Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
“I don’t want to presume that I'm bringing cultural equity that didn’t exist before,” says Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels, the curator of We Buy Gold.
I spotted Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels from half a block away, a cigarette in one hand and a bodega coffee in the other. Bellorado-Samuels, the director of the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood, was dressed in all-black, with oversized thick-rimmed glasses and a high bun.
We introduced ourselves in front of a storefront with a yellow neon sign that read, “Cash for Gold.” This is Bellorado-Samuels’s new side hustle: We Buy Gold, a roving art space that features artists of color. The name riffs on pawn shop signage seen around New York City, which got the gallerist thinking: People put immense value on gold—they invest in it, cling to it, and often in times of desperation or scarcity, they trade it in, she explains. If art is a commodity, what’s the value of artists of color?
Here is one of Bellorado-Samuels’s recent Instagrams of a pawn shop with the “We buy gold” sign. The image below that contains photos from the gallery’s opening reception. Bellorado-Samuels is second from the right.
We stepped inside the spartan space; all white–except for the seven artworks displayed as a part of We Buy Gold’s inaugural exhibition, “ONE.” There were two pieces by Harold Mendez, an L.A.-based artist featured in this year’s Whitney Biennale. Both explored “how images shift meanings with geography,” Bellorado-Samuels explains. The second artist, Torkwase Dyson, had created a painting and an installation about environmental degradation, architecture, and race. The third—and perhaps my favorite artist featured—was Renee Gladman, a writer trying to transcend the limits of language through art. From a distance, her three ink drawings looked like clouds of dust. But on a closer look, landscapes and city skylines emerged out of her handwriting-like swirls.
Bellorado-Samuels expects the gallery to exist at its current location for five or so months. She’s planned two more shows called—quite plainly—“TWO” and “THREE.” The second will feature South African artists exploring memory and resistance, and the third will present a selection of works about visibility by the collective Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter (which Bellorado-Samuels is a part of).
On one hand, these themes make for necessary conversations in Bed-Stuy—a historically diverse neighborhood that’s now at the front lines of gentrification. At the same time, art galleries are often viewed as signals of gentrification, sometimes earning vitriol from anti-displacement activists. In the context of that tension, I ask Bellorado-Samuels what value she expects this space to bring to this particular neighborhood. She says she’s interested in “bringing artists that are working at a certain level, with a certain amount of rigor, into places where those art spaces don’t exist in great numbers,” adding that to increase access, “it’s important to break down, whenever possible, any additional hurdles that alienate people from those spaces.” She’s hoping that through her shows, film screenings, and engagement with local community organizations (and also just by keeping her door open to anyone who’d like to take a peek), she’s taking a couple of steps in this direction. Already, she’s received positive feedback from local artists and interested folks who, she says, may not have made the trek up to Manhattan to experience contemporary art.
Bellorado-Samuels adds that We Buy Gold is neither a direct response to gentrification—“It’s not like,’oh, there’s new people in the neighborhood; I should open up an art gallery here’”—nor a solution to it. She doesn’t expect the space to bridge any divides between the old and new guard in the area; that goal would be naive and arrogant, she suggests. “I’m not representative of old Bed-Stuy, so it is not my place to speak for or of old Bed-Stuy,” Bellorado-Samuels, who has lived in the neighborhood for ten years, says. “I also don’t want to presume that I'm bringing cultural equity that didn’t exist before. This has always been a rich place to live in. ”
Why start with Bed-Stuy, then? Because it’s home, she says: “There's that expression ‘to meet people where they're at’? Actually, we need to be doing things where we are, and where we take up space.”
ONE runs until April 24 at We Buy Gold.