Born in Jamaica, Nicola Vassell opened her namesake gallery in New York’s Chelsea art district this past spring after working for years as a curator, dealer, and adviser. After stints as a gallery director—first at Deitch Projects, then at Pace—she founded Concept NV, an art consultancy and curatorial agency, in 2013. Two years later, she was appointed the curatorial director of the Dean Collection and No Commission, a family art collection and cultural platform developed by Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean and Alicia Keys. She’s also a visiting lecturer at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art.
Donna De Salvo joined the Dia Art Foundation as senior adjunct curator of special projects at the start of 2020, after 15 years at the Whitney Museum of American Art (last as the deputy director of international initiatives and senior curator). Before the Whitney, she worked in the curatorial departments of several major museums, including Tate Modern in London. Her return to Dia—an organization that has for decades overseen ambitious site-specific projects in New York City as well as Upstate at Dia:Beacon and in the desert wilds of the American West—marked a homecoming of sorts after an early-career tenure there in the 1980s.
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In July, Vassell and De Salvo joined ARTnews at Vassell’s gallery to discuss their new roles, their thoughts about an art world in flux, and their hopes and concerns for
ARTnews: What is the first memory you have of a meaningful experience with art?
Donna De Salvo: As a very young child I went to the 1964 World’s Fair, where Michelangelo’s Pietà had been brought from Italy to the Vatican Pavilion. I have this very distinct memory of seeing it while on a moving walkway, very dramatically lit. For a small kid, it was like, “What is that?!” I had no real connection to it and didn’t know what it was. But I knew it was a sculpture, a work of art. I remember hushed tones and a sense of everyone revering it. And the weirdest thing was that the Pietà was still while we all moved past it in this almost cinematic way. It was like being in a movie. The other thing I remember was the Belgian waffles at the Belgian Pavilion. We had Belgian waffles! [Laughs.]
Nicola Vassell: Back to the origin point, in Kingston, Jamaica, I’ll never forget seeing for the first time Edna Manley’s sculpture Negro Aroused. It was placed in the center of town, and I had never seen anything like that before. It was a very modern sculpture, with a body in distortion, clean lines, and a mass of blackened bronze. I understood that it was a human figure, but the lines were so elegant—that was the first time I understood that one could create something in the likeness of a figure but that it could have its own idiosyncratic appeal or its own kind of reverberation. The older I got, I came to understand the relevance of the work and the period in which it was made. Manley created it in the 1930s as an ode to the workers of Jamaica. She was English, but her husband, Norman Manley, was one of Jamaica’s founding fathers as the first prime minister after emancipation.
De Salvo: Recognizing it as a figure but also as something beyond a figure—that’s the
Vassell: It was the first time that I understood something as metaphorical. There was a thing there, but it could become something else.
ARTnews: Nicola, you opened your gallery in May. When did you first start thinking seriously about starting a gallery of your own?
Vassell: The first true notion of the gallery emerged in late 2019. I always resisted it because I didn’t think it was the right time. But in 2019 I could sense that, even with all our running around the world, a gallery is still the best format for all the things that I like to do: working with artists, putting up shows, buying and selling, and so on. I was very concerned that the art world was at its fullest point—it was overwrought. The markets were at their highest. Art fairs were proliferating everywhere. There was no restraint. I felt that vibe and thought, I’m never going to be able to make a point. Then in 2020 the pandemic happened, and it was off the table. But by late summer, after George Floyd and all the social upheaval that pushed forward, I got so many calls and had a million Zoom conversations about what it all might mean. I was urged to go for it.
ARTnews: Donna, you started back at Dia at the beginning of 2020 after more than two decades away. What made you want to return then?
De Salvo: There’s a kind of purity to what Dia is about. After 15 years at the Whitney, there was something about the fact that Dia is less about being an institution and more about artists. I value the Whitney because it’s also very artist-centric, but it’s also an institution with a lot of different kinds of moving parts. Fundamentally, I am an institutional person—I believe in institutions. But it allowed me to strip away some of those other activities that I spent the majority of my career engaged with.
ARTnews: Dia has done a lot in recent years to expand the purview of its collection and the exhibitions it presents. How much do you connect that to the foundation’s past versus considering it a new direction?
