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DC’s New Art World Consigliere

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Framing the Guardians

If I said Washington DC was known for its vibrant gallery scene, I’d be lying. Yes, there are galleries but the landscape is quite different from New York, LA, or Chicago. For the most part, district galleries are low in number, spread across quadrants, and cater primarily to the DC, Maryland, and Virginia (DMV) area. 

As Union Market’s newest edition, Chela Mitchell’s savvy, self-reliant approach is a graceful affront to the status quo. She started her career as an advisor in New York, building relationships with collectors and cultivating the talent that spoke to her. Opening a brick and mortar was a goal she thought had to wait until her forties, but intuition quickened the path. And to be clear, in an industry full of cliques and cool kids, colorism, classism, and clout chasing, it takes courage to be unique.

I’ve only heard good things about her, but this interview was our first in-depth conversation. It’s been on replay in my head ever since. I left the gallery walking a little taller and full of excitement for a much needed shake to the city’s scene. From NADA Miami to Frieze LA, PhotoFairs NY, and Swab Barcelona, Chela Mitchell and her eponymous gallery are quickly becoming DC’s consigliere to the artworld.

 

The work I show moves me. It makes me feel a sense of freedom. It makes me pensive. It makes me want to be a better person.
Chela Mitchell

How does it feel to be the only Black woman from DC to own a commercial gallery right now? 

I want to cry, instantly. When I go to the gallery I always think of my younger self. I knew I was special. I didn’t know entirely in what ways, but I’ve always had a special life. When I was in fifth grade I was in a poetry program and they called and said they were going to publish it on the metro. I was in the Washington Post twice, I was on the Today Show. I got to read it at the Library of Congress. So there were always special adventures in my lifetime but I did not know I was going to be an art dealer. 

I had the insight to move back to DC. I didn’t know whyI loved living in New York at the time. I thought I was going to live there for a longer time. I did seven or eight years and when I moved back, I saw why I had to come back. You’re not always given the information about where you are going, you just have to trust it and I am someone who trusts my intuition without delay. 

Why did you come back? 

I feel like the ancestors wanted someone from DC to have an art gallery here and to support artists in the way that only someone from DC could—to take care of my city with a level of consideration. I know how people from DC are perceived and that’s why I am able to connect. It doesn’t feel like I am an outsider coming in. Even though I am from the New York art world, I am not trying to change things. I want to augment them.

Tell me about the gallery green movement. 

All of our branding was blue and electric pink and it didn’t give me calm and that’s what I wanted. So, I was thinking about colors that made me feel calm and sage green is one of those colors… From that sage, I decided gallery green could be any hue and we just started branding with a lot of green. People showed up to the opening in their green. Two weekends ago at the Black Women in Art Spaces event, all of them had on their gallery green and they looked wonderful. People will come to meetings and they might have on green nail polish and they’ll stop and say, “I have my gallery green.” 

I love that, and I’m definitely wearing a green bracelet! When you’re deciding which artists you want to work with, what is your process? 

I have to feel something and I’m not always able to name it. I’ve decided that I don’t always have to. I want to stress that there are a lot of talented artists out there that I don’t feel anything for. It doesn’t mean their work is not good; it just means that it’s for someone else. The work I show moves me. It makes me feel a sense of freedom. It makes me pensive. It makes me want to be a better person. That’s the first thing I notice. Next, I want to meet the artist and see how we relate. If I can choose who I get to work with, I am going to choose people who are kind. It’s always going to be talent at the highest level: the best painters, the best sculptors, and the best conceptual artists. And kindness. 

 

I’ve never had a mentor, never had anyone in the art world giving me the stamp of approval. I looked at it as burdensome at first to not have those resources. Now, I look at it very positively.
Chela Mitchell

How has your community rallied around you as you’ve navigated motherhood and your career?

People are kind but a lot of them don’t have kids. They don’t know what it’s like to have to take care of yourself and take care of someone else and nurture and teach them. That’s a job in and of itself… I am not the person who is at every event. I can’t be the way I used to. My daughter is a teenager and this is when she needs me the most. So, sometimes the things I do and don’t do are hyper-criticized and paint a perception of me that’s not true. People may show up to my events, but I can’t always show up to their events because I have to take my daughter to the doctor or to tennis. Sometimes I feel very isolated and misunderstood.

It’s really hard to straddle the fence and be 100% in each of those hats that I wear. But my family is my number one support system: my husband, my mother, grandmother. When I am traveling and going to fairs, I can’t take my daughter with me. So, I am thankful for my friends and family who have my back and for loving my daughter as much as I love her.

Have you ever thought about bringing in a partner?

I have been a solopreneur for so long. The problem with me is I don’t want to sacrifice my creative vision. I know exactly what I want. I would be doing someone a disservice if I partnered with them… I don’t ask for advice… I’ve never had a mentor, never had anyone in the art world giving me the stamp of approval. I looked at it as burdensome at first to not have those resources. Now, I look at it very positively. I believe if you tap into what you perceive as a disadvantage and make it a positive, things start to happen differently. Spirit never wanted me to rely on anything outside myself.

This story is from Issue 16: Collaboration, available here.

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