For many small and mid-sized art galleries in New York, the last three months of lockdown have been catastrophic—unable to pay rents, many have chosen to shut down permanently. Not the case for the Arcade Project Curatorial, a gallery without a permanent physical location run by the art critic and curator M. Charlene Stevens, who also is the editor-in-chief and founder of Arcade Project. “I’ve been thriving during this whole thing,” Stevens said. “It caused me to really re-evaluate my priorities, and tighten up my business.”
As a black woman historically marginalized in the art world, Stevens feels like she’s finally being given a chance to thrive in a world that historically hasn’t made much room for people of color — for example, 85% of artists represented in United States museum collections are white, according to a study published in 2019. “The pandemic has leveled the playing field, and allowed me to step into it,” Stevens says.
Stevens has waited many years for her time to come. When she first arrived in New York in 2012, she had trouble finding her place in the art world. “I wasn’t young, white and skinny,” she says.
Stevens has always been uniquely qualified for a job in the arts—if you measure qualifications based on academic experience and acquired skills instead of who your daddy is, and how much money he makes in a calendar year. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Stevens received her B.A. in art history, criticism and conservation from UCLA, and subsequently studied art history, photography and film at California State University-Los Angeles and the University of Leiden in Holland.
“I decided to create my own job,” she says. She founded Arcade Project, the magazine aspect of which she launched in 2016 at the Armory Show. In order to pay the diverse and talented group of writers who contributed to the publication, Stevens worked temp jobs—including as an executive assistant and a receptionist. “I ran the business on a MetroCard and a prayer,” she laughed.
She had faith in herself and her vision, which compelled her to keep publishing the magazine even when it was hard to pay the bills. “I dated a few guys who were like, ‘You really need to give that magazine up,’ she says. “I’m really glad I didn’t listen to them.”
Stevens first breakthrough moment came in 2019 when she penned, “When White ‘Allies’ Go Wrong,” an essay in Hyperallergic that responded to “Kill Your Darlings: The End of the White Male Ally,” an essay by Kurt McVey that appeared in Whitehot Magazine, and was itself a response to “The Dominance of the White Male Critic” in The New York Times. In his essay, McVey seemed affronted that he, a white male, was not being offered a seat at the table in a brave new world of inclusionary hiring practices.
Stevens’ response was not only scorching, it was also intellectual, well-researched — and, well, perfect. “White privilege is being able to pop on the scene with no experience,” Stevens told me. “As a black person with plenty of experience, no one looked at me.” The essay was shared 1,800 times, and led to more assignments with Hyperallergic.
It came at a moment when the invisible forces of culture were shifting to allow more room for voices like Stevens — but not enough room, let’s be honest. “Black people know that on television, if there is one black character running around, then they kill all the others,” Stevens said. In other words, she was given her moment, but she knew that she had to seize on it or be forgotten.
Around the same time, Stevens was beginning to curate exhibitions, including Dark Meat, a show of works on paper by Elizabeth Axtman that juxtaposed Jeffrey Dahmer’s consumption of black male flesh—10 of Dahmer’s 18 victims were black—with O.J. Simpson, and appeared at the SXSW Week Art Fair in March of 2019. It was followed by TwistedTwins – XXY, an immersive photo and video installation by Eva Mueller at the Satellite Art Fair in New York in September. The exhibitions were well-received. Even better, Stevens realized that she really loved the process of nurturing an artist’s career through thoughtful curation. “People can get old without making it, it doesn’t matter how talented they are,” she says. “I want to be that gallery that takes undiscovered talent to the next level.”
She also wants to open the world of collecting to people of color, who, like most people with a pulse, feel unwelcome in the emotionally chilly environment of a traditional white box gallery. “My goal has always been to make the art world a little less exclusive,” she says.
Stevens planned on continuing to piece together a living by running Arcade Project, penning essays, and curating shows, when the pandemic hit. Galleries with physical spaces in Chelsea or on the Lower East Side of Manhattan found they couldn’t pay rent. The galleries that would survive, Stevens realized, would have strong online presences. And not just virtual viewing rooms, which she noted, got stale pretty quickly. Instead, full curatorial programs online that included film and video programs, as well as social media posts that educated both viewers and potential collectors. A gifted writer and content producer, Stevens was poised to thrive in the new environment.
The first exhibition Stevens launched online after New York City went into lockdown was Spring Forward, an online exhibition curated by the photographer Ruben Natal-San Miguel—it closes online on July 3, and can be viewed on Artsy. Inspired by Donna Summer’s song “Spring Affair,” the exhibition features works by artists including Eva Mueller, Elizabeth Riley, Kevin Darmanie, Kimberly Becoat, Arlene Rush and Byron Keith Byrd. It is meant to sound a note of hope in these dark times. To keep viewers engaged, Stevens had Kevin Darmanie create a mixtape to accompany the exhibition, which is available for streaming on SoundCloud.
Even though retail sales dropped 16.9% in April, Stevens was still able to sell works in the exhibition. After George Floyd was murdered on May 25, 2020, and protests erupted across the nation, Stevens ramped up her programming to include voices and stories from artists and writers, who talked about the experience of growing up black in America. “Every black person in America experiences some really fucked up stuff,” she says. “I’ve been sharing my own experiences of being singled out, of having to fight to be tested for the gifted program, of having a white school counselor discourage me from taking upper level classes.” Arcade Project’s Instagram is a great account to follow for strong, intellectual commentary.
If you are looking for even more lasting ways to support black lives in the current moment, you could consider following Arcade Project Curatorial on Instagram, and even, perhaps, buying one of the gallery’s exhibited artworks. “My black life needs to eat, and it needs to pay rent,” Stevens laughed. “I need people to buy art.”
Stevens says she has never worked harder in her life. On June 24, she’ll launch Gay Guerilla, an exhibition of queer abstraction. She also is working on a performance that will be staged at a socially distanced safe space somewhere in upstate New York later this summer.
Stevens is hopeful that the art world will change to become more inclusive, and that she will be at the forefront of the revolution. In the meantime, she has some suggestions for galleries. “There’s all of this virtue signaling going on,” she says. “My email inbox is flooded with every gallery telling me what they’re doing for black people. But it’s like, ‘How many black people are you hiring this year? What are you doing for the people who live on the other side of 9th avenue, just down the block from the Chelsea galleries?’” She suggests buying black art, mentoring black artists, giving scholarships to black thinkers, and focusing on art education. “It wouldn’t cost these big galleries like Gagosian a dime, it’s all tax deductible,” she says.
“The donations are helpful,” she said in closing. “More importantly, how many black people do you plan to hire for leadership positions this year?
Brienne Walsh received her BA in art history from Brown University in 2004. She has worked in the art world for over a decade, first as a gallerina, and then as an art critic. After receiving her Master’s degree in contemporary art with a focus on critical theory from Columbia University, she began freelance writing fulltime in 2011. She has contributed reviews, essays and photography to publications including The New York Times, The Village Voice, Art in America, ArtForum, Modern Painters, ArtReview, PDN, Interview, Departures, Architectural Digest, The New York Post and Paper. She writes a daily blog called “A Brie Grows in Brooklyn” that her father, a former bond trader, calls “lewd and disturbing,” but which allows her to exercise her voice.