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Stevenson A. Dunn, Jr. on the left and Erwin John on the right, pictured in front of The Bishop / Photography by Ernest A. Ford

“The art world is not fair”

COVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | How a contemporary gallery in Bed-Stuy is leveling the playing field. Published: October 20, 2020

Programming note: This article is part of a weekly column on small businesses in New York during COVID-19. To get #SmallBizSpotlight articles straight to your inbox, sign up here. You'll receive one email every Tuesday afternoon. Thanks for reading!

I don’t have a ton of pet peeves, but one of my most ardent is the pretentious artwork descriptions at so many galleries and museums. (Seriously, how many times can you insert “dialectic” into a paragraph?!) This week, I interviewed Stevenson A. Dunn, Jr. of The Bishop, an art gallery in Bed-Stuy that’s taking aim at the ivory tower of snootiness that houses much of the mainstream art world. Since launching in Washington, DC in 2012, Dunn and his business partner, Erwin John, moved the business to Brooklyn — where they were born, where they became friends in eighth grade, and where their families are based. Dedicated to championing emerging artists from backgrounds that are systematically overlooked and dismissed, The Bishop is a resolutely inclusive space within a conventionally exclusive industry. Keep reading to learn how Dunn and John are making it work after months of mandatory lockdown.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is the overarching mission of The Bishop?
We want to show emerging artists who are from where we are from, and that they don't have to be “The Great Hope.” It can be normal for them to do gallery shows and sell art and get publicity... It isn't some special, nuanced thing. And that's been our driving force, because the art world is not fair. It's very bigoted, it's very sexist, it's very racist. There are all these imperfections rife in this thing that we love. We're two Black men: we're hyper aware of a lot of these things. In DC, it was just the two of us in our gallery. We were the only Black people around, and people would come in, look around, ask us a million questions about the art, and then they would be like, "So, are the owners around?" That would happen religiously. It still happens in Brooklyn, maybe a little less over the last three months… You never want to use those things as a crutch, but you have to be aware that these are obstacles that you have to deal with. You never used to hear us mention it, but more recently, I feel like I need to. Because in reality, if we don’t tell people, they are not aware. We've done shows all over the world at this point. We were the first gallery outside of the Brooklyn Museum to show Basquiat in Brooklyn, in his hometown. We're curating a show right now with an artist from South Africa in conjunction with the UN. As our network has grown in the industry, so has our mandate and purview as a gallery. It's grown from just supporting emerging artists to preserving history and culture, and telling the stories in the perspective of the people who were closest to it, as opposed to what the academics or the gallerists think.

How was 2020 going for you before the pandemic?
At the beginning of this year, we were able to donate the first Basquiat to the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian. It came from the collection of Alexis Adler – we couldn't have done it without her. That was pretty dope. Unless you're someone with a name or brand, the art industry can be difficult to open doors for yourself. It was an arduous process, but we finally ended up doing it. Their board approved it, and we were supposed to have a big celebration with the collectors and some key people in March, but the pandemic happened.

2020 was supposed to be our best year ever. So much was starting to click. And then it all came to this grinding halt.

I’m so sorry. What other plans did you have to fold?
We had a show that was supposed to open on March 12th or 13th. It was a women's history show called "The Best Gentleman for the Job” inspired by a piece from the artist named Ron Draper — he does these huge wooden pieces with text and resin, they’re gorgeous — that says, "Sometimes the best gentleman for the job is a woman." It was supposed to be this whole big thing. And we weren't officially mandated to close yet, but we were just looking around, and we were like, We're going to be responsible business owners, so we canceled it. And that was the beginning. We ended up canceling our entire year's calendar. 2020 was supposed to be our best year ever. So much was starting to click. And then it all came to this grinding halt. It was like, "Oh shit." We're not wealthy people. We are small business owners in the truest sense. But the art business is an expensive business.

So you canceled everything; then what?
We sat on our hands for about two months. Paycheck Protection gave us $900. That was the second round; they ignored the first application. Disaster Relief never gave us anything. So we didn't have access to any of those resources. Our two most consistent ways of making revenue are selling art and having private events, and people could care less about [the first] one, and we weren’t allowed to do the other one. Especially here in New York, it was like Armageddon. I won’t lie, I cut out with my girlfriend and went to Martha’s Vineyard for about two months. I was lucky enough [that] my father has a house there. And my business partner, he stuck with his family. That's how we kept our sanity. And so after we finished being in shock like the rest of the world, we were like, We have to take our heads out of the ground and figure something out.

People are always telling us to do fundraisers, but we just… It may be foolish pride, I don't know. We've done three fundraisers in our entire life, whereas most [gallerists] have an annual fundraiser or fundraisers. But we were like, We're going to bite the bullet and do a fundraiser. And somehow, that became us not doing a fundraiser — instead, we started our artist residency program.

How did that happen?
[Laughs] This is a classic Bishop Gallery move: we went from trying to make money to giving things out for free. But to us it was like, Artists have a bigger need than us. Several of our artists had lost their studios, either because of situations with their landlord or money issues, but either way, it was chaotic for a lot of people. And we were like, "We're not allowed to do big show openings, we've got this big beautiful space, you guys can come here, this is going to be your studio until further notice.” We formalized the program and picked some artists to participate in late August, early September, and now [it] includes four artists, and there will probably be a fifth by the end of the year. Three women artists and one male artist. So that's been breathing new breath into the space. It's not like it was before, but people are there, and it's safe because it's not as many people. We still have use of the backyard until the weather turns. It is a Godsend. We are still going to do a fundraiser, but it'll be for the residency program now.

Can people visit the gallery?
We are there from noon to 7pm, but it's by appointment only because artists are working and we don't want people to pop up on them unannounced. Just email us. [Ed. note: The gallery’s contact info is below.]

Have you been able to sell any art?
We finally started selling art again. September was our first piece in a while. We had gone several months [without] selling anything above $500, and that didn't happen more than once or twice. Which was not enough to pay any bills.

Speaking of bills, how are you doing from a financial standpoint?
Being completely transparent, it's rough. We're just counting down the days for everyone to come collecting at once. We're worried. That's why we're doing a fundraiser, because the residency is going well, the artists are really loving it, and we want to keep it well accounted for, providing all the services and different supplies [the artists need]. So we are trying to raise $150,000 by the end of the year, and hopefully that will get us through all of next year. Because right now, we're funding everything out of pocket, which sounds absurd for two broke small business owners, during the worst financial drought they’ve experienced in the business. But it seemed like the right thing. You do the right things for the right reasons, and the rest seems to work itself out... Sometimes? [Laughs]

Is your landlord giving you a break on rent?
They're being understanding, but we don't have an official relief [agreement]. I say “understanding” because I don't think they are allowed to pursue [rent payments] just yet, legally. We'll see what's going on when the courts open back up. We've been putting a little rent fund together, so that when that time comes, we can give them a chunk of money. But it is not the totality of what we've accrued [in rent fees] over these months.

Regarding the government's response to this crisis, especially on behalf of small business owners, do you feel sufficiently supported?
I do not. I'll be quite frank. We're stuck in this rut, where they [government officials] want businesses to be good stewards of the community and the world and all that, but when you're actually a small business trying to live up to those ideals, there's no real support for that. The rhetoric doesn't match up with the support. It makes me a little nauseous to even tell you some of this stuff, but I have to: of all the Black business owners I know from Brooklyn, only one got above a thousand bucks [in disaster relief]. And it was my father, of all people.

That's messed up.
And he’s been in business 30, 40 years. He has a great accountant and lawyers who applied for him. Most small businesses can't afford that. People were applying [for aid] with skepticism, because quite frankly, there's always stuff offered like that, especially in New York City. And somehow we never can get that stuff. And then you'll go into another space in another area, like Williamsburg or Park Slope or something, and it’s clear that they're throwing a little money [at them]. But Bed-Stuy is still not somewhere that big brands or big funders [want to support].

It’s sucked, from a support standpoint. The best thing they did was close down the courts and stop people from being able to kick us out on the street, but all we talk about amongst other business owners is, What is our plan for when things are back going? How are we going to deal with Con-Ed? Unfortunately, my gut is telling me that there's going to be tons of businesses and individuals who are left to dry. And I almost feel like that [will happen] regardless of who is president. I don't think they really know what's needed.

How has your role in the local art community evolved over the last few months?
With all that has been going on with social and restorative justice and police brutality, particularly around Black people, it's like, Enough is enough. That's the most invigorating thing, as a man who was religiously stopped and frisked on my way from school to home by police for no reason. I can take a deep breath and exhale a little bit, seeing that somebody else is out there going crazy on my behalf. Because I've been going crazy for myself for a long time. Obviously, the pandemic is what's controlling everything, but I think that the narrative that people are chasing [has changed]. People are not just trying to survive — what's going on is making us live up to our ideals as America, particularly as it relates to race. That work has been at the core of what we do from the very beginning, and finally we have a bigger spotlight to promote these things. And in some ways, dare I say, these are spaces that people have neglected, and so we are the de facto experts in a lot of this stuff, because it wasn’t of interest to the mainstream. The changes that are occurring politically have opened up certain opportunities. Like, one of our artists went on [ABC News] Nightline the other day. That’s never happened before. She was one of the artists who did the Black Lives Matter mural in Foley Square. We're hoping to rise from the ashes to be stronger, be better, and not let the constraints stop us, because there's never been a more opportune time for shows about Black artwork, artists, and history. So hopefully that can outlast the momentum of the pandemic.

How to help:

Until next time,

Curated By

Frances Thomas

Quiddity Content Editor

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