Black Women Gallerists on Growth and Going Global

Jasmin Hernandez, Artsy, February 27, 2023
Karen Jenkins-Johnson (she/her)
Can you briefly explain the origin story of your gallery?
Jenkins Johnson Gallery was founded in San Francisco in 1996, focused on contemporary painting and sculpture, and in 2004, we added photography. From 2005 to 2013, we expanded to a second location in Chelsea, New York. One of our first New York exhibitions was with Roy DeCarava in 2006, his last solo show before he transitioned in 2009. We are a 100% Black-owned gallery that is expanding the art canon to include overlooked and underrepresented artists of the African Diaspora.
The gallery also champions emerging Black artists, curators, and writers through Jenkins Johnson Projects, which was founded in 2017 in the Prospect Lefferts Gardens section of Brooklyn. We provide a space for underrepresented creatives and have emerged as a hub for critically acclaimed curators and artists of color. Project curators have included Derrick Adams, Antwaun Sargent, Larry Ossei-Mensah, and Kenturah Davis. Leading emerging artists have exhibited at the project space, including Chase Hall and Vaughn Spann. In addition to the gallery’s current San Francisco and New York locations, we plan to open a gallery in Los Angeles this fall.
Looking at the art market from your point of view, what works for you and what hasn’t worked for you?
What works for my gallery is a focused strategy representing artists of the African Diaspora across generations, helping develop and build their legacy through exhibitions in the gallery, and at international art fairs including Art Basel and the various Frieze franchises. This allows our artists to be part of the contemporary art dialogue, with exposure to museum curators, collectors, and art critics.
Who are some of the artists you’re working with? How do you discover new artists?
Some of the artists Jenkins Johnson is working with include 20th-century masters Jae JarrellWadsworth JarrellGordon ParksMing Smith, and Aubrey Williams. Our program also includes established, mid-career, and emerging artists, such as Dewey CrumplerLisa Corinne DavisEnrico Riley, and Raelis Vasquez. Our artist Ming Smith, the first Black woman photographer collected by the Museum of Modern Art, is having her first MoMA exhibition, “Projects: Ming Smith,” through May 29, 2023. I discover artists through referrals by other artists, at art fairs, during my travels, reading, Instagram, and online.
Are you intentional with the collectors you work with? Any styles or trends your collectors are responding to?
Yes, my gallery is very intentional. We work first and foremost with collectors who can assist in developing our artists’ careers through their museum board affiliations, collectors who are building focused collections, and who lend work for institutional exhibitions. We especially assist in building collections of Black collectors. Black collectors often do not have access to our own artists because we’ve not had long-standing relationships with galleries that give preference to their existing clients. At Jenkins Johnson Gallery, we make it a priority to sell to Black collectors. Collectors are trending toward collecting abstract or nonrepresentational art, especially from artists of color, and toward acquiring emerging artists who they hope have a long and successful careers.
What are your ambitions with the gallery more broadly?
Jenkins Johnson Gallery wants to position itself as an international game-changer that expands the art canon to include artists of color. We want to assist our artists to receive economic equity, place work in museums and private collections that build their legacy, and achieve proper recognition during their lifetime. We will continue to be a place where curators, collectors, and critics discover both recognized and new talent.