De Salvo: I always see collections in organic ways because you can keep assessing them. Meaning is constantly being constructed, and I find it fascinating to look at artists that have simultaneity. I like the fact that you can map things through artists and artworks as opposed to -isms. It allows a kind of flexibility that’s harder to achieve in institutional collections, which have more pressure on them in terms of trying to create different histories. Dia’s is never going to be that kind of collection.
It also fits with the way I install art. I really look at an object and try to figure out what is going on with it. I remember installing this one gallery about painting in the 1970s for the opening exhibition at the Whitney, “America Is Hard to See.” It was tough because we were trying to do a lot of things. We had Jack Whitten and Cy Twombly in there, and Elizabeth Murray and Alma Thomas. We kept moving Thomas’s painting around, and I was struck by how much her work is about surface: the way she layers her colors but also the forms that she often uses, with this sense of a kind of conceptual surface. We started looking at the Twombly painting and saw similar kinds of things going on, and for me it was like, “These belong together!” Somebody could come up with a different juxtaposition just as well, but when you have the opportunity to really look at an artist’s works with less pressure to figure out where they fit, it’s a different way of thinking about art without having historical context be the driver.
Vassell: There’s sometimes institutional pressure to fit artworks squarely into specific silos, and Dia has always registered to me as a very decentralized operation, which makes it infinitely interesting. It lends a kind of clarity. How does that differ from the Whitney for you?
De Salvo: A museum is a very different model. And there are people who struggle with Dia, who don’t know what it is. When I went to work there in the ’80s, the standing joke was that Dia was maybe the Defense Intelligence Agency because, in those days, it was truly so mysterious. Dia:Beacon is of course different, more of a museum model with an array of galleries. Each is devoted to one artist, but it’s still very different from Dia’s notion of a singular site devoted to a single artist. But there are things you can do in places like the Whitney—you can make statements and open up discussions through thematic projects—that Dia does not do. And I love doing those too, creating collisions of things that can raise questions in different ways. The way that happens at Dia is through juxtapositions: right now at Dia:Beacon we have Franz Erhard Walther and Imi Knoebel in two installations that I did, and then an exhibition of Charlotte Posenenske, which was curated by Alexis Lowry. It’s interesting to look at these three German artists and say, “OK, what’s going on here?” But it is different. Dia also has a self-selecting audience. It draws people to a very quiet environment that’s different from the nature of many museums.
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Vassell: From a viewer’s perspective, Dia is not trying to be anything other than what it is, and there’s a generosity there in terms of space and how art lives within space. It always veers toward that kind of largesse in giving things space to breathe. That’s what always stays with me: the breath that lives at Dia.
ARTnews: Museums and other arts institutions in recent years have made efforts to be more inclusive and representative. From a gallerist’s perspective, has that been impactful?
Vassell: This is an interesting question, because I think it’s the narrative that’s largely different. I mean, artists are still working and looking for interesting conversations—no matter what. What is happening now is a shift in people’s awareness and how they want to understand issues that had been put away but are becoming clearer now in ways they want to investigate more deeply. I think of it as more a larger social project than an art-driven project. But when you check with artists, they like dissonance and frisson—they like their work to be challenged—and in a sense the larger social calling pushes up against that. I think we are just at the point now where people want clarity, because they want to reestablish the edges. Many people think the edges have been poorly drawn, so they’re going back to origin points to try to establish what new trajectories could look like.
ARTnews: Do you think people are looking for different things from art now?
De Salvo: The sense of urgency of this past year and a half has brought things to the forefront that have always been there. Now there’s a greater awareness, especially on the part of the white public, frankly. I agree that it’s a larger social project, and museums are reflective of that. When I worked at Tate Modern, Tony Blair was prime minister, and there was this big push to see art as a kind of social project that was inclusive for the public. There was this idea that art offered something that other things did not, and I always thought there was something that museums offer in terms of collective experience—a certain belief system that people are hungry for.
Vassell: It’s interesting that you bring up Tony Blair, because I think back to that point in time, with globalization and dissolving borders and boundaries. Now we’re looking at the flip side of it: borders have gone all the way back up, and the idea of stating clearly who people are relative to each other is fiercer than ever. It’s the inverse, in a way.
