberger