“My mission is very focused on liberating black people and brown people because that is my life. I live every day as a black woman,” says Cierra Britton. “The lack of representation of women and women of color, particularly in the gallery space, creates this distorted notion that these artists don’t exist. I make it my mission to make sure these artists get the platforms they deserve.”
Cierra Britton, 26, talks about why she decided to open her gallery, the only one of its kind in New York, dedicated to representing BIPOC women artists. Her chance story illustrates the power of community support and the way chance encounters can change the course of your life.
Britton, a Baltimore native and New School graduate who earned her BA in Visual Studies in 2018, didn’t know when or how it would happen, but she was determined to one day open her own gallery. Certain that New York was the right place, she hatched a plan to leave her parents’ house, but was forced to move out in 2020 due to Covid, her expiring lease and the impossibility of living in New York without a steady income.
In February 2021, she returned to the city that had nurtured her creativity. New York was energetic, vibrant and full of opportunity. A fateful meeting with Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, led to an internship at the Jack Shainman gallery.
One day, while working at the women-only co-working space The Wing, Britton overheard two women talking about a gallery in Brooklyn. She shared with Victoria Alexander, the space’s owner, that she was an aspiring curator. This interaction led to Britton’s first exhibition with fellow Harlem-based photographer Flo Ngala, who had worked with rapper Cardi B and rapper and record executive Gucci Mane. The exhibition entitled “Harlem Ice: The Selects Folder.” The show brought in press Teen Vogue, beingsand the Amsterdam News.
Britton has worked with the non-profit art collective Artnoir, where she was responsible for content management, planning coordination and general support for the co-founders, who all have full-time jobs, with Artnoir as her passion project. At Artnoir, Britton was encouraged to trust her gut and open her first gallery.
“I do my best when I’m in a safe Place. I’m comfortable with sharing and contributing and moving forward and building,” she explained. Artnoir, the majority-women and minority-run organization, helped Britton see the endless opportunities for her own career and how a healthy work environment allows talented people to reach their full potential.
Since opening her pop-up gallery at 347 Broome Street – she’s looking for a space for next year – in September, Britton has had the work of over one Dozen artists including Ambrose Rhapsody Murray, Adama Delphine, Myesha Evon Gardner, Alisa Sikleanos-Carter and Jewel Ham, who opened the gallery’s first solo show, “keep it sweet‘, with an exhibition of paintings focused on the duality of the black femme experience. The prices of the works range from 800 to 20,000 US dollars.
Each opening, followed by each closing party, was packed with young fashionable black creatives, fellow artists, writers, gallery directors, DJs and aspiring entrepreneurs. Earlier this year she also featured Bre Andy, Jewel Ham and Lewinale Havette at her booth 1-54 African Contemporary Art Fairwho organized the fair in Harlem for the first time.
With the help of IF and Women of Color, Britton participated in weekly Zoom meetings with other members and shared ideas that provided invaluable insight into the ins and outs of first-time entrepreneurship; such as creating pitch decks, writing business plans and proposals, and raising capital.
Britton remembers working in the Toxic, racist work environment at the wing and the chance meeting with Golden as important turning points in their journey. “I found out about her [Golden] during my time at the New School, and it’s the main reason I wanted to be a curator practice,” says Britton. After two years as a receptionist in the wing, she says, she was passed over for higher positions and was told by another staff member that they didn’t know if she had the personality or the ability to “be her authentic self in a situation like this corporate role”.
Britton could see the handwriting on the wall and the microaggressions filled with the encoded language Black People are often confronted in American companies. Worst of all, the wing touted itself as a champion of inclusivity. “As a black woman, I know what that means. It’s code for you being too black for the role,” says Britton. She left shortly after and never looked back.
In March 2020 the New York Times wrote an article about The Wing, which opened in New York in 2016 and expanded to multiple cities across the country, detailing how it fell short of its feminist and diversity goals. The wing said so Times that the concerns of the employees were fed into a “comprehensive business recalibration”. In late September, the wing was shut down by its parent company, which cited the Covid pandemic and “global economic challenges” in a letter to members Times reported.
But while she was still there, Britton emailed Golden, a member at the time. Her approach paid off, and that email was followed by a personal coffee that led to a meeting with Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels, Jack Shaimain’s director Gallery. Bellorado-Samuels offered Britton a place in the gallery’s internship program the following spring, opening up new opportunities for him.
When it came time to open her gallery, Britton was encouraged by the co-founders of ARTNOIR, where she had been instrumental in transitioning the non-profit’s in-person events to online virtual studio visits with artists during Covid.
“The passion, the drive and the determination what Cierra showed when she told me about her desire at such a young age to open a gallery dedicated solely to showcasing and providing spaces for women of color felt really real, honest and contemporary,” says Danny Baez, Co-founder of Artnoir and owner of the Regular Normal gallery. “Despite the obstacles, their dedication to achieving this in such a short time is definitely impressive and no small feat.”
While she looks forward to more exhibitions and future projects, Britton acknowledges the role that community has played in her career. “I started my crowdfunding campaign and we ended up raising $30,000, all thanks to my family and supporter community. I couldn’t have opened this space without these people,” she says. “It was so reassuring to see how many people have made it their mission to support me and this mission for this gallery.”
Her commitment to amplifying the marginalized voices of BIPOC women artists and her timely rise into the art world builds on the mentors, advocates, friends and family who not only believe in her vision, but support and uplift her through the spirit of community .
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