Writer and critic Amarie Gipson spoke with Ebony L. Haynes about her journey as a gallery director and her plans to shift the art world’s pace.
Born in Toronto, Ebony L. Haynes is a gallerist, writer and curator based in New York City. Her scholarly background is in anthropology and African studies. Although her initial career focus was on the music industry, Haynes always maintained a critical writing practice. After two years of living and writing in South America, she returned to Toronto to pursue a Master’s degree in Art Criticism and Curatorial Practice at OCAD University. In 2011, she moved to New York City and began working in art galleries. For the past five years, Haynes worked as the Director of Martos Gallery in New York, and Shoot the Lobster in New York and LA. In 2020, Haynes founded Black Art Sessions, a virtual program series that functions as an educational pipeline for young people pursuing careers in art galleries. Later that year, Haynes joined mega gallery David Zwirner as a director and became the mastermind behind the gallery’s new commercial space in Tribeca, 52 Walker. Writer, critic, and editor Amarie Gipson recently had the opportunity to speak with Haynes via Zoom, and enjoyed a wide-ranging conversation about navigating art spaces as a black woman and much more.
Amarie Gipson: Ebony, thank you for taking the time to speak with me. I’ve been a fan of yours since I saw your show Ebsploitation at Martos Gallery in 2019. A lot has changed since then, how does it feel to be in the position you’re in right now?
Ebony Haynes: Thank you. It feels great to be here, I’m really excited about the position because it’s all my own invention. I’ve managed to create my dream job. I get to program space with artists that I think are really interesting and I’m excited to engage with them and work closely to share the work with the world. We get to work on books together, which is really important to me and I get to sell the work. Sometimes I wake up and I wonder ‘How did I get this job?’ I never thought I’d be here.
AG: You’re originally from Toronto and you have been working in the art world for the past decade. Can you describe the temperature of NYC’s art scene when you moved to the city in 2011?
EH: There was a sense of uncertainty and constant conversations about the state of affairs for the art market post-2008 financial crash. It was intimidating, there would be a couple more years before I began to see Black people in gallery spaces. That’s not to say that we weren’t there, but I never crossed paths with any. There also wasn’t any language surrounding equity or accessibility at the time.
AG: Once you started working in galleries, how did you navigate those spaces as a Black woman on the frontlines?
EH: I feel really lucky because I haven’t had any bad work experiences in galleries with my bosses in particular. They really gave me a sense of agency. They really encouraged me to ask questions and take initiative. I was never afraid to ask for guidance. I had to learn on the spot, and I felt capable to do it. It’s not like that for so many. But then, of course, the microaggressions. In the gallery, a microaggression is everything that happens. People wouldn’t want to talk to me, they want to talk to my boss. But when I am the boss, they still think my young, white assistant is in charge.
AG: Because clearly, the assumption here is that Black people can’t possibly own galleries or be in charge?
EH: It’s interesting because if we think about it, it’s very possible that a seasoned, white collector has never engaged with many Black gallery directors or owners. Even in 2011, conversations around equity and accessibility weren’t something people were actively trying to have.
AG: How would you describe this shift, from 2011 to now, in efforts to make the field more equitable? What has that looked like in the commercial sector?
EH: There’s been a radical shift and I connect most of it to really particular moments in the Black Lives Matter movement. The first was in 2012 when Trayvon Martin’s death made it such that people who weren’t using their platforms were being called out. Another one was the 2017 Whitney Biennial, where art practitioners of color pointed out that there was no one at the table to advise against the inclusion of Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till and it coincided with the second wave of the Black Lives Matter movement. And it came back in 2020 with the third wave.
AG: It’s interesting to trace Black Lives Matter and social emergency to the way the art world does or doesn’t respond. I certainly think that with each wave and blowout, there’s a new language that’s being developed—the more we call it out, the better we understand what’s happening and how to name these really complex injustices.
EH: Yeah, It’s a weak umbrella to hold over the art world when it comes to changes and progress, but it’s a poignant one in that there are consistencies across the waves where superficial changes are being made. As the waves kept coming back, the changes began to be more concrete. It ebbs and flows. People were being called out, from galleries that weren’t representing Black artists to critiques of who sits on the board of museums. The voices have gotten stronger for the sad reason that people have just been so beaten down. You don’t want to have to hit rock bottom to stand up and fight, but that’s kind of what’s happened and it’s definitely affected the art world. I’m really thankful for my comrades.
AG: I’m curious about your “low and slow” methodology as it relates to the programing that’ll happen at your new satellite space, 52 Walker. How did this opportunity come to be?
EH: I’ve been in the field for a decade but for the past three years, I’ve been thinking about a way to slow things down. I was running Martos and Shoot the Lobster, 3 galleries total (2 in NY, 1 in LA) and it was exhausting. When one show was being put up, I was taking down another one and already ideating the third. Plus, there’s an art fair in there somewhere, all while I’m trying to engage with the artists and their work. The life of the show would end just as it opened because I had to move on to the next thing. Taking time allows more time for press and it gives the artists more time to create the work. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I was approached by David Zwirner for a position in sales. I have always loved the program at Zwirner, but I wasn’t entirely interested because I loved Martos and I had so much autonomy. Then the pandemic hit and things really came to a head when the third wave of BLM. I was really vocal on Instagram about how upset I was with the state of the world. I was so tired and I thought that if I couldn’t find a way to change things, I’m opting out. The stars aligned and I pitched something totally different when they reapproached me. I made it clear that we need to give artists time, support them with resources, give our staff opportunities. The crazy thing is that I know that all galleries can’t function this way. It’s not financially sustainable. Because Zwirner is so big, my shows won’t necessarily make or break the gallery. It’s a luxury but I think it’s good to recognize where you can advocate for more change.
AG: It’s important that you note that all galleries can’t operate in the same way, but finding ease where possible is a priority. I was wondering what you find most interesting about the relationship between commerce and art?
EH: That’s a great question. Money is freedom, especially in the creative field. For many years in the art world, if you were not a white man, you had to teach, apply to grants and residences and hope you would get compensated for your work. That’s not fair. There’s a structure that allows people to go to school and have critical conversations about what it means to make a difference in culture, but there’s no structure or power for them to do the work full time. It’s insulting to think that a Black artist is satisfied with just showing work. Money allows artists to grow their practices, from getting a bigger studio to hiring their first assistant and planning for the next big show. It’s important for me to advise Black artists to stay in the commercial game because they get pushed out.
AG: Are there precedents for your vision for David Zwirner and 52 Walker? Have you seen other people in the field that have done similar things?
EH: First, I have to shout out any and all Black gallery owners because I don’t know if I could ever do it. I could do this in a space that is mine, but I appreciate having the power of a large team and the resources to make the show a success by all means. I often use the kunsthalle model as an example, but I’m creating something that feels new. This is the first space of its kind in New York City to be very open about both selling and providing critical engagement, while not representing artists. I am charged with creating this structure and programming and curating a space, which is great.
Amarie Gipson is a writer, critic and editor based in Houston, Texas. Gipson has held curatorial positions at The Studio Museum in Harlem, The Renaissance Society in Chicago, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Contemporary Austin, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Independently, her work has been published in numerous journals, magazines and institutional publications including Artforum, ARTNews, ARTS.BLACK, Gulf Coast, Plaster, THE SEEN, and Town & Country. Gipson is currently the Arts & Culture editor for Houstonia Magazine.