De Salvo: You have strong nationalist movements around the world, and then you have this desire to connect through social media. I was talking to the artist Maren Hassinger, a whole conversation about her work and her idea that everyone is connected in one way or another. We are all linked. Then we get to talking about climate change. I think it’s going to be interesting with a younger generation that’s much more in tune to the challenges around the fact that we are all occupying this one planet. Maybe that sounds romantic and heady, but it’s very real.
Vassell: Yes, it is.
De Salvo: The world is in this crazy state, and I think it’s all about certain kinds of destabilization. All the things we knew—or that many of us grew up with—have been destabilized. Truth has been destabilized. Science has been destabilized. Years ago, I don’t think anybody would have questioned the vaccine. Now some people think it’s a government plot. I understand the issues around it, given the history of the U.S., but it seems like everything going on is just left or right [politically]. Maybe that’s why art becomes a place where people can feel. Partly it’s an escape, but partly it’s a desire to understand—we are hardwired to want to understand.
Vassell: It’s important to keep this existential destabilization in mind. As human beings, we have to ask ourselves, “Who am I? How do I fit into this? How am I going to ground the feelings I have of being in the world?” Suddenly, our jobs [in the art world] become more critical. We have become potential guides for that. We can help steer ideas.
ARTnews: With the collectors you work with, has there been a change in the kinds of questions they ask or want to have answered before investing in artists and their work?
Vassell: I see people trying to push their minds to places they haven’t been. I see people who haven’t been able to travel—they’re now at home, and they’re bringing their daughters or their wives into the conversations in ways they hadn’t before. They’re asking to understand things that would never have entered their lexicon before. The ones that are up for the challenge want to be better informed and change the boundaries of their information.
De Salvo: I was always amazed with all the art fairs and collectors and constant running, running, running. And then with the pandemic, boom—the door shut and people were trapped in their homes. I don’t think we fully know what the real impact of this is going to be. Sometimes people were running from themselves; now, there’s a bit of this slowing down and people have had to confront themselves. Then there are parts of our culture that have made a tremendous amount of money off the pandemic—and they don’t really care.
Vassell: I think there are two minds. On one hand, people are definitely confronting themselves—they realize there’s no place else to turn and there’s no other distraction. On the other hand, some people go all the way to the other side and have just spun into delusion. I’m interested in people who are confronting themselves, because, at the end of the day, that’s life. I was watching an interesting documentary about monks, and there was this very stressed-out young man who asked a monk who had been meditating in solitude his whole life, “What is the secret to life?” The monk said, “Well … to live it.”
De Salvo: Very Zen. That’s it.
Vassell: That’s it!
De Salvo: I think museums have had to reassess what they’re doing. I am, of course, very unhappy about the loss of revenue that led to people being furloughed or positions being eliminated—that’s deeply troubling. I myself was part of an expansion project at the Whitney, and I stand behind it. But I also believe in sustainability, and it’s going to be interesting as things go forward to think through at what point do you tip over into all this running and running just to support the machine—and how does that impact what the machine produces? A lot of institutions have real deficits at this point, and I’m a big believer in co-acquisitions. At Dia, I felt good that, through a prior relationship when I was at the Whitney, I was able to help bring a partner in for the purchase of Sam Gilliam’s Double Merge (1968). We have such a culture predicated on private property, but I think where we can co-purchase artworks, we should. Sometimes competitive spirit is good because it gets people to open their pocketbooks, but at the same time, what can we do with all this art? Things are in storage. They shouldn’t be frozen in time.
Vassell: Co-acquisition also makes things more dynamic. We have fantastic collections being built that are just sitting there, going nowhere, not being seen. But artworks can be more and more useful over time, and I think this is the sort of thing that people are hungry for. This kind of radical reengineering will bring about more robust dialogue. The wilder the idea, the better.
De Salvo: We need innovation. In some ways, the museum is still a certain kind of 19th-century idea. It has to keep evolving. I believe in museums—I’m a museum person—but they’re slow to change.
Vassell: This moment of destabilization is precisely when one can radically reengineer. This is a moment when we have to think and push. We have to be smart.
