Making Waves In The Elite Art World: Meet The Black Millennial Art Advisor Disrupting The Status Quo
Art Basel kicks off in Miami today. Thousands of jet-setters are embarking upon a weekend of art and cultural experiences. As the art world now includes enthusiasts of all backgrounds, it is important to shine a spotlight on those who haven’t been represented in the past. What once was a gated world for the uber elite has become democratized through technology and broader networks. The art landscape now includes many diverse voices.
Meet Chela Mitchell, an art advisor, based in New York City. I spoke with Chela, after meeting at Sotheby’s, to learn more on how she’s creating an impact as a young black female art advisor.
Kate Talbot: Tell us about your background and journey to become an art advisor.
Chela Mitchell: I have a background in fashion styling but have loved art since childhood. I grew up in Southeast, Washington, D.C., which still, until this day, has a stigma known for poverty and crime. The Smithsonian was my first introduction to art. We didn’t have museums or galleries in our neighborhood. I’m grateful to have had access to ones that were and beautifully curated.
Last year, I read an article about the history of black art dealers in the United States, and how they were left out and discouraged from operating within this space. That story struck a chord. I watched racism affect deserving people throughout my career. How frustrating is it to have accomplished so much in your life, to have a passion for your job, and you’re unable to flourish or share ideas because you’re reduced to your race by your colleagues?
Talbot: How did your time as a fashion stylist influence your pivot to art?
Mitchell: I was a fashion stylist working for a luxury e-commerce company. I did not feel appreciated there and decided to resign. I took time to figure out what I could do next that would really make me happy. I was at my friend Alison Causer’s studio shortly after leaving my job. I ran the idea of opening a gallery to her. She said, “Try advisory first. You have an eye, you have the connections, and you know about art.”
The rest is history. My career segue into art was inspired by the constant need to be surrounded by masterpieces. There’s nothing like a Margiela collection fresh off the runway or the messages that you find in a Robert Colescott painting. These are beautiful works that will live beyond us. I like the idea of having my hand in something that people will still be able to witness 100 years from now.
Talbot: How did you get your business off the ground?
Mitchell: After the meeting at Alison’s studio, I was ready. When I make my mind up about something that I want to do, I obsess over it. It’s all that I can see at the moment. Once I decided to start the advisory it took three days to build the website, I asked my husband who is a graphic designer to make the logo, and then I announced the launch of Chela Mitchell Art, LLC on Instagram. I was freelance styling at the time, so I didn’t have to put pressure on myself to grow the business too fast. I think that’s so important. You need to let your business grow at its own pace for it to be successful. Sometimes that’s three months, other times it’s three years.
Talbot: Can you tell me about your business and the clients you work with?
Mitchell: I provide art advisory to private and corporate collectors who are looking to navigate the contemporary art market. I’ve been doing a lot of work lately centered around women and people of color within the contemporary space. I recently visited Neiman Marcus’ Hudson Yards store. I loved how much art was displayed but instantly noticed the lack of women and people of color represented. I contacted them directly, expressing my concern, and they gave me the opportunity to share some artists that I think would make great additions to their collection. We are currently in the process of figuring out which pieces they want to acquire.
Talbot: How has social media tools like Instagram allow you to better connect with your community and find inspiration?
Mitchell: What would I do without the ‘gram? Instagram is an invaluable tool for my business. I can connect with artists, galleries, and collectors from all over the world. I’ve built a lot of connections. Sharing photos from exhibitions/shows started as a way to document work that I like, but now these posts make art accessible to people who don’t live in New York. There are a few accounts that inspire me and one art account in particular that makes me laugh.
I follow @gallerygurls, a curated art Instagram, painter@ninachanel @danielarsham, his creative mind lives in the future just like mine. I love the time he takes to develop his projects. He’s always like “3 years in the making for this!” @cerebral_women is an account that posts work for women by women. Phyllis Hollis, the owner of that account, is impressive. She reached out to me, asking how she could help me grow.
I met Melanie Brister from Sotheby’s after following her on Instagram as well as Khadijat Oseni. They’re my art squad. We’re always encouraging and sharing events.
Talbot: What struggles have you faced as a millennial woman of color within a world that is primarily elite?
Mitchell: People doubt your abilities or write you off altogether. I’ve had people say racist things to me at gallery openings or ask me how I’ve heard about an event that I’m attending when I’m a member of the organization that’s hosting. Asking questions like this is a passive-aggressive way of saying, “What are you doing here? You don’t belong!” Some people won’t connect with me simply because their idea of what an art advisor looks like is an older, white man. I’m a dark-skinned, young, black woman. I deserve to be in this world. A lot of the conversations about diversity within the art world are centered around artists of color, but I would love to see more talk about inclusion on the business side. It is so crucial for artists to have professionals who can speak to narratives that they lived because they’ve lived them too.
Talbot: Conversely, how has your network helped your business grow?
Mitchell: I’m blessed to have people within my network who understand what I have to offer. They are invested in my growth and excited about the energy that I’m bringing to the art world. I’ve met a lot of the clients that I have now through referrals. I started with one client, and now I have a solid ten!
Talbot: New York City is the epicenter of the art world. How do you immerse yourself daily to be a better advisor for your clients?
Mitchell: I cannot function without reading art publications daily in print and online. Artnet News is my #1 go-to. My other favorites are Cultured Magazine, Surface Magazine, Artforum, Hyperallergic — they have great opinion pieces. I also love The Art Gorgeous that has a fun energy online. They write a lot about women’s accomplishments within the art world, which is lovely.
The galleries that I’ve been frequenting most lately have been DeBuck Gallery, Jack Shainman, Jeffrey Deitch, and Monica King, who is such a boss — she does not subscribe to arrogant art dealer stereotype. I am a member of NADA, so I’ve visited some outstanding shows with members like Company Gallery, Jack Barrett, and Sargent’s Daughters. My favorite museums to visit are The Bass and Pérez in Miami, The Hirshhorn, and the National Portrait Gallery in D.C. In New York, I usually visit MoMA, The Whitney, and The Brant Foundation. My favorite New York museum visit ever was Kerry James Marshall: Mastry at the Met Breuer. Simply remarkable.
Talbot: What are the trends you see in the art world going into 2020?
Mitchell: While I don’t think figurative painting is out, I’m feeling a strong return to abstraction with my clients. Art fairs like Frieze and Art Basel have become a fixture of millennial culture. They’ve grown in this way because we appreciate experiences and excellent programming. We want memorable content to share. I also think that millennials are collecting and will collect in ways that the art world has never seen before. I’m hoping that our generation builds some of the most culturally robust collections that the world has seen. Collections with artists of color, women, LGBTQ, and disabled artists. These are the communities that we’re advocating for, and our collections will be a reflection of that.
Talbot: What advice would you have for a young woman forging her path into the art advising world?
Mitchell: Before you get started, think about what you can bring to an advisory that no one else has — that’s your niche. That’s a huge part of your personal brand. Educate yourself on the type of art that you want to sell. If anyone sleeps on you, wake them up!