ARTnews: From the perspective of a gallerist, how do you feel about the prospect of the market and institutions working together to affect the kind of change you’re talking about?
Vassell: The market is important. We know this. The market is inextricable from the conversation because the market drives resources. If you don’t have the market, you don’t have any resources. I believe in the market, but it has to be smart while building the conditions of business into our humanity. This is a lesson from the last year and a half: we are linked. All of our actions, collectively, link us to an outcome, and for us to operate blindly or in silence without acknowledging that is precisely the worst endgame that one could ask for. If we understand that, our actions are going to affect the markets and therefore our business.
But institutions will always be the crowning. The institution has wise capacities to say that something is worthy—that’s what you call a value-add, in market speak. So there will always be an interesting conversation between the markets and institutions, in the marketplace and in what artists are making. Art is more interesting if it can speak to all those things—that’s what I call smart and efficient art. If you can speak to the human condition and the markets, and be profound and innovative, then you are a great artist.
De Salvo: The rise in prices for certain artists has made it difficult for institutions that can’t keep up. I’ve always admired gallerists who feel the museum is still at the top in terms of what it means for an artist to enter a collection. There are dealers I’ve worked with over the years who really value that. And for a lot of artists, having their work in an institutional collection is meaningful, because that’s where they’re part of the narrative—or narratives—that flow as new curators come in with fresh eyes. That’s very different from what happens in a private collection.
Vassell: You can’t put a price on immortality. When I go and see a Hieronymus Bosch, I think about all the kinds of negotiating that happened to make sure that this Bosch would be in my line of sight in 2021. An artist is immortal in an institution, and that’s priceless.
ARTnews: How are you feeling about Chelsea right now? Nicola, your gallery opened in the heart of the gallery district. And Dia:Chelsea opened after a significant renovation in the spring. Then there are new gallery buildings and developments related to Pace, Hauser & Wirth, David Zwirner. Does it feel like a new phase?
Vassell: I’m loving it. For me, there’s a general freshness that abounds, something really exciting. What Chelsea was three or four years ago is not what it is now. And as it starts to come back more, it will come back as something altogether different.
De Salvo: I think Chelsea is better because of your gallery. You have one of the few Black-owned galleries, and that’s very different and important. Do you hope it will lead to more? Women make great art dealers!
Vassell: Definitely. The lineage that comes before me still astonishes me. And as someone said, you open a door not just for yourself but for others to walk through behind you. It goes back to the changing narratives. Who is going to take up the task of narrative-building? There are so many different roads we could take. And again, the challenging, dissonant roads are the ones that interest me. I’m not afraid of that.
ARTnews: How has reception to the gallery been so far?
Vassell: It’s been great. People are here. They are coming.
De Salvo: You opened with a bang, with a great Ming Smith show! It was a heartfelt move on your part, with work that you don’t often get to see. In that sense it was really a museum-quality show.
ARTnews: How about the opening of Dia:Chelsea? What sorts of reactions have you noticed so far?
De Salvo: People have been very positive about Lucy Raven’s work. [New York Times cochief art critic] Roberta Smith doesn’t often use the word “masterpiece.” And it has been interesting during the pandemic, when Dia:Beacon opened earlier than the New York City museums—we had limited capacity by appointment, and we were always booked. People really wanted to come. And one of the best things was Carl Craig’s sound installation “Party/After-Party,” which just closed. It wasn’t what you might have expected at Dia. And the response to it was incredible.
ARTnews: To the extent that you can look forward, what on the horizon in the art world most excites or intrigues you?
Vassell: I’m thinking about approach as a sort of station or a form—how people will approach things in general, whether as an artist, a dealer, an institution. Everything is up for grabs, and more than ever we’re evolving into more adaptive beings. We have to. We have to bob and weave to figure things out. And there’s a growing sense that nothing is certain—which was already true, anyway. The only thing that’s permanent about life is change. And we can become better functionaries of change.
De Salvo: I agree. I hope this period when nothing is certain allows for narratives that are more kaleidoscopic. There’s a lot of self-reflection going on that’s really important and powerful. We have an opportunity to keep moving that forward. There’s already a kind of force that’s moving.
A version of this article appears in the October/November 2021 issue of ARTnews, under the title “New Trajectories.”